by John Kerry-Williams.
By learning to honour the Present Moment, we can free ourselves from the burden of everyday frustrations that can soon lead to suffering in the form of anxiety and depression. In practicing Presence, we become reacquainted with the powerful and joyful essence of our being, as we realise there is infinitely more to us than we think.
This blog highlights how the relationship we have with our own mind acts as an obstacle to accessing our natural state of inner peace. By looking at how we approach everyday scenarios like traffic jams and red traffic lights, we will look at the effects of the human ego and how we can transcend its dominating hold over our behaviour…
“The Time is Now.”
What a funny thing to say. It seems both obvious and unhelpful at the same time. You can imagine the look of indignation on my 9 year old son’s face when he asked me for the time and I answered him with that. Of course I was only playing and I did eventually tell him the time – but it does highlight an important issue on how we perceive the notion of time.
Much like our preoccupation with the weather, time is one of our great obsessions and the agent of many of our frustrations; “We’re going to be late!” “Where the bloody hell is he?” “The deadline was yesterday!” “I’ve been waiting for hours!” and so on.
Unlike the weather however, when dealing with time, what happens in the future is far harder to predict. You can’t design a supercomputer to predict that the carton of milk will fall out and burst on the floor when you open the fridge, just before you are due to leave the house and wait for a bus that has broken down 200 yards before your stop. Or that the person you arrange to meet next week suddenly dies.
With unfettered certainty we assert our intended actions, “We will achieve this or that in the future,” “I will meet you at 10 o’clock,” “I will see you at the same time next week.” This presumptuous outlook, as normal and natural as it may seem on the surface is actually where things start to go wrong – where our relationship with time, and subsequently life becomes dysfunctional.
This is not to say that we should never make plans or set goals. Of course it would be naive to disregard time for practical purposes like arranging meetings, holidays or using public transport – we all need ‘clock’ time for things like that.
Clock time however, is of a completely different order to the time we conceptualise in our heads in the form of past and future. It is this conceptual time or ‘psychological’ time that turns out to be the fundamental cause of the frustrations we experience in everyday life.
One of the great modern spiritual teachers, Eckhart Tolle, in his amazing book, ‘The Power of Now’ introduces us to the terms ‘clock’ and ‘psychological’ time. I cannot think of a better way of summarising such notions of perceived time, and so I will refer to them as such throughout this blog.
Psychological time, unlike clock time exists only in our minds as concepts or thoughts. Because it consists solely of the past and future, it omits the single most vital element of life – the Present Moment. We seem to be continuously thinking, either by ruminating over the past or anticipating the future. Our minds have tricked us into thinking that there is nothing else to life other than our interpretation of the world around us – that what we identify with in our mind is the only dimension to our existence. This is to be identified with our mind. When we are identified with our mind, who we think we are exists only on the level of thought form. According to the mind this is as ‘deep’ as life gets. Consequently all interactions and experiences are relatively shallow and limited, and as a result, we suffer.
Why does the mind resist the present moment?
The present moment is all there is. Consider that for a moment. There can only ever be this moment. Now. All else is recreated by the mind in the form of the past, or projected in the form of the future. Everything that happened in the past happened in the present moment. Likewise everything in the future can only happen in the present moment. To fully honour Presence is to transcend, to go beyond thought and relinquish time – psychological time. It is to be in a state of heightened alertness, or awareness. It is to be still within and to acknowledge the vast space prior to thought – for in order for thought to exist, there must be space for it in which to flow.
Take a moment to practice this. Take a slow deep breath inwards, focusing entirely on the sensation of the air flowing into your body. Slowly release the breath. You may need to take two or three breaths to fully benefit in becoming still within. By taking slow conscious breaths, see how thought begins to subside. As you breathe you become aware of your body and the energy, or essence within. Feel the aliveness of your being, in your hands, feet and throughout your whole body. It is this very life force, this spaciousness within, who you really are. You are the the consciousness which makes thought possible, not the thought itself. You are consciousness.
This underlying consciousness is present throughout the entire universe and is the very essence of all that is; from the smallest microorganism to the myriad of life and beyond. It is all pervading and timeless. It has limitless depth and is accessible to all of us because it is all of us – if we can only quieten our minds. The infinite vastness of our underlying consciousness is too much for the mind to comprehend. The mind can only deal with concepts – things, ideas and notions that it can contain and neatly package up – and you can’t do that with infinite space; consciousness. And so, by default the mind assumes a purely conceptual existence by way of forever avoiding the the present moment, which it views as a threat to it’s existence. The by-product of this is that as a species, we become disconnected from our true nature.
As a strategy of maintaining distance from presence, over the course of millennia the mind has developed a ‘secret weapon,’ something which it deploys relentlessly – something which if continued to be left unchecked, will not only continue to make each of us suffer as individuals, but may in fact prove to be the demise of our, and the planet’s very existence. You may be wondering what this destructive ‘secret weapon’ of the mind is? It is The Human Ego – but more on that later.
Until we learn to dis-identify with our minds, we will naturally struggle through life; every twist and turn will stump and wrong-foot us and cause us to suffer. We will feel as though we are constantly swimming against the tide. Even the most everyday and mundane of challenges will easily frustrate and overwhelm us.
You will no doubt be familiar with the frustration of being caught in a traffic jam, or muttering obscenities at traffic lights that seem to have been ‘forever’ stuck on red. These are simple everyday examples of how being identified with our mind can cause us problems when we are faced with even the most minor of set-backs. The frustration we feel in these situations is when our mind wants to be elsewhere. The mind is in denial of the present moment. Its desire is to be at the destination more than being where it actually is – in the here and now. It is to resist what is – and resistance, as we will see, is always futile. When we resist what is, we resist life itself and so every event and situation is reduced to a means to an end. As a result, we soon become disconnected and dysfunctional. To be ‘here’ when the mind wants to be ‘there’ is the source of all worry and anxiety – for what else is there apart from the present moment?
You may find that your mind gives up on the initial irritation of being stuck at the traffic lights, and so takes a different tack in refusing to accept the present moment. Perhaps it drifts into a daydream – there will still be the undercurrent of anxiety – but if it finds the ‘situation’ too intolerable it may relocate to the default ‘fantasy-land’ of the past or future. Once there, your sense perceptions may become anaesthetised so you end up missing the lights change from red to green. Suddenly you get jolted back to ‘reality’ by the driver behind, whom (in also being in a state of anxiety) decides after an extra ‘second-and-a-half’ of waiting, to aggressively blast their car-horn at you!
Now your mind has even more reactive fuel. Your mind is now faced with what it deems as a ‘personal attack’ on top of the anxiety it has already created. In order to preserve integrity or save face, something within it will now inflate and employ a number of self-repair tactics – many of which may be familiar to you.
We all know that sharp pang of energy or adrenaline in our stomachs, as our anxiety and tension is suddenly ramped up. This happens as the pre-thought, automatic, reactive nature of the mind kicks in. At the sound of the car-horn, almost instantly it seems you are consumed with either anger, embarrassment, or both. The rush of energy you feel as the car-horn blasts, quickly transmutes into a stream of negative thought which in turn, triggers a wave of emotion in the body. This response is a primordial reactive mechanism borne of fear.
Traditionally you may either react with a middle finger or V-sign, perhaps a choice four-letter word or two. You may angrily attempt stare to them down through the rear-view mirror as you slowly and sarcastically pull off to 4mph and sustain this for the next quarter of a mile. Or you might even obstinately stay put for even longer, so as to ‘teach ’em a lesson!’ (forgetting that only seconds ago you so desperately had to be somewhere). Again, something in your mind has inflated in order to save face, so that you can now perceive yourself as superior, and all other drivers (especially the one behind you) as inferior. Interestingly, we can observe that the same something must also have become inflated in the driver behind to impel them to sound their horn.
Conversely you may implode with shame or self pity, cursing yourself for being such a bad driver and comparing yourself to everyone else by viewing yourself as inferior, and all other drivers as superior and hell-bent on making your life miserable. Now the mind becomes preoccupied with the past instead of the future by replaying the scenario over and over, often with an assortment of dramatic embellishments to bolster its mental position (such as how you ran the other driver, or yourself off the edge of a cliff). Whereby anxiety is the result of the mind stuck in a perceived future – depression is the mind stuck in a perceived past.
While this may seem familiar to you, and appear to be natural and human, on a certain level you are right – but it is essentially a fundamental malfunction. We are in fact suffering at the mercy of our own mind. Whatever the reaction to the red light or the car-horn, note that it is your mind causing you the problems and not the event itself. Think about this for a moment.
Throughout the course of our lives, the repetition of these negative responses to events gradually wears a furrow in the mind akin to a well trod path – like when you cut across a section of grass enough times, a worn pathway appears. When this happens in the mind on a physiological as well as a psychological level, this furrow soon becomes the path of least resistance – a cruelly seductive route down which the mind, in a perverse kind of way, readily meanders to its destination of suffering in the form of anxiety or depression.
Like millions of humans all over the world we have become conditioned to living at the mercy of our reactive mind, totally detached from our true nature – separated from it by the obstacle within our mind. As we have seen, the mind will always try to take the path of least resistance, which paradoxically is resistance itself. The good news is that we can all overcome this obstacle, and let go of resistance by bringing Presence into our lives and by undertaking the journey of conscious awakening.
But to make the journey easier, it helps to identify what this obstacle is. Welcome, finally, to The Ego. The human ego is a complex and multi faceted beast that is deeply influential over our thoughts and behaviour. It is the very thing preventing us from accessing the core inner nature of who we really are.
We may all be familiar with the word ego – often associating it with ‘larger than life’ characters, certain celebrities or politicians. We may think that an ego is something certain others have, and may only be aware of it as a blatantly obvious character or behavioural trait.
This is a common misunderstanding, as the ego resides in each and every one of us. The ego must prevail, thrive, and survive at all costs. It needs to consume us and keep us living inside our mind by keeping the ‘drama’ of our experiences alive for as long as possible.
Subsequently, by living solely in our minds, we only ever see and experience the ‘outer surface’ of who we are. We don’t see or appreciate the bigger picture. This outer surface is the sole construct of the ego, and is presented as a neat little package in which we identify with in order to present to others – as well as to ourselves in the form of self-esteem. The package typically consists of a collection of concepts in the form of who we think we are: our name, age, occupation, marital status, plus a bunch of other accumulated labels and concepts. From these concepts we naturally but mistakenly adopt an identity and purpose – a false sense of I am.
As we begin to hold up a mirror to our ego, we begin to witness the resulting patterns of emotional pain and unrest, which typically manifest in ways widely perceived by the world as ‘normal.’ The newspapers are full of this ‘normal’ in the form of violence, war, abuse, scandal, trauma, drama and political oneupmanship. We can also see the effects of the collective ego – when many egos come together, in the form of religious, gang and tribal conflict. The ego is painfully sensitive too, it can easily feel threatened which we experience through the emotions of jealousy and envy, and through acts of retribution and revenge. Wherever there is humankind, there is ego.
So long as we are unwittingly identified with our ego, we soon discover it’s brittleness and vulnerability – how it underpins our experiences of pain and emotional suffering; not just by way of seeking attention, greed or by pursuing a sense of superiority at any cost, but in how it also governs our sense of inferiority, dissatisfaction and feeling of failure. It is the catalyst of every grudge, battle, resentment and woe. Every time we react in anger, hold a grudge, gossip, get defensive, feel jealous, compare ourselves to others – feel the urge to voice our opinion in groups, feel offended, feel the need to get the last word in – this is the ego. The ego is the puppeteer of our emotions, and if it is left unobserved – we are merely the puppet.
So when we find ourselves at the red traffic lights, we can bring complete acceptance to that present moment – not to the present situation of where we are going or where we have been – just the present moment. We can breath, focus, be still, accept and not judge or resist. We can see beauty where before it was invisible to us; even in the colour and vividness of the red light itself. To be present is to be alert, and so our sense perceptions become fully alive in even the most ‘ordinary’ of situations. It really is the most beautiful thing – which is actually a paradox due to the limitations of language, for presence is formless and not a ‘thing’ at all. It is that which lies beneath and beyond all ‘things’ – it is nothingness, or emptiness as it is known in Buddhism.
We can now recognise the other driver’s impatience and aggression as merely an ego jostling for status and recognition, and so not take it personally. We no longer need to react. But a word of caution. When you first begin to relinquish the conditioned, habitual, reactive mind patterns through observing your thoughts and not judging them – by letting them go – your ego may feel threatened as though it has been ‘defeated’ by the other driver’s ego, and will attempt to lure you into reaction. If you simply drive on in a state of presence and allow the thoughts to subside, your ego will desperately attempt to drag you back into the reactive mind stream. But the more you practice being present – the easier it becomes to resist the lure of the ego, and the reactive thoughts hardly come at all.
In honouring Presence, unimaginable depth will begin to flow into your life, and experiences will become enriched with a new-found sense of joy. Because our problems are created by our minds, eventually as we dis-identify from our mind, our so-called problems begin to dissolve. Life becomes easier and has a certain flow to it.
Naturally, life will continue to challenge us with unexpected twists and turns – but instead of us been manipulated by life’s current in attempting to resist and kick against the tide, we can learn to bring acceptance to what is, and learn to enjoy the ride as we turn the challenges into a form of spiritual practice, so as to deepen our personal awakening and function peacefully.
There will always be occasions when action, or change is necessary – but in being rooted in Presence as opposed to our mind, we will be far better placed to make the right decisions, and our actions will be empowered – enhanced by the power and freedom Presence brings to us.