“This moment is a perfect moment, this moment is my refuge.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
“This moment” seems like a simple concept. A snap of the fingers. A blink of an eye. How then could “this moment” be a refuge? It seems hardly sufficiently substantial to provide a refuge from the vicissitudes of life. The mind of thought can’t quite grasp it, yet these words echo some truth we hold deep inside. Why does this seemingly inscrutable Asian utterance both puzzle and reassure us? This little declaration by the great Vietnamese Zen Master is a koan, a verbal device intended to take us beyond the world of thought and into intuitive understanding of an experience that is mystical, unfathomable, yet right here, right in front of and all around us. And yes, when fully realized, its promise is not empty.
What is this moment? It is, first of all, conventionally ungraspable. We all know the bitter-sweet desire to grasp and hold a moment when we are in the midst of a “perfect” experience, knowing it will pass. Our idea of a perfect experience, however, is a concept of the mind, a concept of the ego. It is based in judgment, an ordering of our experiences by subjective criteria from worst to best to “perfect.” Yet, that we experience perfection implies there is something happening that is even deeper than judgment, deeper than our capacity to categorize. It is perfect, yet, whether a moment with a loved one, or a moment in a sublime setting in Nature, the stimulus for the experience has always been there, yet not seen, hidden within the routines of ordinary life.
The person who is loved is usually around us quite a bit, beautiful settings in Nature are not that hard to find. It is we who are seeing, hearing, feeling in a manner profoundly different from our ordinary way, our usual self-centered, egoic way. Our usual manner of perception has been suspended in a moment of connected transcendence, of love. It is not the person or the natural setting that becomes perfect, it is we who realize qualities of inherent perfection that are always there, usually lost in a blur of projected ordinariness in the hurry of time. Perfection is realized in this moment when in this moment there is no longer a separate self experiencing the person or the natural setting “out there.” We and they and it are all folded into a seamless entity that is this moment, a unity of experience, and it is this unity that is perfect. When we think about it, it is gone, lost again in the blur of time, for thought is structured in time. No, “perfect” cannot be an intellectual experience. It is, as Zen calls it, a “felt sense.” It is the felt sense of non-duality, of oneness, of completeness, of “thusness” or “isness.” It is “just this,” meaning, as a poet might write: the Universe in a flower, a moment, a breath.
It is often said in these “perfect moments” it is as if time has stopped, yet, we have the problem that we cannot sustain stopped time. Often, the perfection begins disappearing the moment we remember time, when we anticipate the ending of the “perfect” experience. We re-introduce the thought of our separate self into the moment, and like a magic spell being broken, the perfection begins to dissolve. We are back in our separate self, back in time, the moment lost, now only memory, a part of the story of me.
So what is Thich Nhat Hanh saying to us? It would seem that our usual perspective is rather the opposite of what he is saying. Our usual perspective is that there sometimes occur moments that have the quality of perfection – if conditions are perfect. Thich Nhat Hanh is telling us this moment is perfect, this moment has the capacity to be refuge. There are no qualifiers as to the quality of content of the moment. He is even implying that moments in which the content of the moment may be very challenging can be experienced as perfect and can constitute a refuge. How can that be? This sounds bizarre to our rational minds, yet we all know there is truth to this. We have even experienced it – sometimes exactly in the midst of personally shattering moments – moments that shatter our personal story in time.
Perhaps the key to the puzzle is in the concept of time. Let us return to the question: what is this moment? An analogous question is: what is the here and now? – that ubiquitous New Age, consciousness community phrase, another koan, so to speak, that has become clichéd. Just what is the “here and now”? And what mystical power does it possess to merit its clichéd standing? Does it not, like “this moment,” have an ungraspable yet transcendent quality? “Just where,” I sometimes like to ask, “is the boundary of here and now?” Where does it begin, where does it end? The same question can be asked of “this moment.” Is it really a snap of the fingers, a blink of an eye? This is the small egoic experience of this moment. Thich Nhat Hanh and mystics of all spiritual traditions are calling us to a greater, vaster experience of this moment. They are calling us to this moment in the realm of eternal Beingness. Here, the experience of the timeless space of perfection is certainly not the blink of an eye. It is far more like being on raft, flowing on a river and we have no sense of its beginning or end. The river flows and we flow with it. River, raft, person – all flowing.
The “this moment” that Thich Nhat Hanh is directing us to flows not down a river, but through eternity, and the “perfection” he offers is a glimpse of eternity. It is non-duality, unity, and in non-duality there is no edge of beginning or ending, for it is without an opposing other, out there. There is only the awareness of the moment, flowing. It is “thusness, isness.” It cannot be grasped with the intellect, for the intellect is the mental faculty that divides the Universe into this and that, and the “this moment” that Thich Nhat Hanh calls us to is this moment as the Universe, perfect. Perfect because it is the Universe. It is a refuge from the up and down, the pain of the this and the that in time that comes and goes. It is the perfect mystical, spiritual realization of union with a flower, with all flowers, with a person, with all persons, with all Life, with the Universe. It is this moment as the raft of our personal life flowing on the eternal river of here and now, a river without beginning or end.
“This moment” stops time as a unit, as a snap of the fingers, and opens us into what Eckhart Tolle has called “the power of Now,” liberating us from the unsatisfactory quality of our ordinary existence. “This” is the Universe. “Moment” is awareness. “This Moment” is the Universe in awareness focused through the lens of a person, now experiencing a mountain vista, a flower, a fellow human, a street corner, the bird outside your window, the collapse of a dream, anything at all.
You can even close your eyes – and look – and what can be seen? It’s not nothing. We see awareness without content. We can see, in effect, Eternity, this moment. Open your eyes and “this moment” arising in eternity can be seen, and ordinariness and difficulty fall away. There is just “this,” as vast and wondrous as eternity – “This moment is a perfect moment, this moment is my refuge.” Is it not right in front of and all around you? You can’t think it, you have to feel it. All the beauty, all the tragedy, all the ordinary, not hidden in time, rather right here, this moment. The Universe opens and there is nowhere to hide, and strangely, we are safe, we are complete, we are whole. We have found the refuge from the this and the that. There is only This. Perfect.