01.01.2008

Just a Minute

Time seems so abundant that we take it for granted.After all, we've had four and a half billion years ofit since the Big Bang. It is like the air we breatheand the ground we stand on. We can't imagine being withoutit. Time has been with us since we were born, whichmakes it virtually eternal. No matter how much we squanderit, there is always more at hand.

Time seems vast yet, in a personal sense, it is alsosmall and fragile. Each of us can only be certain ofthis tiny enclave of time and space that we call "thepresent". Practically speaking, we always functionin the here and now however much we mentally rely onthe past and future to make sense of it all. Time glowswith the aura of eternity, but to be alive is dangerous.None of us can be sure of having another day, let aloneanother hour. We are fascinated by the stories thatnewspapers tell us of lives "tragically" cutshort, often in an instant. We know that those peoplecould have been us, and that we have no guarantee ofa future.

When people realise that the future is as dependableas a two dollar watch, they respond in different ways.Some become more anxious and look for religious or philosophicconsolations. Others give up their plans for the future,and attempt to live in the moment, thinking "Ifnot now, when?" Others try harder to achieve theirgoals. They "seize the day", realising thatall their hopes for the future depend on what they donow.

Others more deeply appreciate what they've got. Itis quite possible that the next strawberry could bethe last one I ever eat. I often wake up in the morningslightly bemused but grateful that I'm here at all.How did it happen? As my girlfriend often says whenI phone her, "We're still alive." The factthat we both made it through last night can't be takenfor granted. Thousands of people did not.

As usual, the Bible gives some great advice. The authorof Ecclesiastes (reputed to be God himself!), said,"I have seen all the works that are done underthe sun, and behold all is vanity and vexation of spirit",because time consumes it all. His conclusion was thatyou should, "Live joyfully with the wife whom thoulovest." He also said that, "A man hath nobetter thing than to eat, drink and be merry",and enjoy the fruit of his labour.

The present moment is often touted as the panacea forall ills, the source of wealth and happiness, and indeedthe way to enlightenment itself. Yet when we actuallyexamine the moment, it is just a cluster of thoughts,sensations and feelings much like any other. It is quitetrivial and ordinary in fact. So why focus on the presentat all?

Focusing on the present can break our addiction towords and all the gloomy, bewitching and fanciful storiesthey carry. Many of us are totally dominated by ourongoing inner dialogues about the past and future. Thesecan easily take up 90 per cent of our thoughts, dayafter day, and make us barely conscious of the sensoryworld around us.

Whenever we are fully present, we escape the past andfuture and all their unresolvable worries. We can onlyfind peace in the present. We also become more democratic.Our thinking doesn't stop completely when we are inthe present, but we give far more airplay to sensationand feeling than we usually do. Furthermore, to consciouslyfocus on anything at all strengthens the will. Withtraining, we become able to choose which thoughts topay attention to, which to postpone and which to ignore.This makes us more tranquil, clear minded and able tomake good decisions.

People choose to "be present" for many reasons.Some do it to increase sensual pleasure; others to developa dispassionate, watching mind; and others to fullyengage with life. These are quite different goals, althoughthe techniques used to pursue them are fairly similar.

"Being present" is often simplistically describedas the act of focusing on sensation rather than thought.In the popular press, I often see recommendations suchas "Breathe, savour each bite of the apple, taketime to smell the roses." (Whenever I hear thislast clichŽ, I think of the horse in the Japanesehaiku poem, who ate the roses instead.) The generalassumption is that the person is alone and in nature,and has plenty of time to sniff roses and taste apples,which is rarely the case.

Nonetheless, to focus more on sensation is a good placeto start. Done well, pleasure can be magnified one hundredfold. One's health improves, and you understand yourfeelings better, because you can listen in detail toyour body. Time slows down and your days feel spaciousand leisurely.

Enhancing sensuality is all very well, but a more spiritualapproach is "mindfulness". This Burmese meditationpractice is now very popular in psychological circlesbecause of the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn in Massachusetts.Kabat-Zinn works with people in chronic pain. He asksthem to very slowly scan their bodies, "just watching",and accepting their pains as pure sensations. This practicecultivates a sense of the "observer mind"as being separate from the sensations, thoughts andemotions that it sees.

This can be enormously liberating. The watcher doesn'thave to do anything. He just watches. This inner stillnessrapidly calms down the body and mind, and incidentallydisarms both the physical and mental pain.

Mindfulness has nothing to do with enhancing sensuality.It is about detachment and withdrawal, and a spiritualtranscendence from life. In traditional Buddhism, Yoga,Vedanta and Christian practices, the practitioner constantlywatches his mind in order to resist temptation, to disengagefrom the world, and to cultivate virtuous states ofconsciousness. This ascetic disposition is never completelyabsent even when mindfulness is used in secular contexts.

With mindfulness, you become conscious of being conscious.You realise that the act of seeing is separate fromthat which you see. Religious groups often crystallisethis insight into the mantra: "I am not my body,my thoughts or my emotions. I am the pure watching mind."

They argue that the watching mind is none other thanGod, or enlightenment. It is your essential nature,independent of the body, free of ego or the influencesof the past. They also say it is eternal and infinite,and identical with the cosmic consciousness that pervadesall creation.

Of course, this is just mystical hyperbole. We can'thave a mind without a body. Our consciousness will alwaysbe personal, human, limited, shaped by our history andculture, fluid and mortal. Even a cursory amount ofself examination will tell us that.

Appealing as it is, the religious ideal of detachmentand purity can also be dangerous. I recently saw a manwho, under the daily direction of a guru, has virtuallyachieved his ideal of "present moment awareness"and the destruction of the ego. He was sane and clearminded. He was also heavily medicated and under suicidewatch in a mental ward.

Fortunately, there is yet another way of being in thepresent. We can call it "engagement", or theart of wholeheartedly "doing what you are doing".The God of Ecclesiastes exhorts us thus: "Whatsoeverthy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might, forthere is no work nor wisdom in the grave, wither thougoest." While we are alive, we still have hope,He said, because, "a living dog is better thana dead lion".

In the novel Zorba the Greek, the author Kazantzakisdescribes a man passionately in love with life, withall its joys and sorrows. When a villager says to Zorba,"I live peacefully as if I will live for ever",Zorba replies, "I live as if I'm going to die tomorrow!"

Even if I admire these sentiments, I still can't beZorba or the author of Ecclesiastes. I can only be myselfin my own particular here and now, a short, portly,middle aged man with glasses, in boomtown Perth, ona Sunday night. Today was maybe no better or worse thanany other day, but it was certainly unique and willnever be repeated. Of course, I still plan for the future,but in my heart I know, "This day is all I've got.Use it well. This is it!"

Advertisement