Cross-posted today at The Interdependence Project.
Be here now. Those three simple words are the title of a classic 1971 spiritual book by Ram Dass -- which, for some reason, has haunted my mind for about 25 years. I haven't looked at a copy of Dass's book since I was a teenager -- but it made a strong enough impression on my mind at that tender age that I still clearly remember the design of the book's cover.
It's not so much the content of Ram Dass's book that has haunted my mind all these years, but its title. And lately that title has been haunting me more than ever. I've been thinking a lot about those three simple words, and how they capture the entire practice of meditation. This line, in my opinion, would be a top contender for the prize of "greatest meditation instruction of all time" -- if there were prizes for such things.
After all, isn't that what meditation comes down to -- the practice of just being here now? Reduced to those three naked words, it sounds so incredibly simple -- and it is -- and yet there is so much depth hidden within that simplicity, waiting to be unpacked and explored.
Meditation is about coming back to basic being. Ordinarily we are caught up in the compulsion to do. We are always doing something -- or several somethings at once -- whether it's with our bodies or our speech or our minds. The way kids study these days is a good example: they'll have a textbook open in front of them, but they'll also have a reality show playing on TV, and a favorite album playing on the iPod, and several chats going with friends on the computer. Sometimes our compulsion to do takes the form of constant mental chatter, a rushing current of thoughts and commentary that sweeps us along and keeps our minds churning and busy. But what is it like to just be in this present moment, without doing anything extra? What's actually happening? We are just sitting here, being alive, breathing, just existing. Why do we think something else needs to be added to this? Can't we just be? In those moments when we allow ourselves to just be, we feel like we've come home after a long day at work. In reality, we are always being, but when we are just being, we discover a deep and abiding sense of peace and contentment that forever eludes us when we are caught up in grasping and doing.
Being here means, first of all, being here as opposed to somewhere else. Much of the time, in our minds, we are off in the jungles of the Amazon, or walking the streets of the East Village, or on a ship at sea in a storm -- in short, anywhere but here. The fantasies that take us elsewhere can be much more interesting than the seemingly dull reality of just being here, sitting on a chair in a room, staring at the wall or the floor or the back of the person sitting in front of us. The boredom of just being here can drive us to imagine ourselves in a million other places, doing a million other things. But not one of those million other places is where we actually are right now. In reality, we are always here, but when we are just here -- when we stop struggling to pretend we are somewhere else -- we step into a more open and trusting relationship with our world. We awaken to the vividness of our sense perceptions, and we realize that until now we were sleep-walking through life, only half-aware of the world that was always right in front of our faces.
Being here also means more fully inhabiting the body, the locus of our being here. The body is dense with layers of felt experience that are always happening right here, within our very being -- yet most of the time we are barely aware of a fraction of what is happening in the body at any given moment. Training in mindfulness means coming back, again and again, to the lived experience that is always unfolding here, right here, in our very own flesh and blood.
Being here now means staying present with what is happening in this moment -- neither reviewing the past nor speculating on the future, but simply staying here in the now. Now is a razor-thin moment of being that is always cleaving time into past and future. Training in mindfulness is learning to ride that razor, to stay upright on its edge without falling off to either side. But how much of the time do we normally spend riding the blade of the present moment? Ordinarily, we spend much of our time replaying old conversations, imagining new outcomes if we had said something different; or anticipating what we'll be eating for dinner or what we'll say when we see that person again -- planning out the coming weeks or years and dancing in hope and fear about things that have not yet happened, future moments that don't yet exist. In reality, it is always now -- past and future are merely memories and dreams, and the razor-thin edge of the present moment is all we ever have. Even when we are lost in memories and dreams, our memories and dreams are still happening now. But when we learn to recognize how our minds stray from the present, and we practice being here just now, we discover the magic of authentic presence and the richness of being alive now.
"Be" is the element of relaxation, letting go of everything except that which already is -- and then letting that go, too, realizing that what is is always turning into what was. "Now" is the element of precision and alertness, staying connected to that which is constantly changing, constantly unfolding in the present moment. "Here" is the experience that connects the two.
"Be here now" is the guru's whispered instruction, a key that unlocks the door of experience and realization on the spiritual path. Let go of the compulsion to do something, realize that nothing need be added to or taken away from this moment, and simply be; come back to your lived experience here, in this body, in this room, in this environment, and remember that life is not happening somewhere else; abandon your nostalgia and regrets about the past and your hope and fear about the future, and just be here, now, surfing the always-cresting wave of the present moment. Later, if you wish, you can plan and scheme and dream, and build and destroy, do other things and go other places. But for this moment, there is nowhere else to go, nothing else to do. Just be here now. Life is an exclusive offer, non-transferrable, available for a limited time only, and valid only at this location. Use it or lose it.
The paradox is that whatever we do, we're always being; wherever we go in body or mind, we're always here (as the old saying goes, "Wherever you go, there you are"); and whether we're tuned in to the present moment or lost in memories and dreams, it's always now. So why do we find it so challenging to just be here now? Isn't it really the simplest thing in the world?