The Present Moment: A Spiritual Sampler

Enlightenment is simply this:
When I walk, I walk.
When I eat, I eat.
When I sleep, I sleep.
~Anonymous Zen master

One of the great open secrets of the spiritual life is focusing our attention in the present. We let go of the past. We let go of the future. We are here, now.

It is simple. It is not always easy.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Often we associate this present-moment awareness with the teachings of the Buddha. Rightly so. Mindfulness, sati, is the seventh element of the eightfold path, and a key to sati is being present. The Buddha once said that if he had four disciples with keen minds who each lived a hundred years spending every available moment questioning him about mindfulness, they would all be dead before they had exhausted the subject.

But the Buddhist tradition is not the only one to see the present moment as a doorway to realization. It is also in the Hindu, Sufi, Daoist, and Christian traditions, among others. This post is a sampler platter. It dips somewhat randomly into several traditions to offer a taste of what they say about present-moment awareness.

A Sufi Sampling

Past and future veil God from our sight.

Detail from a miniature painting of Sufis, 1750, National Museum, New Delhi, India. Photo by Getty .

“The Sufi,” the saying goes, “is the child of time present.” The great Mystery we seek, the great Love of our lives, is available only now. Not in the past. Not in the future.

The scriptures of the wisdom traditions – the Bible, the Quran, the Daodejing, and more – all point us toward the Mystery that pervades and enlivens everything. We in the West, though, tend to read these texts as history. We are often careful to situate them in time and place. We detail their doctrines and systematize their insights. That’s important work in its way. But the Mystery is not a thing of history.

We imagine our future selves. We strive to become – what? – meditators, mystics, yogins, saints, or at least decent practitioners of something. And perhaps there is some value in our goal-orientation. But the Mystery is not a thing of the future.

There is one and only one moment in which we can access the Mystery. Now.

Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī 

As long as we expect to meet God in the past, we will miss God. As long as we expect to flow with the Dao in the future, we will miss the Dao. We have to bring ourselves – our whole selves – to this moment.

As Rumi says,

“Past and future veil God from our sight;
Burn up both of them with fire. How long
Wilt thou be partitioned by these segments, like a reed?
So long as a reed is partitioned, it is not privy to secrets,
Nor is it vocal in response to lip and breathing.”

Attune yourself to God now. Be responsive to God now. This is the only moment in which we ever find God.

A Daoist Delight

The ten-thousand-mile journey begins beneath your foot.

Part of a Daoist manuscript, ink on silk, 2th century BCE, Han Dynasty, unearthed from Mawangdui tomb 3rd, Chansha, Hunan Province, China. Hunan Province Museum.

Life is about little things. There are no grand moments.

There are no moments when we can suddenly be atop Mt. Everest, speak fluent Mandarin, or be a sage. Not all at once. We can only take a step, the step that lies beneath our foot in this moment.

The Daodejing (Tao Te Ching) is a delightful book. Enigmatic. Cryptic. If we are not careful, we can take its aphorisms to mean whatever we like. We can use them to give our ill-formed impressions the legitimacy of an ancient sage.

Often this line from the 64th chapter of the Daodejing is quoted, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” We take it to mean, get busy. Do something.

If you know the Daoist way, though, you know it is not about getting busy. It is about waiting for the right moment and doing that one thing that requires little effort but accomplishes everything. “Do, and [you will] do wrong… Not doing, the wise soul doesn’t do it wrong.”

Laozi urges us in this chapter to take a more contemplative approach to life. Stop trying to accomplish great things. Stop trying to reach a distant goal by grand gestures. Be in this moment. Pay attention to it. What is this moment inviting you to do? What step is right here under your foot?

Photo by Natalie Thornley on Unsplash

Big things are built on little things. “The tree you can’t reach your arms around grew from a tiny seedling.” So, if you want to be a great tree, be a seedling. If you do anything at all, do something small. Take a little step. You never know where it might lead.

A Christian Contribution

Everything is God’s hand
~The Sacrament of the Present Moment

What if?

What if all that is happening to us in this moment is exactly what we need?

A couple of weeks ago as of this writing, I began teaching again after a delightful six weeks off. The demands of teaching have thrown off my whole schedule, and made it hard to find time for meditation, exercise, and sleep – the basic disciplines I need for balance. It looks as if the demands of teaching are the problem. But what if those demands and the havoc they are wrecking on my schedule are exactly what I need?

The 18th-century treatise L’Abandon à la providence divine is attributed traditionally to Jean-Pierre de Caussade, though recent scholarship doubts this attribution. For the moment, it remains anonymous. The work has been translated into English under the titles Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence and The Sacrament of the Present Moment. It is a masterpiece of Christian spirituality.

I especially like that second title, The Sacrament of the Present Moment. A sacrament, in Christian understanding, is an embodiment of grace. It is God-in-the-flesh. What if the suffering and challenges and, yes, even the serious mistakes of this moment are the embodiment of God? What if in running from those challenges or fighting them we are running from and fighting God? What if in facing them with acceptance we are facing God?

Photo by Ornella Binni on Unsplash

“What comes to us at each instant by God’s ordering is what is holiest, best, and most divine for us,” says our author. “You only have to receive everything and let it happen. Everything is directing you, straightening you out, carrying you… Everything is God’s hand… His action is… more present than the elements: he enters into you through all your senses…

“The present moment is always like an ambassador declaring God’s ordering, and the heart is always saying its fiat” – fiat is Latin for ‘let it be done.’

The demands of teaching are not a hindrance to my spiritual life, I am learning. They are the way God is meeting me now. I do well to accept whatever this moment brings, attend to it, appreciate it. For in doing so, I am accepting, attending to, appreciating – in short, I am loving – God.

A Hindu-Christian Fusion

My moment is God’s eternity.

As we continue sampling some of the wisdom various traditions offer about bringing our whole selves to the present moment, we come to the heart of the matter with a tasty offering from a Hindu-Christian monk. What is it all about, this present-moment awareness?

Time is, in the last analysis, a mask. It is an illusion, says Swami Abhishiktananda, that may distract us from what is more real. Or said differently, time is part of the external play of space and matter and quantum fields. When we go into the cave of the heart, when we enter the dwelling of the Divine, time vanishes. “The within has nothing more to do with, nothing in common with time,” wrote Abhishiktananda. “There is only one thing that is real, the present moment in which I am face-to-face with God.”

Swami Abhishiktananda (Shantivanam, circa 1950)

Abhishiktananda was a Benedictine monk who went to India and came under the spell of Ramana Maharshi. As both a Christian monk and a Hindu sunnyasi, he sought to experience and express the essence of the spiritual life. For me, at least, his words have a particular power to pierce through the cultural divide between East and West and go right to the heart of things. No doubt what is said here could be phrased in a Daoist or Buddhist or Sufi idiom. Abhishiktananda phrases it in a Hindu-Christian idiom.

So, what is it all about, this present-moment awareness? Abhishiktananda’s answer requires a slow and careful reading.

“Eternity is not in the time that lasts but in the indivisible moment.
Offer to God the eternal offering of the eternal moment…
Make the offering of this moment and receive the gift of this moment…

“To know [this moment], to rejoice in it, is to love…
It is to be fulfilled, to let oneself be fulfilled…
and to be fulfilled… is to fulfill God,
who without fulfillment through us at this moment…
could not be fulfilled in himself in eternity…
For my moment is God’s eternity.”

So, in our present moment, we dance with God. By letting go of past and future as Rumi says, by taking the step that is under our foot as Laozi says, by taking everything that comes as our partner’s lead, we are dancing with God. We are making love with God, in God’s eternity. And in this lovemaking, both we and God are fulfilled. One being. One bliss. Time and eternity made one.

That’s what it’s all about.

Photo by David Hofmann on Unsplash


Sources: Maha-sihanada Sutta, MN12.64. Rūmī, quoted in Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, 118. Ursula Le Guin, trans., Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching, 76. Kitty Muggeridge, trans., The Sacrament of the Present Moment. Abhishiktananda, in Shirley Du Boulay, Swami Abhishiktananda: Essential Writings, 70-71, 73.

© 2019 David Gormong.

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