“Whenever you deeply accept this moment as it is – no matter what form it takes – you are still, you are at peace.” – Eckhart Tolle
In Zen teaching, emphasis is given to embracing the present moment without holding conditions on the content of the moment. This means that from the perspective of spiritual and psychological enlightenment, of one’s calm and balanced presence, a moment in a divinely beautiful setting in nature is fundamentally no different than a moment stuck at a traffic intersection, or being diagnosed with cancer. There is, however, a Buddhist saying that “enlightenment is easy for the person with no preferences,” implying full realization of how seemingly inhuman this perfect equanimity would be. We all have preferences. How could we not?
This perfect equanimity must seem like a strange and impossible notion to embrace, and it may well not even seem like a state to which one would choose to aspire, but, as with all Zen teachings, the direction in which it points, though perplexing, is a very valuable path for us to explore.
Buddhism teaches us that our emotional suffering is caused by our resistance to the realities of life. We want life to be the way we want life to be. We grasp after those things that bring us closer to the realization of our desired experiences and goals, and we avoid as much as we can those circumstances that frustrate our desires. This seems self-evident, but its importance is in the insight that the emotional ups and downs of our lives are the result of this search for desire fulfillment, and that it is possible to gain a larger perspective that allows for far greater peace, wellbeing, profound sanity and happiness within life’s ups and downs.
If, like all of God’s other creatures, our desires were limited to the very basic necessities of life, we wouldn’t face emotional turmoil. For a squirrel, a fish or a bee, to have the basic needs of biological survival is enough, but for humans it isn’t. It particularly isn’t enough for modern people living in technological societies driven by a consumer economy. Oh, the suffering of a status-conscious teenager who doesn’t have the newest must-have possession. Oh, the suffering of an ambitious adult passed over for promotion, blocking the purchase of that new home and car. Oh, the suffering caused by arguments among family, a failed love relationship, financial instability or a crisis of health. Oh how we suffer over insults and slights, real and imagined.
What separates the human from the squirrel? Quite fundamentally, it is a more elaborate brain structure capable of abstract thought and sense of self. Certainly, many species of animals have the instinct of hierarchy, and dominance competition is common, but straightforward biologically-ingrained processes resolve such issues, and then everything settles down. For humans, struggles of status and significance are very different.
Humans anticipate this struggle, form strategies and devices to give them advantage, and live in reflected dissatisfaction with the results even when we win – the triumph is always tenuous and temporary, never complete. No squirrel lives in a remembered world of triumph or defeat. No squirrel worries about whether their status is sufficient, about whether they are sufficient, about whether they will gain or lose status or happiness in the future. Humans are obsessed with such matters. It is an abstract sense of self and its time-line story, what psychology calls ego, creating this suffering that is unique to humans.
Buddhism teaches that identifying with, and being driven by, the desires of the ego is what causes our emotional suffering. We want what we want, and we suffer when we don’t get it. We want an entire story line of “me” that is made up, not of moments in the here-and-now, but a continuous flow of moments all strung together creating the time-line of our lives. This time-line is the ego’s story. We live in a blurred cacophony of moments remembered and anticipated all built around our need for significance.
“This moment, what is lacking?” – 9th Century Zen Master, Rinzai
This moment experienced in its purity has no past and it has no future. It only contains what is present. There is no timeline to this moment. There are antecedents and there will be a future to this moment, but this moment held in stillness is completely pristine, and ego cannot dominate experience without its storyline.
“This moment is a perfect moment. This moment is my refuge.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Bring awareness into your sensory experience of the moment. Begin with awareness of the gentle rhythm of your breathing. Pay particular attention to the release of tension that comes with the exhalation. Then experience the bright clarity of perception that is a conscious inhalation. The mind will begin to quiet. It will begin to focus; it will take on a rare quality of stillness, a dynamic stillness that is the quality of a calm ocean, a forest glen. Allow into perception only what is present, without its antecedents and its future, and a world of mystery that is life and Creation in its true form begins to be revealed. Stillness is the key, a dynamic stillness that is the fabric of Nature, of the Universe.
As we become increasingly capable of sustaining contact with the dynamic stillness of the moment, not needing, or feeling compelled, to move on to something else, we likewise become increasingly the master of our own mind, and the saner (and happier) we become. Stillness becomes the ever-present background while we live the activity of our lives. Awareness that all activity arises and passes back into stillness becomes our greatest insight. We learn that we can enter the stillness of this moment by choice and use it, as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, as a context and a refuge We can learn from within stillness how petty and unnecessary are most of our attachments and ego cravings, the noise of our lives, and so, how unnecessary most of our suffering is.
Stillness is the realm of meditation and mindfulness. Stillness is the place where we learn that we are not imprisoned within our thoughts and emotions, and thus, victim to their vicissitudes. This stillness is where we learn that all things are manageable when framed from within this moment. Stillness is the doorway through which we can glimpse eternity and Creation. Stillness is the doorway to perfecting psychological and spiritual balance and understanding.
This moment, held in stillness, lacks nothing, for in it, we and the Universe unfold, are one, and are complete.