Is Being in the Now the goal of spiritual practice? Is it similar to living like a canary in a cage?

On a retreat, Christopher offers an invitation to a participant to sit next to him at the front in the Dharma Hall to engage in a Dharma Inquiry. A single inquiry may last for a few minutes or up to an hour or more. These periods of inquiry contribute to insight and awakening for one and all in the Dharma Hall. Hundreds of these Dharma inquiries have been recorded over the years.

Transcribed/edited, from a 10-day retreat in the Royal Thai Monastery
in Bodh Gaya, January 2012.

A: You said in the Dharma talk this afternoon that many people believe that the spiritual life is all about cultivating a present awareness. I have the sense the more present I am then the more benefit I get. I also recognise more the moments when I’m not present. I see that my mind is wandering – both in meditation and in daily life. I want to ask you what you mean when you say spiritual life is not just about cultivating a present awareness.

Christopher: I will avoid answering your question but will address it at the end of the inquiry. There is the value of any approach but there are limits to any approach as well. The recognition of the value saves us from rejecting an approach but we do not have to put all our eggs in one basket. What is the value that you experience from being fully in the present moment?

A: The experience feels authentic. I can see who I am and how I am in the moment. There is a quality of mind that shows that I’m not fabricating anything. I’m not constructing some kind of meditative state. Beyond just authentic, it also feels a good way to be.

Christopher: So, the feeling level is pleasant and responsive, authentic, not a fantasy, neither a daydream. There is an immediacy for you with the here and now including seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching. The sense of the present moment contributes to calmness, to being centred. These are features of Dharma practice and exploration through giving attention to what is revealing itself in the present moment. Are there any limits to the view of this experience? Do you want to be in the present moment all the time?

A: It feels very intermittent to be in the present moment. To the value I experience of being in the present moment, I see that I spend a lot of my life not there. My life is often spent in dreaming or other kinds of distractions.

Christopher: The inner life requires a certain degree of mindfulness and concentration. These two qualities go together. We need to be mindful of what is going on and have the capacity to concentrate on what matters. The practice reminds us how little time we really spend in the present. It is easy to spend so much time in fantasy, daydreams, in the past and future. Let us say that your distractions from the present moment get less and less so you are really attentive to the present and concentrated. You really understand the value of being fully present. Could there still be a limitation to this view?

A: Like what? I know. You asked me the question. I can’t see any limitation. I can’t think of anything I would like to be doing. I can’t think of any other way I would like to be living my life. I can’t think of anything else but being fully committed to what is present.

Christopher: At present, there is an appreciation for being fully with the moment. What defines the moment for you? What is the here and now for you?

A: One of the things which are so delicious is that the now is not graspable. All the moments when I’m not present, and then distracted, are irrelevant because there is only this moment now. I could not define this moment because it is gone already.

Christopher: Here we are. We put our attention into this moment but this moment is ungraspable. As you say, the moment changes, modifies and becomes another moment. This moment is not absolutely different from the last moment but it is not the same either. Is the ultimate practice to be with as many changing moments as possible? Is this the ultimate achievement?

A: This is what I have thought until this afternoon. That is why I asked about this.

Christopher It’s a good question. There is the emphasis for some people to be in the present as fully as possible in every changing moment and being with that moment as much as possible. What is your feeling response if that is seen as the goal of practice? Is this the goal we want to reach? We reduce the thinking. We want to be fully present in every moment possible until we die.

A: The word that comes to mind is control.

Christopher: I agree. What makes it a control issue? We reduce distractions to give attention to the moment.

A: if we are trying to make the mind one way or another, we are trying to control our experience.

Christopher: Let’s say a meditation practice is deep. There is no effort going on. There is nobody making an effort. There is no act of the will and nobody using there will to be in the present. There is deep relaxation. One is effortlessly with each moment. There is interest and connection. One is fully acknowledging that the moment does change. There is no pressure. Is the goal of practice to be happily, easily and contented with the present?

A: I do not expect that I will always be happy. When you frame it like that, it would seem that we would be trying to make our mind always in one way.

Christopher: What would show the limit of being in the now as the eternal Now? Some claim there is only the Now, only the moment. Others have the view, that there are only successive moments. What would help to make clear for you the limits of the view that there is only the Now or there are only successive moments?

A: Nothing comes to mind.

Christopher: Some say, and I have said it myself, that everything is happening in the moment. So, we can’t get out of the moment. We can be very attentive but even our wandering and distracted mind is happening in the moment. There is some understanding of that. Yes, everything that is going on is happening now, is happening in the moment. Would the goal of practice be to have that understanding? What is going on is just going on whether there is calm, mindfulness, meditation, concentration or distractions. All occur in the moment.

A: You mean an experiential understanding here not an intellectual one? Yes, that seems like a good practice to me.

Christopher: A pity!

A: You have a better goal than that?

Christopher: Yes. A much better one. I’m trying to dig a better goal out of you. That is why I am moving the goalposts. When we look at the moment in actual terms, we could say there are limits to the moment. I open my eyes right now and I can see lovely faces in the Dharma Hall. The parameter of what I see in the hall is defined by the hall.

A: Sure.

Christopher: There are also limits for the ears on other senses. There is also a limit to what is going on in my mind. I might be thinking and feeling about this or that. There are always limits to our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, touch, feeling, thoughts and perceptions. The Buddha’s teachings are the realisation of the limitless. What do you say to that?

A: When you were describing those limits, the thought that came to my mind were that I can’t think in Russian because I don’t know any Russian. I’m inclined to think that the Buddha could not think in Russian either.

Christopher: The mind is limited including the Buddha’s mind. The Dharma teachings point to the realisation of the limitless. We experience all the benefits of the present moment, yet we keep seeing that it is limited. I come into contact with the limited. When I look in my mind, with its feelings, thoughts, moods and mental states, shallow and deep, I see it is always limited. Where the hell is the limitless? My senses and my mind only reveal something limited. Over to you.

Abraham: The only thing I can think of is to turn the attention to the observer, to the consciousness that is experiencing all of those things. Besides the sights, sounds, smells, thoughts, feelings and the perception, there is some sense there is the owner of all of these experiences. I cannot think we can turn our attention to anything besides those things.

Christopher: Sometimes there is consciousness with the sense of “I” in it, called the observer. Sometimes there is consciousness simply in contact with sights and sounds etc. without the “I.” Every object is limited. It has a close contact with consciousness. The object determines the consciousness. We witness different expressions of what is limited. The Buddha referred to “incline towards the limitless.” Where are you going to go? The past is limited. The present is limited. The future is limited. Now what?

A: I hear terms like that as being a metaphor, or a symbolic way, of expressing how profound the Buddha’s understanding is.

Christopher: That is a very sweet view.

A: The Buddha can’t walk through walls and he doesn’t know Russian unless he is a Russian.

Christopher: The here and now reveals the limits of the senses to the present moment. My eyes are a little ball and limited in terms of what they can see. One wonders how this little ball can look up and see so far into the night sky. Despite the limits of the senses and the limits of my mind, and any mind, including the Buddha mind, could something more be revealed other than colour to the eyes and sounds to the ears? The signs of colour and sounds confirm we are in the present moment. If we lower the temperature, so to speak, of sights and sounds, could something else be discovered?

A: I feel that everything that arises in my experience is one of those things that you describe – sights, sounds, thoughts, feelings. And there is an owner of those experiences.

Christopher: The idea of an owner is an impediment.

A: To the extent we are talking about the limitless, we are talking about recognising the absence of the owner of these different experiences.

Christopher: That’s true. Sometimes in our meditation and other events, as well, there is no owner, doer nor receiver. It seems false to make claims of ownership over our creative expressions or otherwise. We might say: ‘these expressions are not me.’ There are times of the absence of the creator, the doer or the helper. It is a freeing up movement. I’m interested in the sense of the signless, the limitless. It is not just a matter of being in the here and now with all the signs. A limitless realisation reveals a limitless freedom – not dependent on being in the now, nor om past, nor future.  Let us no strive to live like a canary in a cage.

Thank you.

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