A moment of life occurs. You’re doing something, or observing or listening, your senses engaged. A split second later, at a subtle distance from the experience itself, you assign it meaning. These two appear to be a single thing, but they are not. One happens in present-moment reality, the other in your head. One is life itself; the other is a thought. It is the thought that lingers as the “real” event.
A human being is equipped with a capable mind. It’s played a major role in our evolution as a species able to vanquish (or adapt to) perceived threat. We’re endowed with the natural, automatic tendency to interpret each life moment, to assign meaning, to assess its potential threat or benefit. To put the now into some sort of context.
Not ideas about the thing but the thing itself.Wallace Stevens
This tendency has everything to do with why a condition of innate peace is so rarely the experience of a human being. We are animals: it serves us to be vigilant — to make every effort to exert control over our circumstances, to protect ourselves and our resources.
The trouble is, we overdo it with mental engagement. It’s how we manage to create a sense of who-we-are, working overtime to sustain and protect it. And then (this is most poignant) we try somehow to get that mind-invented self to wake up. Which it can never hope to do.
Meanwhile, buried below the vast repository of thought (and the knot of painful emotion it generates) is the calm pool where peace lives, patiently waiting for the mind to grow still enough for conscious awareness — not thinking — to register. To notice itself, its quality of spacious ease.
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We are collectively in a time of heightened episodes of fear and grief — and here and there, tender floods of gratitude, of love. All of which are felt in the body, or can be, when awareness is directed there. Like sense impressions, spontaneous feeling (different from mind-caused emotion) precedes thought: first something “registers” in the body, then the mind takes hold of it. What if you were to simply linger in the feeling itself, to allow it all the space it needs, without resistance? Without regard for whether it’s “positive” or “negative,” it’s what’s real just now.
Imagine that: think nothing of it. Just let it be, for now, as it is. Even if it hurts. Take a deep breath and let it have its way with you, with your body, your heart. Don’t try to protect yourself, or rush to a thought of what-to-do-about-it. (The purpose of that thought is to rescue you from the feeling. You don’t need rescue from what can’t threaten your animal body.)
In this time of acute physical danger, isolation, and economic stress, the heart is asked to bear — to feel — a great deal. The sorrow of loss, the stress of uncertainty. Discomfort with such feelings can cause anger to flare, or acute anxiety. There may likewise be moments of deepening appreciation for ordinary things not previously given much attention. Cherishing of people, even strangers. Seeing into the eyes of someone you don’t know, you may recognize your common humanity, perhaps a tenderness or fear kindred to your own. You may be moved to reach out to someone to say a long overdue I love you or I’m sorry. Because it’s now become blessedly vivid that maybe you don’t have forever to do such things. (You never did.)
Sensing your aliveness in this moment is about experience — life itself — and discovering how that differs from thinking. This is the gift of relaxing into a feeling when it takes hold of you, whatever its quality. What matters is that it’s real, just now. It’s how you can tell you’re alive.
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“What will we do with this gift of grief?” asks a contemporary writer.* Why is grief a gift? Like all deep feeling, the sorrow of a loss has the capacity to open the heart. When a feeling is fully allowed, without resistance, even as the pain (or joy) may intensify with complete surrender, the heart is likewise felt to become more spacious.
At such a moment, a person is keenly alive. In the now. The mind grows blessedly quiet. A gift indeed. Grief and gratitude — even joy — can be felt to co-exist in the wide-open heart. There’s no contradiction. Real is real: that is the point of being awake to what-is.
When you notice thought trying to start up in its familiar way, rather than straining to stop it, instead do this: gently notice that it’s a thought, without engaging in its content. Thought isn’t an enemy. It’s just the mind trying to do its familiar job. Don’t argue with the thought; the one doing the arguing is the mind. Conscious awareness doesn’t argue. It simply sees what is, without judgment.
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Even in a world like the one we presently occupy, most any particular now can be recognized (when conscious awareness is alive) as being absent immediate danger. Vigilance is not called for in this moment. Only surrender.
To remind yourself of the larger situation (beyond what’s detectable via the senses), or to recall anything in the past or anticipate something, it’s necessary to engage the mind. Which can be felt to have grown still in a moment of simply being here.
See how thought must be engaged anytime you re-mind yourself of any circumstance beyond the immediate. Being in the now is not about denial of the ongoing real-world circumstances. (It’s always possible to go there, when that’s asked for.) But it’s attention to the immediate scene that carries ease and the sensation of plain aliveness. This is what wakefulness is.
Where else can the divine be tasted but in the now? Some have tried to give that sweet space a name. Like God.
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Your mind can tell you a hundred times a day that you’re alive. It means nothing. It’s only feeling yourself in this moment that makes aliveness vivid. Words — like the seeming reality of time — are inventions of the mind. It’s the difference between the sensory experience of biting into a sweet, juicy peach, and words straining to describe it. There are a hundred ways to say sweet, juicy (and a thousand ways to say God). But, well, do you see?
Sink your teeth into this moment. You don’t have forever to live. But you do have right now. In fact, it’s all you’ve got.
* Quotation by Hannah Ceri JonesJan Frazier