In his transformative book, The power of Now , Eckhart Tolle points out that we make the mistake of being so caught up in our “life situation,” our ambitions and frustrations over what we believe will lead to a happy life, that we miss being meaningfully present for life. We mistake our narcissistic drama,the story of me, for Life, and of course, it isn’t.
Our life situation draws from our past experiences, creating the story of me. We erroneously mistake it as the only resource we have for our identity. We then project this identity into the future, where our story will play out its fulfillment or failure. Our mental landscape is mostly taken up with this drama, out of place in time. We compulsively review past events assessing the quality of this story and our significance in relationship to others. We likewise compulsively attempt to anticipate future events and how they will affect our status. When we relate to the present moment, it is mostly in the form of judgments, seeking to ascertain whether the circumstances of the moment favor or disfavor “me”. Our mental landscape is nearly completely preoccupied with the status of “me,” and with “my life situation.”
Tolle describes this insecure existential time traveling as normal, but quite crazy. As a result, we seldom are grounded in the present, rarely available for the beauty, depth, mystery and meaning of Life just as it is. We are largely unable to experience Life directly, where we are not the protagonist in our own drama without all of Life being measured against our self-absorbed desires. We are seldom able to experience the ineffable beauty, connectedness and peacefulness that is available when we experience that we are actually but a thread in the great tapestry that is Life.
Life is……. I ought to stop right there, but that would be just too enigmatic. Life is….everything, all possibility, and much more than we can imagine as possible. Life is Creation unfolding. It is mystery, wonder, balance and intricacy. Life is infinity. Life is manifestation in all of its subtle, complex, majestic and sometimes,terrible forms. And it is happening right here,right now, nowhere else. It is certainly not what we have going on in our heads.
And so, where are we? As our culture and society train us to do, we are caught in our personal drama, making up this life situation that we call our lives; past, future and, only very shallowly, present. Our obsession with our life situation makes it impossible for us to be truly present for Life, its mystery, wonder and power, where our lives truly unfold, in the eternal present moment. We use our own personal agenda and significance as our reference point for the center of the Universe. Consequently, we miss so much of what is truly meaningful and important. We live unfulfilled and unskillful lives when measured against the full potential of what Life actually offers us.
We miss Life not only by being caught mentally in the story of our personal life situation, but in the gossip that makes up most social conversation, comparing stories of drama,finding status in diminishing the status of others, or identifying with the achievement of those we admire. We are a culture where people live their lives projecting their imaginary life situation onto everything we come in contact with, projecting, projecting,projecting. We even believe spirituality is in praying, that is talking to God, speaking of what our life situation wants and needs, neglecting the very important necessity of meditating to listen for god’s answer, for God’s words have always been to set aside vanity,materialism, conflict, ego and self-absorption.
Then there are the virtual-reality life situations of media and culture that we are so addicted to. Mostly, the only times we allow ourselves to be in a receiving mode, we are absorbed in the virtual-life situations that media projects at us, reinforcing the image that all there can be is an egoic contest for life drama. We compete with each other in our conversations to establish whose life has the most drama, and we talk titillatingly about the latest in entertainment, seeking to turn the volume up louder and louder, hoping that what we lack in the direct living of Life, we can make up with ever more dramatic and sensational life situations, to the point where we even become bored with our fictions and seek still higher levels of stimulation in“reality” entertainment, the most unreal of all.
As for how to describe Life,even the words that can be used to describe it, are only pale forms of mind. Life is not in concepts, words, or in all the inspiring phrases of poetry and spiritual teaching. Life is Life. It requires we open our minds to it. Literally. This is the mystic event. Open and expand consciousness beyond situational thinking, lost in its time travel. Open into the fullness of this moment. This is the direct experience that all of Zen is a preparation for. Not lost in mental forms, but present with mind expanded and open to experiencing …….Life. Look beyond looking and see. Listen beyond listening and hear. Feel beyond feeling and touch. Open the mind and dissolve into Life.
Does this mean that we ought to quit our jobs, our families, friends and activities, our life situation? Certainly not. Not unless, these circumstances are truly frustrating not only our contact with Life, but are not even a satisfying life situation. Zen teaches us that we live in both our life situation and Life simultaneously, in our egoic separateness and our universal oneness. To live fulfillingly requires that we be deeply connected to Life while in our life situation. One way to understand Zen is that it is about skillfully balancing our life situation with Life. It is the recognition that we exist in these two dimensions simultaneously, and our humanity and life quality is accomplished in how we balance them.