Now isn’t the Time

(more rumination on my “presence” practices, thinking out loud to try to make sense of my (lack of) “success”; unless you’re on a similar journey, or know me personally, you may want to give this “diary entry” a pass)

my synopsis of a key idea from The Power of Now, from this 2010 post

As I reported recently, I’ve been preoccupied for the last while with an attempt to be more “present”, or, more simply, to just be, in the now, instead of caught up in my mind and emotions (lost in the past or the future). For me this is all about finding a way to cope better with fears and anxieties that have left me largely unconscious and incapable of dealing with stressful situations that inevitably arise in everyone’s life.

I have a strong intuitive sense that this will prove to be the fourth major belief/worldview shift in my life, and probably the most important one. Since I’m impatient, I’m looking for a quick way to get there (or perhaps more correctly, to get here). I’ve tried Liberation Unleashed, a method of “just looking” to see the illusion of the self. I’ve tried the runaway best-seller meditation app Headspace, and a variety of guided visualizations and binaural beat meditations. I’ve briefly tried two personal coaches to break through the cognitive dissonance I’ve struggled with. They’ve all been helpful, and have worked very hard to understand and guide me to a personal breakthrough, but (perhaps prematurely) I have at least temporarily set these approaches aside in favour of those that seem more intuitively suited to my way of thinking, and shifting.

Mostly for now I have returned to the meditation and other practices of Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti. I don’t think either of these gentlemen has any particular special insight into helping people achieve epiphanies of “enlightenment”. What I like about reading and listening to them is that they speak my language — they seem to have been through similar life experiences to my own before they “suddenly” realized how to be present, and they use vocabulary that resonates with my own and does not rub me the wrong way.

Eckhart for example eschews talk of “mindfulness”, “personal growth” and “God”, and speaks instead about presence, the illusion of self and of time, and the destructiveness, insanity and mental illness created by civilization culture. I especially like this excellent short video of his that summarizes his book The Power of Now, a central thesis of which I summarized five years ago when I first read (and rather unsympathetically reviewed) the book, as follows:

Ego would appear to be an unintended and unfortunate consequence of the development of the brain to the point where it began to mistake its processing of thought and feelings for our consciousness, and we have been in a fight with our egos ever since. Whereas most “present” creatures handle stress instinctively, and let it go quickly, we “too smart for our own good” creatures have become consumed by our egos, ever ready to cycle viciously through negative thoughts and stories and feelings to the point we become unconscious of what is real, and end up traumatized and trapped in and by our minds and reactive feelings.

So I am now re-reading The Power of Now, with what I hope to be a more open mind. Eckhart’s own breakthrough came at a personal nadir in his life, a time of suicidal crisis, and he suggests that many people won’t ever have the will to realize the illusions of self, mind and time without an existential crisis to precipitate it — for many it’s too much of a hurdle, he suggests, until and unless you have almost nothing left to lose.

Here’s my diary of thoughts as I have been working my way through it:

  • People I know who have achieved this “there is only the Now, and one Consciousness” realization say that it is scary — when your ego “dies” it is as if you are dying, they say, and there is nothing left to hold on to. Although I am a fearful person, I do not sense this; perhaps I am so unaware that I can’t see just how threatening to my ego this realization really is. Or perhaps my egoic mind is so firmly in control it doesn’t see any threat of “me” achieving any such realization.
  • I still recall my most vivid experience of presence over 40 years ago, standing under a streetlight in winter with softly falling snow, and writing that my greatest desire was to achieve a similar state, all the time, that was paradoxically “at once very relaxed and very aware”. Friends told me then that such a “euphoric” state was unsustainable and expecting to achieve it all the time was naive and setting myself up for disappointment. Yet Eckhart uses almost identical words to describe the state of presence, and says it is “our natural state”.
  • Much meditation teaching is about noticing your thoughts and letting them just pass until they become less frequent and allow a space for presence (or mindfulness or enlightenment or whatever expression you prefer) to emerge. But I think in times when I am not present I am more “spaced out”, even numb, than preoccupied with thoughts and reactive emotions — the opposite of presence, a state that is mindless and not in a good way (what Eckart calls “extreme unconsciousness”). Perhaps I am just unaware of the thoughts that preoccupy me, especially in times of stress and escapism. Or perhaps it’s my coping mechanism for stress — to just zone out, in a desensitized state akin in some ways to depression but without the deep suffering that accompanies depression. For some people, I suppose, highly stressful situations can “force you into the Now”, and if so I envy those who find danger makes them more alive, more present; in my case it seems to lead to the opposite.
  • These days I am very impatient with myself. All this work I am doing, coming at it from every conceivable direction, and still not getting anywhere! What’s the matter with me? This reminds me of the struggle I have had trying to learn to do other “simple” things like swimming and dancing, that lead to nothing but failure and self-annoyance. Is lack of capacity to notice, to be attentive, behind all of these failures? If so, how can I move past this incapacity? Will learning to be present be the key to turning all these failures around?
  • I keep thinking/feeling that meditation should be a joyful experience, but for me it is just work. It would be easier to persevere if it gave me a few glimpses of joy.
  • I’ve written before that I think there are two kinds of presence, one intellectual (when you are “really on” presenting to or helping people) and one instinctual (when you are feeling connected to all-life-on-Earth), that don’t ever seem to co-exist. Is this a personal thing? A male thing? My sense is that the latter is the kind of presence I am seeking, but the former seems more “useful” and appreciated. Some people equate this (latter) sense of presence with disengagement and detachment from people/human society; are they right, or does intuitive presence bring “un-attachment” that actually makes you more helpful to others, more capable of intellectual presence?
  • Perhaps it’s a romantic belief (I don’t think we can ever really know), but I’ve always sensed that wild creatures (as opposed to domesticated creatures, including humans) live in a state of perpetual presence, except when stress forces them briefly into “clock time”, after which they “shake it off” and return to a still, relaxed present state. This suggests to me that achieving presence is not transcending the level of consciousness of wild creatures, but rather freeing ourselves from the uniquely human disease of being possessed by our egoic mind and (what Eckhart calls) our emotional pain-body, feeding constantly on each other. It’s not a “higher” level of consciousness we aspire to, but rather just getting back to the lost level of consciousness wild creatures experience all the time. Or rather, reconnecting with that one universal consciousness that they (unlike us) have always been connected with.
  • I am disturbed and dumbfounded by the vast majority of comments and questions in videos and on forums stemming from Eckhart’s (and others’) teachings. They suggest to me that almost all of these readers either (1) are so inarticulate they can’t convey coherently what they have come to believe, or (2) don’t really understand in the least what these teachers are saying, and are just blindly nodding and parroting out of (I’m guessing) some desperation to believe in, or follow, some ‘saviour’. I guess this makes me insensitive; it also makes me very cynical.
  • An exercise that seems to work for me is focusing attention on my body’s organs and even (imagining) its trillion cells, each part of the staggering complicity called me, functioning without the need for or help of my mind. The knowledge that none of these is really “separate”, that all are inseparable parts of a greater whole, is helpful in starting to realize that “I” too am just an inseparable part of a larger whole, that there is no “I”, no self, that self-control is impossible, and fear-for-self and self-ishness are foolish.
  • As a fanatic crossword solver, I was intrigued that Eckart uses crossword puzzles (along with games, sex, food, shopping and other compulsions) as examples of how “our mind uses us as its slave”. He does tend to vilify the actions of the mind and the pain-body of negative reactive emotions, as though they were somehow ‘deliberately’ harming us in their own ‘self’-interest (though carefully avoiding using words like “evil”). I appreciate that he’s exaggerating this to point out just how challenging it is to escape the grip of these self-reinforcing occupiers of our attention. Why should a mind or pain-body “fear its own death” if it’s just an illusion, a construct? I think what he means by personifying the conjurers of our thoughts and reactive emotions is that it is their ‘nature’ to look for patterns and “make sense” of things, and to disregard/deny anything that doesn’t fit those patterns. In this regard I am perhaps more charitable than Eckhart, since I believe this pattern-making is inherent in the evolution of large brains, and it is really all in the cause of trying to help, trying to warn us of imbalances, threats and dangers to our (constituents’) health. The vicious cycle by which thoughts and reactive emotions reinforce and perpetuate each other is an unfortunate and unintended consequence of this evolution of large brains. That unfortunate consequence has produced the accelerating sixth great extinction of life on Earth. Evolution inherently makes mistakes; no one is to blame for that. Likewise, we are unlikely to overcome that evolutionary error and achieve Eckhart’s “Whole New Earth” — he may have a brilliant understanding of the ways of the human mind, but he is clearly not a student of complexity or he would have chosen a more sombre and less hyperbolic title for has latest book.

Well, that’s where I am now. If you’re still reading this, thanks for your attention, and I hope you’ve found it interesting, and maybe even helpful.

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9 Responses to Now isn’t the Time

  1. Jim Fry says:

    Across many different tools and experimentation, I too have often found “I keep thinking/feeling that meditation should be a joyful experience, but for me it is just work. It would be easier to persevere if it gave me a few glimpses of joy.”. The closest I have come to really embracing have been Holosync, which I feel changed me, but ever so slowly, over months (perhaps most of the change) and then years (minor further shifts encountered) and then the Gateway Hemisync series. With Gateway, I felt close to many of the “goals” mentioned in the various session instructions, but eventually walked away from it, whether because I no longer felt I needed it or because I never really achieved appreciable change, or both. One thing for certain I’ve learned is that is is necessary to insulate from not only oneself but others because there feels to be an infectious component of anxiety that crosses the skin and air gap barriers. I’ve found decreasing contact of all forms (including social media) with others, for variable durations, is essential to sorting out what’s internal, external and conglomerate based, which may prove helpful. Over the spring, under circumstances of new forays with anxieties I delved into (non-THC legal) Cannabis CBD Oil daily for a few months and that had some positive results, though it too, like holosync, seemed to be a stepping stone and I set it aside eventually, based upon perceived diminishing (though not lost) returns.

  2. Sam Gunsch says:

    I identify with much of what you describe.

    Read Eckhart. Have done CBT group therapy and another. Been in one on one therapy.

    Marsha Linehan’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy is so far the only approach that has helped me stabilize myself. ADHD, generalized anxiety disorder, addiction.

    The DBT combination of mindfulness + radical acceptance has allowed me to moderate my former extreme rumination habit. Ruminating on all the stuff I regret and what I might still fail, at times when I was young made me attempt suicide. Still makes me ideate.

    But after being exposed to DBT for 30 sessions, I think I now understand that at root, it’s that constant and high intensity of rumination turns it into suffering.

    And to avoid that self-induced suffering, it’s necessary to somehow ‘accept’ my condition. Stop fighting back. Thus, stop myself from generating a Chinese fingertrap for myself.

    I guess DBT is borrowing from the Buddhist detachment approach.
    So detaching is another way I understand my own daily attempts to notice my rumination and thus not drown in it.

    Reading your posts help me feel less alone with this stuff.

  3. Sam Gunsch says:

    re link/excerpt below:
    I did get this acceptance from both of the counselors who led the DBT program. Not quite so straightforward for me to accept myself. Striving. Ego. I guess.

    excerpt: One of the gifts of what Linehan offers in DBT is acceptance–acceptance of patients–acceptance of feelings–and acceptance that people are doing the best they can. Many get blinded by the tools, language, structure, and research of DBT. They loose the basic humanity–the acceptance and love–of the the patient.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Quote: ” Because we temporarily lose the set of ideas we have regarding ourselves in meditation (because they are ideas, not particularly because they relate to the self) does not mean they are not useful ideas to have in our daily lives. When use the pronoun “I” we can mean any of three things. The first and most fundamental self is the awareness. The second is that set of ideas we have concerning our self, all our memories, character, personality, etc., (and includes awareness) and the third self is our physical body (which includes the other two). Zen helps us to isolate the first self from the other two. It points the way to experiencing what pure, unencumbered awareness feels like. That is awareness unencumbered by CMA*. We lose contact with the second and third selves in meditation, but that does not mean they are not real.” C.

    *CMA: conscious mental activity.

  5. Harry Osh says:

    I’m one of the editors on Shift mag, thanks for your writing and openness Dave.

    For me, our deep need for control is the absolute core of what we are. That need explains everything else including self and ego which I find to be vague words in any case.

    Our mind is an “eye” that first sees mental objects and then processes them usually nothing more than rearranging them in stored memory.

    The mind’s eye reminds me of the Eye of Sauron in LoR. The mind’s eye is NOT the ego. For all we know, there may be no such thing as the ego, just as much as there is no such thing as the self.

    The mind’s eye is locked into a control loop processing mental objects and that does not end until we die.

    It is a case of what the mind’s eye is locked into. As Plato already pointed out, the mind’s eye is usually locked into mental objects that are always externalizations of something else – never the thing itself. So at a deep linguistic level we are usually deluded.

    As with any devise that is an eye, the mind’s eye is totally blind to itself. Over time, we infer the existence of the mind’s eye – that is why we are all born ignorant and slowly become less so once we begin the journey of critical thinking.

    When we talk about “being in the now”, it is actually NOT about letting go of control, nor is it about being “in the now”.

    It is just an alternative way of saying that we want to transform what we are controlling.

    I find thinking about “control” much more fruitful than cognitive dissonance. Dissonance is just a signal. Even without dissonance we can still be deluded.

    We humans cannot live without control. It is literally impossible. The pain of being out of control is so intense and punishing, almost nobody can take it. Thank nature for that! Our evolutionary design likes to keep us as control slaves – it is not very pretty but just the way it is.

    “Being in the now” means that we are able to focus the mind’s eye on mental objects that we can actually control. There are only a few mental objects that work to transform the mind’s eye from being locked into an uncontrollable process and instead returning it back to a controllable process.

    One of them is acceptance. If we can switch the mind’s eye out of the uncontrollable, and turn it’s gaze toward acceptance – we are in the now.

    Another mental object is wisdom. If we can switch the mind’s eye out of the uncontrollable, and turn it’s gaze towards wisdom – we are in the now.

    Realise that “wisdom” is just another mental object, it just so happens that it is useful for helping to regain control. It implies that we can learn even from the most dire situations.

    There are probably a few foundation or archetypal words in the English language that are the key mental objects that transport us into the now. “Peace” could be another.

    Would love to talk with you more about this Dave. Thanks for writing on Shift Magazine.

    Yes, agree, there is no point pursuing a permanent state of peaceful emotion, it is utterly hopeless, it is merely a fleeting experience. Some are lucky enough to experience it for longer than others.

    Never-the-less, we can always try to get back into the now, and the more we practice it, the less effort it takes.

    The western ideas of being in the now, is actually just an illusion. It is not about time or space, it is about being in control without delusion.

    We live in the age of “control freaks”. It means that we are desperately trying to be in control but are so locked into the wrong ideas, we are engaged in a energy intensive wasteful and futile activity that will leave the planet devoid of biodiversity for thousands of years until the sun recharges the earth’s batteries .

    If all else fails, I just say to myself “The world is not beautiful (for I am kidding myself if I think that) – the world is utterly amazing” – no question about that.

    Cheers Harry

  6. Qassem Suleimani says:

    daoudjan marshl!

    thanks for sharing this. dave, i’m close to 9 years in as a committed dharma practitioner. and seeing your post, the first question that comes to mind is “Are you working with a teacher?” I think it is quite easy to get discouraged if you’re doing this on your own and you are likely to take many detours – and lose a lot of valuable time going down blind alleys- without the support of a good, capable teacher. And by support of a teacher, I mean a one-on-one interview/consultation every two-three weeks.

    As someone with a big anti-authoritarian streak, I still feel a little surprised when I mention the value of working closely with a teacher, but I really don’t think a physically-based applied awareness practice can mature otherwise. I think another important thing is to affiliated with a good sangha…i’m blessed with that, too…and it makes a difference!

    For me meditation is work; however there are a few seconds of joy here and there; and the resistance to meditation is not as solid as in earlier years.

    Another important piece is that the value of doing regular meditation retreats cannot be emphasized enough…they really help take things further…that said, i want to add that the retreats i’ve been on have felt more like eating a shit sandwich on soggy, moldy bread slowly over several days…the retreats have nothing to do with making one feel better…at the risk of saying the obvious… it is a very slow process…i didn’t really notice a qualitative shift in my being until having done some 15 retreats over a three-four year period…

    i think the main thing meditation does is remind me to pause in day-to-day life, especially in situations where otherwise I’d be apt to think, say, or do something really stupid…i like to think of that as grace…

    and lastly, i find it interesting on occasion at my Zen center when someone who’s been sitting 20, 30, 40 years talk about their experience of life and practice…they sound just as fucked up as me…what does change, i think, is how we related to that fuckedupedness…

    hope this is of use!

  7. andrewjamescampbell says:

    So far as i can tell, maybe the issue at hand for you and ‘presencing’ is that you don’t actually practice any practices to the extent that one could reasonably expect to make any real progress.

  8. Harry Osh says:

    What you said about emotionally tuning out as a coping strategy resonates with me and I notice the same with myself as I struggle along. Just wanted to add that even so, there is still a deep spiritual wish for a better world that I can detect exists inside me – despite being rather flat on the outside. It can be quite liberating and relaxing to not always display overt emotion for the sake of it, but just feel it inside and let it shape positive behaviors. I guess at the end of the day, we are trying to say that we can’t always be an inspiration, even though that is what people respond to instinctively.

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