Jack Kornfield’s book, No Time Like the Present, contains pertinent insights for our Dharma practice. Tonight is the fourth in a series of Dharma talks that present highlights from each chapter. Chapter four is titled “The Eternal Present” and begins with a quotation by William Blake:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
Most of the time we are lost in thoughts of a past that no longer exists, or we are fantasizing about a future that is yet to come. With mindfulness, we learn to return to the present moment, where eternity lives. It takes practice to stay fully present in the moments of exquisite beauty and wrenching tragedy that arise.
How can we embrace and tend the life that we have been given? Jack cites responses to this question from some master teachers: Ajahn Chah taught, “Let go and become awareness itself.” Dipa Ma added, “Love and be at peace no matter what.” Suzuki Roshi counseled, “Just be exactly where you are. Instead of waiting for the bus, realize [that] you are on the bus.” Thich Nhat Hanh (or Thay) advises, “Rest in mindfulness, this moment, the eternal present.”
Thay recounts a powerful dream about conversing with his beloved mother, whose recent death had plunged him into deep grief. He awoke from the dream, fully feeling the reality of her presence and understood that she had never died. That night, as he walked barefoot outside, Thay heard his mother’s voice inside himself and sensed her becoming the moonlight that gently caressed his skin. The idea that she was gone simply was not true. He recalls that his feet became “our” feet, and “together my mother and I were leaving footprints in the damp evening soil.”
None of us knows the number of our days or our destiny. To become free of what Jack calls the “tyranny of time,” we can become interested in what is arising and relax into the present moment as our home. Hurrying and worrying doesn’t bring more time. It takes only an instant to break the spell of time, to step out of our thoughts and see the dew sparkling on the grass or taste the sweetness of fresh-squeezed orange juice.
As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “The little things, the little moments? They aren’t little.” Each moment of conscious connection adds to the preciousness of our lives.
Jack quotes the novelist Storm Jameson: “The only way to live is by accepting each minute as an unrepeatable miracle.” Without awareness, we can become addicted to distraction, hurriedness, and constantly making plans, which block our engagement with the present moment. Whenever we distract ourselves or bury ourselves in busyness, we are not free.
Pema Chödrön says, “Now. That’s the key.” She elaborates: “The more you can be completely now, the more you realize you’re in the center of the world, standing in the middle of a sacred circle.” Dr. Rachel Remen likens being in the here and now to finding our querencia:
In bullfighting there is a place in the ring where the bull feels safe. If he can reach this place, he stops running and can gather his full strength. He is no longer afraid…. It is the job of the matador to know where this sanctuary lies, [and] to be sure the bull does not have time to occupy his place of wholeness. This safe place for the bull is called the querencia. For humans, the querencia is the safe place in our inner world, [where we] are calm and peaceful…
Nature provides many reminders of the present moment. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are what they are. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose. It is perfect in every moment of its existence.”
My mother has authored books of poetry about the beauty of nature. Now blind, she loves the aroma of fragrant flowers. This winter, she sent Mark and me some amaryllis bulbs, and shortly before Valentine’s Day, five spectacular, big pink, trumpet-shaped amaryllis blossoms bloomed. When I phoned to thank her for the gorgeous floral display, Mom, asked me to describe the flowers in minute detail, so that she could enjoy them vicariously. At 92, she appreciates each experience as it arises.
Jack bemoans how easy it is to forget nature and its mysteries in our modern, air-conditioned, computerized, ultraclean hospitals. Loren Slater, an author and healer, writes about our broken health care system:
In this time of managed care, more emphasis seems to be placed upon medication, … the quick amelioration of symptoms… and privatized, profit-making clinics, than upon the lovely and mysterious alchemy that comprises the healthy cords between and within people, the cords that soothe [our] terrors and help us heal.
Just this week at Omega House hospice, I had a sweet moment of connection with a terminal patient I will call José. After living on the streets of Houston, he was discharged from Ben Taub hospital with inoperable brain cancer, which has left him confused and disoriented. José has no known relatives in the USA, and the Mexican Consulate has not been able to trace his two grown daughters whom he left behind in Zacatecas, Mexico.
When I greeted José in his native Spanish, he smiled weakly. Knowing from his records that he had been raised Catholic, I offered to read aloud to him from a Spanish Biblia. José nodded his head, “Sí!” As I read the 23rd Psalm, he reached over to hold the Bible with me. At the end of the brief reading, José smiled and closed his eyes to rest. I recognized that this fleeting meeting might be my only opportunity to relate with him before he dies.
Especially at times of frailty, vulnerability, and illness, loving human presence matters. How can we quiet the mind and soften the heart to arrive in the vastness of the eternal now? A Tibetan poet suggests:
One hand on the beauty of the world,
One hand on the suffering of all beings,
And two feet grounded in the present moment.
Barbara Ruth, a contemporary poet, celebrates the value of slowing down:
I once walked the six miles from my house to a [nearby] lake in less than four hours, but that wasn’t my best time. My personal best is eight hours and fifteen minutes. That includes time resting with a lizard sunning on the rocks; writing down a dream; [and] listening to a woodpecker knock herself against the tree that harbors the osprey nest.
Jack’s guided meditation exercise called “Open to Timelessness” may help us slow down our pace to be here now:
Sit comfortably with ease and presence.
In this practice, you will sit in timeless loving awareness and let yourself become what the wise Thai forest monk, Ajahn Chah, called “the One Who Knows,” or the witness to all things.
Be dignified and relaxed, and sense yourself taking your seat at the still point of the turning world.
Let experiences, sensations, thoughts, sounds, sights appear like water pouring from a fountain or like images on a screen.
It is always now, the eternal present.
As a child, playing outdoors, you knew how to step outside of time.
See how time, clocks, calendars, future, past, plans, and memories are all ideas created by the mind.
Shift your attention.
Rest as timeless loving awareness, “the One Who Knows.”
All that appears are simply motions in space that cannot affect the ground of eternity.
Galaxies turn in the timeless universe, and life renews itself again and again.
It is not your body but eternity’s body, known by eternal awareness.
It is always now.
Rest in spacious silence.
Before opening your eyes, resolve to let your movements and actions arise from stillness.
By resting in eternity, you will know naturally how to respond and create.
As Lao Tzu, the Taoist sage, taught: “Remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself.”