“Here we are.” All of Zen, Taoism and any true mystical spiritual tradition comes down to what consciousness teacher Eckhart Tolle chose as the title his first book: “The Power of Now.” Here we are – in the here-and-now, in what can be seen, heard, touched, felt, and in such directness, understood. We cannot be any where or when else. Can you really get this, feel this, know this? This truth really experienced begins to free us from psychological pain and from spiritual confusion. It begins to open the power of our originally clear and sane mind.
Yet typically, we do not live this way, for where we are is mostly in our confused and anxious minds, in a kind of virtual reality. We are living in our schedules, speculations, fantasies, discomforts, regrets, victories, fears, and desires. Our here-and-now is distracted by constant wanderings into there-and-then and what-if. In all creation, only humans have the capacity to live as if not in the absolute immediacy of the real here-and-now, and what seems to be true is that with the advance of human civilization, the ability to live fully in the absolute here-and-now continually decreases.
Pre-civilized humans lived almost entirely in the absolute here-and-now, in their physical senses and silent intuitive capacity. They were in touch with nature and felt a mystical unfolding and interconnection with all life, and very interestingly there is no evidence of neurotic mental illness among such humans as they can be encountered in the few remaining remote uncivilized corners of the Earth – in Africa, South America, Southeast Asia, and Pacific Oceana. On the other hand, it can be fairly emphatically stated that modern humans have a very tenuous connection with the present moment, living instead mostly in their minds, in stories of their past and desires and fears for the future, the present moment only a transit point between. And mental illness is rampant.
When indigenous North American people encountered Europeans of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries – high-functioning, “normal” people – it was quite obvious to the natives that these people were crazy. It was quite obvious that these conquering, questing people lived in their heads and not where their feet touched the ground, in the true natural reality of here-and-now, and that they were exceedingly dangerous. It was quite obvious that while stupefyingly powerful with inventions and weapons and writing and governments and intention to conquer rather than live with nature, that these humans were crazy. They tore down a world that had existed in harmony for thousands of years to place upon the land a civilization that in a short few hundred years has brought the land and its own culture to the edge of collapse. By the 20th century, these crazy murderous European/American people had completely destroyed the sane and balanced world of the native people and imposed a violent, unbalanced representation of their own unbalanced minds. Do I go too far in calling our world violent and unbalanced? I do not think so.
Today, many, many people, while being productive and loving and generally appreciative of life, are prone to anxiety, tension, anger, and depression, and engage in the subtle and blatant violence of competition and acquisition with each other and anyone and anything that crosses their path. Most are in some form of constant state of argument with each other and even with themselves. They seem obsessed with acquiring while showing very little appreciation for what they have. Such people seem to be caught in the dimension of mind that thinks obsessively and shows a very unhealthy tendency to emotional excess with very little familiarity with the dimension of mind that is silent, peaceful, and wise. Our culture teaches us to make most everything about ourselves, and it is not unfair to say that most folks seem quite unhappy even when professing to being happy. Our unbalanced violence expresses itself every day in subtle ways, seeking to win, creating or being losers, while the news is filled with the out-of-control violence that debases our society.
Yet, it is very important to realize that despite all of us modern humans being so crazy, some more than others, there IS a completely sane person inside each of us. Buddhism, among other mystical traditions, tells us there remains this basic human being within us who is much more like an indigenous person, and teaches us to be in harmony with the nature of the world and our own nature, knowing the two to be one. We are still natives. We are native to this planet and this universe. We belong within a great unfolding of cosmic existence. This planet within this universe is our home. This is a simple truth, yet we show very little recognition of this knowing, a knowing that was the stabilizing touchstone of the lives of indigenous people and of mystics throughout the ages.
We have lost our way. We normal civilized people live predominantly inside the dimension of our minds known as ego that is, in effect, an artificial intelligence made up of thoughts, of social and psychological programming, that very much puts us at odds with our own and universal nature. We have lost connection and identification with the dimension of mind that precedes the programming of our civilized conditioning, and it drives us crazy. This original mind, as Buddhism calls it, knows itself as nature, the universe happening through a human-being just as the universe happens through all plants and animals and even mountains and rivers, rocks, and sky, and oceans.
Buddhism teaches that when we can see and experience in ourselves this unconditioned purity of consciousness – its peacefulness, its clarity, wisdom, and sanity – and how it is blocked by the shell of our ego, we can make peace with ourselves and shift our sense of self from within this crazy ego into the clarity of awareness that is our original state of consciousness. We can then begin to soften the hard shell of ego and bring ego into its proper role and dimension in the wholeness of our mind. We can let go of our conditioning and of our ego as our identity, allowing awareness to shine forth increasingly as who we are. Then and only then can we truly bring this same understanding and acceptance to others, allowing that they too are prisoners of conditioning.
This is what Buddhism means by compassion. Empathy can arise. Tolerance can arise. Gentleness can arise. And so too, will appropriate boundaries arise – for you don’t let one who is acting crazy just run wild – boundaries are gently set and firmly held while the original person beneath the crazy is called forth with our love and acceptance. While compassion is a profoundly emotional experience that leads to tenderness, empathy, and love, even to joy, it begins as a profoundly rational understanding that we are all the victims and prisoners of our social and psychological conditioning. Here and now is where and when we are. See this, feel this, know this, be this. Here we are – both our crazy and our completely sane selves wrapped together. We have been trained by an unbalanced culture to be crazy and dissatisfied, and we behave accordingly. But it does not have to be so. Have compassion for yourself so that you can truly begin to have compassion for others and for all of Creation.
The 9th century founder of the Rinzai school of Zen, Linji, famously queried: “This moment, what is lacking?” – and clearly, in the universe, there is nothing lacking, by the nature of the universe being everything. It is perfect and complete as it is. Buddhism calls this Dharma. Taoism calls it Tao. Both terms translate into English as “The Way.” We live within The Way of the universe. Here we are. Can you breathe into this, allowing your silent mind to come forth in its knowing that we are an expression of the universe with the same clarity that was the basis of indigenous people’s way of life? Here we are, complete, whole, and sane, just as is all in this universe. Can you relax into this truth, letting your craziness become mere whispers in the field of your mind, no longer strong enough to catch and hold you – just passing stories of someone you no longer are. Buddhism calls us to awaken and reconnect with this sane and natural mind through Dharma study, meditation, and mindfulness to reclaim our natural sanity and sense of kinship and interdependence with each other and all of life. With this realization our egoic mind can pull back from its insecure insistence on running our lives, untangle its crazy thoughts, better manage its emotions, and find its natural role and function as a mental faculty for engaging the world, now doing so skillfully, wisely, and compassionately. It is in the balancing of our inventive, striving egoic-mind with our now strengthened, long-neglected, clear, natural, wise, and compassionate mind, the mind of awareness that exists completely in the here-and-now, that we can begin to build sane, balanced, and productive personal lives. Then, together, we can build a new sane, balanced, and productive human society on this planet just as did the indigenous people who preceded us. Only now, the technological inventiveness that is the hallmark of our civilization can be in the service of the balance of life rather than our unbalanced questing for power and dominance that has been and is, yes, driving us all quite crazy while destroying our world.