Did you read ‘The Power of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle? If you didn’t you may well have picked up this wisdom elsewhere: Live the moment, live in the ‘here and now’ and be happy.
This ‘now’ philosophy has intrigued me for a long time. I can understand that living in the past or wishing your life away into some future is not conducive to happiness in the present.
Being a (closet) geek, I have tried to work out this strange equation of time: future > present > past. Why is one side of the ‘present’ so different from the other?
Now, if you are a clever person you’ll say: duhhh! But if you are the sort of person that thinks that mathematics is cool, then this time thing will have you stumped. Time is at the basis of a lot of physics and engineering. Take time away and our world will collapse.
Humans on the other hand, can’t experience time directly, nor distance for that matter. We can experience heat and light. We can feel substance and taste flavour. We can hear sound and we can see. But we cannot feel time or distance. We can observe them and measure them but not feel them.
So here is snag: how can we experience “here and now” when we can neither experience distance nor time? Well… [drum roll] … we can not! ‘Here and now’ are off bounds as far as experience goes.
We can think about here and now and we can say to ourselves, ‘I am here, I am now’ but that is a bit like saying ‘I exist’, a good reminder but not helpful.
So, if ‘here and now’ are off bounds, then what is Eckhart Tolle talking about? Why do meditation practitioners tell us we must centre ourselves and go into the moment?
Those same people make a big spiel about the cessation of thinking. To experience bliss, we must still our minds. We must let thoughts dissolve and experience the stillness of mind. As I do meditation myself, I know that this is indeed a necessary step to inner bliss. As Eckhart Tolle says, the brain is just another organ that we need to give a rest.
Compulsive thinking is like waving your arms and shaking your head vigorously like a mad person and we shouldn’t be surprised that such hyperactivity interferes somewhat with our experience of reality. The brain is even worse. When it goes off into a thousand tangents of distraction, how are we to experience the world around us? Well, with great difficulty.
Let me get back to that illusive ‘now’, that present moment that we are not equipped to experience. There is no mystery: there is no ‘now’ for us. Forget it when philosophers refer to the eternal now. There may be a ‘now’ out there, but it isn’t for us. The ‘now’, just like past and future can only ‘exist’ in our minds and not in the real world that we experience. Time is a pretty powerful illusion (read: construct of the mind) but as far as humans go, that is all it is.
But if there is no ‘now’, then where is the gate to the experience of enlightenment, I hear you ask? OK, you didn’t ask that, but sooner or later you just might.
Enlightenment is in experience itself. It is in the full experience of all of our senses at once. It is when our brain doesn’t interfere with that experience and let’s us be fully conscious of the experience of our senses. The ‘no mind’ in Buddhism refers to the complete absence of interpretation of the experience of our senses. When you smell fresh coffee, you don’t think fresh coffee. When you see a ‘stop’ sign, you don’t think stop and sign. When you taste a lemon, you don’t think lemon. You just experience these things in all their splendour and without commentary.
Is this possible? Yes. This is exactly what meditation teaches you. This is what enlightened people do as easily as a rose radiates its fragrance, colour and beauty. When you shut the mind down, the unadulterated experience will follow.
In fact, when you take a moment and try and engage all of your senses, there comes a point, relatively quickly, where the mind can’t handle the massive flood of experience and stops working. Which is perfect. When you try to feel your toes, your heels, your calves, your thighs, you basin, you belly, your chest, your shoulders, your arms, your neck, your tongue, your eyes and your crown all at once, you’re doing a pretty fantastic job, as awareness goes. And that is just the ‘feeling’ part. When, while you are feeling every part of your body, you try and listen to all the sounds without distinction, the noises outside, the fan on your computer, your own breathing, believe me, your mind will go into overload. It wants to go on a tangent with each of those sensory triggers but it hasn’t got the capacity. Now breathe in and smell the world around you. Can you still feel your body? Are you still hearing that world? Now if you can do all that and look around and see the world out there at the same time, your mind will have shut down.
Did you try this? It didn’t work, right?
The snag is that as soon as your brain gets triggers from the senses, it starts to make stupid comments like: toe, eye, fresh coffee, bird, table etc. When it does that, it overrides the senses and we stop feeling our toes or become deaf to our spouse who is talking about your mother in law.
The practice of mindfulness, i.e. the absence of mind (?!), is about shifting our awareness from incessant thought to full sensory experience. Although bliss and enlightenment are often portrayed as illusive and rare, they are literally at everyone’s fingertips. If only you could shut your brain up whilst staying conscious…!
I have the audio version of The Power of Now and have listened to it many times. The book is full of good and accessible advice. It is practical and has helped many people find happiness and peace of mind. It has a catchy title but for me at least, that title sends us into the wrong direction.
There is no power of now!
The ‘power’, if you like that word is in the experience. So, don’t beat yourself up when you are trying to be in the ‘now’ and your mind drifts into a memory or a future fantasy. It is not about time, past, present and future, it is all about engaging the senses fully.
This absence of now, and the fictitious notion of time and space for the human experience has many other interesting implications but to go there would take us into the abyss of geek-hood and what you find there will only disturb our poor minds even further.
Not now, another time perhaps.