If you have read my book, Waking Up, Learning What Your Life is Trying to Teach You, you know that my focus is on practical and applied spirituality. That means taking spiritual truth and using it to create one's life and deal with unresolved and challenging life situations. However, spiritual suggestions without the "help tab" can just become annoying nostrums. Folks go around saying things like, "you need to forgive them," or "just stay in the present" as if these were magic spells. Many people actually don't have a clue how to really do these things. Thus, much forgiveness is simply words, and staying in the present remains an interesting intellectual idea for many of us. We "kind of" get it.
Because I mentioned forgiveness as an example, I will bring up a practical and applicable spiritual truth needed for achieving it. In order to truly forgive someone it is necessary to empathize with them. The work of empathy is the admission of our likeness and, from there, our oneness.
Achieving empathy can be very difficult, especially when the ego has a bone in its teeth about some wrong that was done to us. That is why saying the words is often what we do in lieu of doing the deep work that is the foundation for true forgiveness, the work in which our goal is to achieve the realization of our similarity with a protagonist and then to discover that actually that there is nothing to forgive. We try to convince ourselves, by saying the forgiving words, that we have practiced forgiveness while, deep inside, we are not really sure we have. Our forgiving statements may look good to others, but we secretly know that the old demons of judgment and blame could be waiting just around the next bend. When we take personal responsibility, and we finally realize that I and Thou are one, and we suddenly discover that there is nothing to forgive, then we can forget as well. When we forget, we know we have truly forgiven. Forgiveness can be hard, inner work, but, when done consciously, it is offers some of the richest rewards in the personal and spiritual growth department.
So you see how this works. Often we need the "help desk" behind what have become spiritual platitudes. For instance, people love to say, "just stay in the present" or "be here now," as if that were the easiest thing in the world to do. Let's go back to the help desk.
We can't begin to "be here now" until we develop our awareness. Why is that? Because we have to be aware to realize when we are unaware, to realize when we are not present! What pulls us out of the present, or never lets us in, is what is constantly going on in our mind and our emotional body. We are not in the present because we are usually in contemplation, or we are in the future or the past in our minds, and we are having an emotional reaction, small or large, to our past or future stories and fantasies! Our minds are full of expectations, shameful reviews, fears, planning and endless loops of "what ifs" and "what about." Thus, most of the time, we are not thinking about what is right in front of us, or what is happening in the moment.
Until we develop awareness, we have no idea that we are living in the past and the future or, as I like to say, that we are "lost in the story, " the story of what happened to whom and when and how, and what we should do. We can also be unaware that we are just "thinking about something," kind of like a cow munching grass.
In Rumi's poem, No Room for Form, he says:
On the night when you cross the street
from your shop and your house
to the cemetery,
you'll hear me hailing you from inside
the open grave, and you'll realize
how we've always been together.
I am the clear consciousness-core
of your being, the same
in ecstasy and in self-hating fatigue.
The poem is saying that, when you die, you will finally realize that you have always had a pure consciousness core, an awareness, that is a non-judging, and non-blaming. Awareness is a neutral witness to everything, including your mind and your emotional body. It is "the same in ecstasy as in self hating fatigue." You have awareness right now. You have always had it.
Awareness is the key to seeing the mind and our emotions at work. "Oh, look! I'm thinking about a new car. Oh, look! I am worrying about that remark she made. Oh, look! There's fear. Oh, look! I am lost in that story about my mother again." Again, we have to develop awareness to know that we are unaware. Fortunately, awareness is "on board" and has always been with us. It is our "pure consciousness core."
Back to "Stay in the Present" and "Be Here Now"
Once we discover and practice awareness, or, as they say, "develop the witness," we are at choice. We are no longer lost in thought or "lost in the story" or lost in the emotion. We are now observing what the mind and emotional body are doing, and we can say, "I think I would prefer to be in the present: I want to be here now."
At this point, we can use some easy tools to bring us fully present. We can take a few deep breaths, feeling the breath going in and out easily and begin to sense the world directly around us. When I am driving, and I become aware I am in a thinking loop about the past or future, or I am over-pondering something, I will choose to observe trees, houses, what people are doing, the natural and human world I am passing through. In the doctor's office, I watch the people coming and going, see the equipment, check the plaques, and check my physical and emotional state (seems appropriate). Wherever I am, I can become and be present. I can check into life as it is happening.
With awareness we are able to see when we have left the present, and we have the opportunity to come back to it. The present is right in front of us, what is happening right now. When we enter the present, we simultaneously let go of our fear filled fantasies, negative thoughts, worries and ancient resentments for a moment. This in turn brings inner peace. And here is a bonus. Wayne Dyer says that, "To be immersed and surrounded by peace is a great definition of enlightenment." Awareness is looking even better!
Of course our awareness includes noticing what is happening in our inner world right now as well. That is how we make personal discovery, by staying aware of our reactions and responses to life. Being present also means being more alive. That is why, when asked what quality most helped them to live to be over 100, a group of centenarians unanimously answered "delight." Delight hangs out in the instant, in the present moment.
In case you are still worried about about "crossing the street to the cemetery" before you can discover awareness and your "clear consciousness core," later in the poem he tells us:
"No need to wait until we die!"
And, in an inspirational, one line indictment of our major cultural concerns, he adds:
"There is more to want here than money and being famous and bites of roasted meat."
It helps to remember that "the more to want" is happening right now, right this second.
John Earle is the author of Waking Up, Learning What Your Life is Trying to Teach You and runs the site Waking Up Online. He is a spiritual teacher and counselor specializing in relationship and interpersonal communication. His clients include individuals, couples and institutions. He has produced and led numerous workshops and retreats. His personal experience of a great variety of teachers has given him a broad and inclusive spiritual perspective. A hospice volunteer for over 30 years, he and his wife Babbie recently started a hospice in Central America.