The Elusive Now
By Robert Rabbin
Since the 1971 publication of Ram Dass' seminal book, Be Here Now, the "now" has been a popular exotic spiritual destination, like Tibet, for many seekers of truth. Unlike Tibet, no one has ever actually been to the now; no one has ever wandered its streets, shopped in its markets, snapped pictures, or brought back souvenirs.
The now is like the mythical yeti that is purported to prowl the high white solitudes of Himalayan plateaus. No one has ever touched one, or slept with one. Perhaps someone has come across an inexplicable footprint or two sunk deep in the snow; someone else may have a story of seeing a large hairy shadowy something or other. Regardless of myths, stories, and claims: no yeti, no now. But all is not lost. There is good, if disconcerting, news; the kind of news that Zen masters are loved and hated for delivering; the kind of news we want and don't want at the same time. It's a bit like the koan of heaven: everyone wants to go, but no one wants to die!
A nameless Chinese sage once remarked, "99.9% of everything you do and of everything you think is for the sake of yourself. And you don't have one." This is as good a cliff as any to jump from, because just as there is no "self," there is no "now." At least, there is no now to perceive or experience, no now to think of in the way we think of the past, future, beer, birthdays, or fishcakes.
Before moving on, we would be wise to reflect on what Rumi, the great poet of now, has to say: "However you think it is, it's different than that!" Take heart: just because the now doesn't exist, it doesn't mean the now isn't real. Let's pause here. Breathe this in: the now is real, but it doesn't exist. Breathe, relax, breathe. Okay, let's continue.
How can the now be real, but not exist? In the same way that a quark can be over there while still here. In the same way that whenever we are given two choices, we should always pick the third. In the same way that Woody Allen says, "Students achieving oneness can move ahead to twoness." In the same way that a déjà vu experience actually comes from the future to haunt the present, disguised as the past.
A participant in one of my workshops once told me he had trouble "being in the now." I asked him to show me where he went when he wasn't being in the now. At first he didn't understand. I said, "Please stand up and walk to where you go when you leave the now." He thought I was trying to trick him. (I wasn't, not really; that wouldn't be nice.) After additional conversation and working with him to clarify his meaning and identify the real problem, he said, "Well, I guess I just get lost in my thoughts."
I asked him what kind of thoughts he gets lost in. He said, "Thoughts about the past, or the future." Then, he made the fatal mistake: "If I could just keep my thoughts centered in the present, in the now, I know I'd be better off, happier and more effective."
Really? Hmmmmm...no! NO! NO! Off with their heads! Over the cliff we go!
This is where the yeti, the now, quarks, reverse time, fishcakes, and columns of rioting Zen masters collide with copulating cosmic star systems to produce major headaches of implausibility. Aspirin won't help. Books won't help. Meditation won't help. Secret words from nondual comedy clubs won't help.
The passenger-side outside rear-view mirror of many cars is inscribed with this bit of text: "Caution: objects in mirror are closer than they appear."
Our thoughts are like these mirrors, each distorting reality in a peculiar and particular manner. Unlike the auto mirrors, the text on our thoughts should read: "Objects in thought are farther than they appear." Thoughts about now are just as distorting as thoughts about the past, the future, or grandma's red bike.
This is why Lin-Chi, a great Zen master, once said, "If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha." What he means is that any thought, idea, image, or concept of the Buddha is not the Buddha.
All thoughts and images of the Buddha must be killed in order to realize (bring into reality) the true Buddha. So it is with the now. We can't think that thoughts about the now are the now. So it is with the self. We can't think that thoughts about our self, the Self, or our no- or nonself have anything to do with reality, which is far far far and farther still away from anything seen in the thought-mirrors of our minds.
Why did I say "no one has ever actually been to the now"? Because the self is an object in thought, appearing closer than it is. So it is with time. So it is with everything. We live in a virtual reality, composed of language and thought, inches and light years, self and other, here and there, before and after, up and down, black and white — where, oh where is real reality? When do we touch the shiny, shimmering skin of real life? The juices, where are the juices and smells that make our head spin right off? Where is the food, not the menu; the beloved, not a photograph?
Many people speak about now, about being present, about the power of intuition and spontaneity, but they don't speak from now while being present, intuitive, and spontaneous. They speak from the past, from what they have said before, from what they already know. They speak all tangled up in the self, or the Self — concepts, concepts, concepts — appearing closer than they are. They say they've been to Tibet, seen yetis, know the now. How would they know? Who would know?
If we are going to speak about now, about reality, then both should shoot from us like Independence Day fireworks, booming and exploding, spewing sparks and geysers of light never before seen, never before heard, surprising and delightfully original. Everything would just disappear in a magical breath, sucked into enormous sexual unions, in delirium, with sonic booms of love and excess of love beyond reason and wisdom, beyond clocks, beyond the cloth and clothes of appearances appearing closer than they are, in reality. That's where it is. That's where reality is: naked naked. In the naked wild radical sweet surrender of everything, the utterly intimate ripped open heart, the one we all have and share, the one whose blood fills the world, the universe, with holy breath and life, and pure pure music drumming trance trance love and more than love and more than tears, tears flooding into oceans and drowning into the Silence. There it is.
Just beyond the thinking mind is an unending field of love and quiet beauty. One can lie down there, and live in eternity. This field cannot be seen by the mind, it cannot be known by the mind; it can only be felt and found with the heart. The thinking mind cannot know this kind of beauty and wonder; the thinking mind has no feeling, it has no soul. It can only calculate distance and weight and price. The thinking mind does not love, it does not laugh, it does not cry. The thinking mind only argues and defends; it justifies its soulless existence with violence. That is why we must learn to live within the heart, lying in the fields of beauty, where we can feel the soul and Silence of existence. And now, lying in these fields, we can cry, and laugh, and love. And now we live in this field of eternity, where the thinking mind is just a single flower, barely visible, in the midst of tall grasses under blue skies and hundreds of suns, whirling and spinning within and without.