By: Thich Nhat Hahn
There's a Spiritual Solution to Every Problem
The Power of Now
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What I needed that seminary did not give me was a way to bring my heart and mind into harmony. Unfortunately for me, that's nothing you can learn from a book. Heart knowledge comes to us differently than head knowledge. We can absolutely know something in our head but be in blissful ignorance in our heart.
If we have faith in Christ, faith that we are saved, faith that by God's grace our sins are forgiven, and work out that faith in a love of neighbor, self and God, then there is no other requirement upon us. We can stand firm in our faith as beloved children of the living God!
Only the Present Moment is Real
At a small radio station where I worked nearly 20 years ago, a co-worker of mine constantly complained about his job.
hate it here," he'd say. "One day, I'm going to find a different
job and leave this place. The boss makes it intolerable here. There are
days when I just can't stand getting up to come here."
of us were particularly happy working at this station. The boss was, indeed,
an intolerable little man -- someone Hitler or Mao would admire for his
totalitarian hold over his staff. We all longed for him to at best, find
another job and another staff to torture, or at worst, finally irritate
the big boss so much he'd get fired.
co-worker would convene lunch meetings where we would all vent our feelings
about our boss and our lack of love for our jobs. Some years after I left
this job another former co-worker got married and at his wedding reception
all the former employees of this radio station sat in a circle talking
about their separate experiences with this tiny despot of a man. We were
the survivors. We had made it out of the hellhole and had lived to tell
about it. The co-worker who had been our ringleader, however, still, to
this day, works at that radio station -- along with the little Hitler
whom he had painted as his sworn enemy. His "one day" has not
yet arrived. Who knows? This man may still convene hateful lunch meetings
with the new round of staffers -- regaling them with tales of his much-desired
dream job somewhere out in his blissful "one day."
This kind of person has not been rare in
my life. I'm always meeting "one-dayers" who have their minds
focused on future happiness or their congenial opposites, the "remember
whens" who long for their past glory days. I have met only a few
people who have learned to live in the here and now. I cannot say that
I am one of them. I waver somewhere between "one day" and "remember
when." I think that is where the majority of us live -- in a liminal
state -- not quite brave enough to be alive in the present moment, but
knowing it's there. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of it. We notice a beautiful
sunset, or a child's laughter, or the beauty of our partner's smile. We
spend only fleeting moments in the present -- because prolonged stays
there tend to frighten us.
"If I live in the present, I'll forget
my past!" we fret. Or, we worry that living in the present means
we will neglect the future or become a saccharine-sweet Pollyanna pretending
that we are happy in every moment.
Truly being present does not mean that
we forsake our past, forget about planning for the future or mouthing
some empty platitudes about how wonderful life is at this moment. Often
the present moment is terrible, sad, lonely, or tragic. But, the present
moment is all we truly own. Our past is a memory -- though the cumulative
force of our experience makes us what we are today. Our future is unknown,
precarious and not promised to any of us. Only in the present moment can
we find our true power as human beings. Only in the present moment can
we be really alive. Only in the present moment will we find our true connection
to God -- the source and ground of our very being.
parables of being present
Jesus understood the importance of being
present. Every moment of his life was dedicated to being present with
people in their pain, their suffering and their joy. He often berated
his disciples for missing the point -- for not being present with people.
Instead they would whine about how much time Jesus spent with the people
or wish to send people away when they became annoying.
Jesus expressed the importance of being present by using parables. The parable of the sower is a valuable example of being present. In Matthew 13, Jesus tells about seeds being sown -- some land on rocky ground, others among thorns and still others on good soil.
Those sown on rocky ground hear the word
but fall away at the first sign of persecution and trouble because they
have not roots. Seeds that fall among thorns yield nothing because they
get caught up in the cares of the world and forget the word. The seeds
that fall on good soil will bear fruit -- because they hear the word and
The metaphor is unmistakable. Those who
live in the future live on rocky ground -- they have no roots. They are
always thinking about "one day" when they will be happy, "one
day" when they will have abundance, "one day" when they
will have the perfect partner. Still others find themselves among the
thorns of the past. They cannot see themselves clear of the cares of their
inner world where their "remember whens" overwhelm their future
and their present. But, those who fall on good soil realize that the "word"
is the present moment. The "word" gives them life -- it speaks
to their innermost being, sprouting strong roots and bearing good fruit.
What we all must realize is that we are
all planted in the good soil. We only need to realize the power of the
present moment to begin growing our strong roots and bearing the good
fruit of a life that is vital, alive and awake! Those who find themselves
in "bad" soil are not predestined to a terrible fate. All they
must do is realize that they too can claim the good soil of the present
moment and flourish.
In still another parable, Jesus reminds
us that we need to be alert for the spirit of God can materialize
in our lives at any moment. In Matthew 24: 42-44, Jesus tells us to "keep
watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand
this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief
was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house
be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will
come at an hour when you do not expect him."
This text has always been translated as
an admonishment to be alert for Jesus' second coming that will herald
the end of the world. I don't believe that's what Jesus was telling us.
Instead, Jesus is telling us to stay alert for the movement of the spirit
in our lives. If we are not awake and alert, we will miss the Lord's coming
into our lives. God comes to us when we least expect it in the
smile of a stranger, in the kind words of our partners and friends, in
the song on a radio. If we are not awake, we will miss God's presence
in our lives.
Eckhart Tolle, in his book "The Power
of Now," goes further with this analogy pointing out still another
parable that extols us to be present so we won't miss God's presence.
"In another parable, Jesus speaks
of the five careless (unconscious) women who do not have enough oil (consciousness)
to keep their lamps burning (stay present) and so miss the bridegroom
(the Now) and don't get to the wedding feast (enlightenment). These five
stand in contrast to the five wise women who have enough oil (consciousness)."
Again, this parable has been translated
as predicting Jesus' second coming a future event when Jesus comes
to us in his glory. What we miss is that Jesus is already present with
us in all of his glory all we need to do is wake up and acknowledge
our present moment. Our joy, peace and happiness in God is not promised
in some far off event like a second coming or the day we're "caught
up in the clouds" with Jesus. We can be caught up in the clouds right
here and right now if well only tune in to the present moment.
Few people in Jesus' day -- or even today
-- fully understand Jesus' admonishment to be present at all times. The
disciples questioned Jesus' teaching style, asking why he spoke in parables.
Jesus told them that the people hearing him fulfilled Isaiah's prophecy
that "seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen,
nor do they understand" (Matthew 13:13). We fear being present because
it demands from us that we see, hear and understand the world going on
around us. It requires us to wake from our lazy slumber and stop sleepwalking
through our lives. Is it any wonder that people didn't flock to Jesus'
message? Being present is a rigorous demand.
Learning how to be present
Being present requires that we become truly
aware. We must not only notice the things going on at this very moment
in our lives, we must learn to relish them to use the power of
the present moment. How do we become aware?
Tolle says if you realize you are not present
then you become present. Simply acknowledging that we are not present
brings us fully into the present moment. Things begin to get clearer
sounds are sharper, colors are bolder. We may only stay in this moment
for a few seconds, but with practice we can begin to be present for longer
and longer periods of time. Being present is never easy. We so easily
get carried away in the things going on around us. We forget to notice
the present because were thinking about what we did yesterday or
20 years ago and what were going to be doing in five minutes or
20 years from now. Being present means we let go of those concerns and
focus on what is happening now.
Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn suggests
that we pay attention to "bells of mindfulness" that can bring
us back to the present moment throughout our hectic days. When we pay
attention to the "bell of mindfulness" calling us back to the
present moment, Hahn says even things like driving can be spiritual practice.
So, the next time youre stuck at
a red light, Hahn recommends that you remain calm, pay attention to your
breathing and smile while thinking or even saying aloud: "Breathing
in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile."
In this way our irritation, which heralds
our unconscious state, gives way to the joy of the present moment where
we are alive, blessed and loved. The red light then "becomes a friend,
helping us remember it is only in the present moment that we can live
This was a prime opportunity to become
irritated this gate was preventing me from attaining my goal of
going home! Instead, I considered the stuck gate as a "bell of mindfulness."
I looked around and appreciated the moment. I talked with other stuck
motorists smiled at them and made light of the situation. No one
became agitated or angry. We all waited patiently to be let out. It was
a prime moment when our collective irritation at being delayed could have
resulted in an ugly confrontation between ourselves and the man who finally
let us out. Instead, just one person smiling and making light of an irritating
situation was enough to defuse any pending anger.
This is the power of being present. When
we truly are living in the present moment there is not need for anger,
irritation or unhappiness. The present moment does not know such emotions
or problems it only knows the joy and ease of being fully alive.
Tolle suggests that we ask ourselves, in each moment: "Is there joy,
ease and lightness in what Im doing?"
Overcoming our disbelief
When I first read Tolle's book, I was incredulous
at his assertion that "all unhappiness and struggle dissolve"
in the present moment. I've had some pretty terrible moments in my life
-- some incredibly unhappy ones -- and to make such a statement seemed
to me to be absurd.
What about those moments in my life where
I've just learned I don't have enough money to pay the bills? What about
those moments in my life when I realize I hate my job but feel powerless
to leave it? What about those moments in my life where I've learned my
cat has terminal cancer and would be better off dead? What about those
moments when my partner and I are angry with one another and are considering
life without each other? These are all present moments and they seem pretty
much spilling over with unhappiness and struggle. I figured Tolle must
live in some fairy tale land where all the witches are good witches and
everyone lives happily ever after. He couldn't be talking about real life
-- not an authentic real life, anyway -- one where unhappiness and struggle
are the rule and never the exception. I tossed the book aside thinking
the guy must be at best insane or at worst completely in denial about
the stuff that makes up everyday life.
I realized Tolle was right though when
I began reading Wayne Dyers book "Theres a Spiritual
Solution to Every Problem." Dyer, too, insists that the present moment
is a moment where there is peace, happiness and no struggle. His "bell
of mindfulness" to call us back to the present moment when life becomes
overwhelming is the phrase, "I can choose peace, rather than this."
He recommends using this phrase "when you find yourself experiencing
anguish, fear, depression, turmoil, even anger."
Again, though, the phrase smacked of denial
of our basic emotions. If were in anguish, fear, depression, turmoil
or anger, arent we just turning off our emotions and giving in to
a denial that resembles happiness? Dyer addresses this problem better
than Tolle does. He fully admits that his technique "will not immediately
mend a broken leg, or undo an accident, or rid your house of termites,
but you will have proven to yourself in that magical moment that you do
have the power to choose peace."
And so it is true. We can choose to live
in a present moment of peace, or we can choose to be ruled by our emotions
of anguish, fear, depression, turmoil and anger. Driving is always the
challenge for me, and serves as my best "bell of mindfulness"
to return to the present moment of peace. Recently, another driver refused
to let me over to pass a slow car in front of me, instead remaining beside
me slowing us all down. When they finally sped up and allowed me
to pass, I was livid and followed close behind them honking my horn and
hailing them with the international sign of friendship. My "bell
of mindfulness" rang loudly. I said to myself, "I can choose
peace, rather than this." But, in that moment, I didnt want
peace. I wanted to be angry. I wanted to be outraged. I wanted the other
person to know of my anger and outrage. I made my choice. I chose anger
and outrage over peace.
This is a choice we make every single day.
We choose to be depressed instead of happy. We choose to be angry instead
of calm. We choose to be lonely instead of content with ourselves. This
is when it dawned on me that Tolle and Dyer are onto something. We choose
how we will think and feel. Often we choose wrongly taking the
emotions of anger, fear and anguish over such emotions as peace and happiness.
We keep saying we want peace and happiness, but we keep choosing anger
and fear. Choosing peace and happiness is not a denial of our anger or
fear it is the transformation of those emotions!
So, choosing peace in any situation is
not a denial of the situation, or inaction in the face of reality. It
is a transformation of our emotions a conscious choice that puts
us in the middle of the present moment where we can take appropriate action
to deal with any situation that comes along. This is the true power of
the present moment!
Choices, choices, choices!
To realize this present moment power, we
must make choices when we realize that situations in our lives are the
source of struggle or are making us unhappy -- since there is no struggle
or unhappiness in the present moment. Tolle believes that when we feel
the need to complain about our lives we are not accepting what is
-- we are denying the Now.
Complaining about a current situation can
serve as a "bell of mindfulness" for us -- it can signal that
we need to step back, slow down and return to the power of the present.
When complaints begin, Tolle says we have three options: "remove
yourself from the situation, change it, or accept it totally."
Even before I read Tolle's book, I was
surprised to learn that I was already practicing this to some extent.
When I became discontent in jobs, I sought new ones. Instead of convening
endless lunch meetings to complain about my job or my boss or my hours
or whatever else irked me, I got off my butt and found a new job. My co-worker
did not. For some reason, all he truly wanted to do was complain. His
"here" was never really good enough. He didn't really want to
change -- he had too many excuses not to -- he merely wanted to complain.
We all know people like this -- maybe we are those people sometimes. But,
if you're complaining about something and you're not making one of these
three choices -- leave it, change it or accept it -- then you're denying
the present moment.
If you can't remove yourself from the situation,
then you must seek to change it. Sometimes this will require direct action
on our part. Sometimes all direct action means is changing our attitude
toward the situation. Try to empathize with the people in your situation.
Try to see their perspective. Change the way you think about a co-worker
or friend or enemy. In this way the situation itself changes. If you throw
out your negative feelings about a situation and concentrate your attention
on being present, situations can seem to magically change all on their
own without much effort on our part.
The reality of some situations, however,
is that we cannot leave or change it. In those cases, Tolle insists we
must "accept your here and now totally by dropping all inner resistance."
I exercised this piece of advice during my job searches. I knew that,
in the interim, I could not remove myself from a job I hated. Instead,
I transformed my inner resistance. I accepted that I had to be there until
a new job came through. It's not so much "making the best of it,"
as it is seeing the situation with new eyes. I found my boss was not the
tyrant I thought he was but more an insecure man caught in a job that
was really too much for him to handle. I began to help him as much as
possible -- without being too up front about it. I began to have a sense
of compassion for him. I still was working to leave the job, but just
a simple change in my own perspective made the job much more enjoyable
until I could find a better situation.
Tolle gives a great example of how to make
this idea work in your life. If you're faced with a situation where you
think you should be doing something but you're not, then get up and do
it now. "Alternatively, completely accept your inactivity, laziness,
or passivity at this moment, if that is your choice. Go into it fully.
Enjoy it. Be lazy or inactive as you can. If you go into it fully and
consciously, you soon will come out of it. Or maybe you won't. Either
way, there is no inner conflict, no resistance, no negativity."
Tolle's point is that whatever you do you
should do it totally. "Enjoy the flow of energy, the high energy
of that moment." Don't give in to the guilty feeling that you're
"wasting time" or that you "should be doing something."
Feel the present moment fully and all your "oughts" and "shoulds"
will take care of themselves.
Called to be present
Now that you have a taste of what the present
moment can be like, don't look back. Don't get stuck in your past -- and
don't get stuck on your future. Thich Nhat Hahn warns that even hope can
become an obstacle to living in the here and now. Hope is certainly important
because it makes "the present moment less difficult to bear"
-- but it becomes an obstacle if it keeps us from being present.
Jesus is constantly calling us into the
present moment. He warns us not to dwell on the past when he says "No
one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom
of God" (Luke 9:62). Alternately, we are warned not "be anxious
about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself" (Matthew
Our past is our past. It is where we come
from, but it is not where we live. Our future has not yet arrived, and
truly, none of us are promised a future. All we are promised is what we
have right now. This present moment is the only moment that is real. You,
sitting at your computer, reading these words -- this is the present moment.
Don't dwell on the past or wonder about what you'll be doing in five minutes
or five years. Be here now, totally. Practice right now, so that when
the present moment shifts at the end of this article, you'll be ready
to be in that moment totally.
Take the time to examine your life -- the situations that irk you, that you wish you could change or leave. Think of my friend still working in the same job after 20 years of bitter complaining. Maybe he's made peace with his job and the boss. Maybe he's learned to accept it totally, surrendering to his present moment and fully enjoying his life. That is my hope for my former co-worker, and it is my hope for you -- that you will live in the "Eternal Now" that provides peace that passes all understanding.
Candace Chellew is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians. She holds a master's in theological studies from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., and is studying to be a spiritual director. She has worked for the past two decades in journalism and public relations. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2003 by the author