Sunday, July 26, 2009

Christopher Titmuss on the Deception of the Eternal NOW
Constance Casey at Facebook turned me on to this cool article by Christopher Titmuss about the hype of always being in the NOW. It sounds good in theory, and most of us could spend a lot more time cultivating this pure presence, but wanting to achieve it as a permanent state of being is foolishness.

This should be required reading for everyone who has been enthralled by Ekhart Tolle. Key passage:
Despite the inner benefits from contact with the here and now, I regard it as irresponsible to grasp onto the Now, as if the Now served as the answer to everything. There are spiritual teachers whose claims to enlightenment rests on the conviction that there is only the Now, and they intimate that they abide in it all the time.

I suspect the Buddha would be bemused at the new lightweight determination of enlightenment as being totally in the Now that is on offer in the West.
What follows is the whole article, offered in an attempt to bring some balance to the Western spiritual tradition.

Is the ‘Now’ a lot of hype?

Christopher Titmuss

Some twenty years ago, I recall one of the Californian teachers of Insight Meditation (Vipassana) had a number plate on the back of his car that read: “I’d rather be here and now.” It probably served as a good reminder to the car driver behind to let go of any impatient desire in one of those long tailbacks that feature on our motorways, highways and autobahns.

It would be churlish to dismiss completely the commonly held view in spiritual circles of the importance of being here and now. Books like Be Here Now by Ram Dass (still available after 35 years) and Ekhart Tolle’s The Power of Now (more than two millions copies sold, translated into 35 languages) have become worldwide best sellers while countless other books, including my own, mostly under the influence of the Indian spiritual traditions, have advocated the importance of being present to the here and now. Readers have found these books helpful.

When grounded in the now, we experience a sense of well being, harmony of body and mind, a fading away of involvement in the past and future, a strong sense of mindfulness and presence, and an absence of discursive thinking. There is immense value in establishing oneself in the present moment. A practice of mindfulness of being here and now contributes significantly to clarity, peace of mind and insights.

Through your own experience, you may see that such an approach to life is valuable. You might meet and discuss with others your experience and their experience of the present moment. You hear first hand reports from others of the benefits they have settling into the here and now and such reports persuade you to be in the now. It may even reach the point that the present is not only seen as the path to Enlightenment but you begin to think that to be in the Now resolves all the problems of daily life. You may believe that if we all lived in the here and now it would transform this mad world into a sane, even enlightened place. Be right NOW! This is where views about the here and now start to become problematic.

One of our dharma mentors in our Living Dharma Programme wrote to me recently: I wish to say that for me the "reality reminder" that comes with pointing to the present moment has been a source for joy and insight. I guess that it helps me to forget discursive thinking (that happens in time) …The "here and now myth" that promises "heaven" (nirvana?) to those who are "in the here and now" should be criticized for its being an unproductive hope.

This article is a critical examination of the beliefs and conclusions invested in the Now. Despite the inner benefits from contact with the here and now, I regard it as irresponsible to grasp onto the Now, as if the Now served as the answer to everything. There are spiritual teachers whose claims to enlightenment rests on the conviction that there is only the Now, and they intimate that they abide in it all the time.

I suspect the Buddha would be bemused at the new lightweight determination of enlightenment as being totally in the Now that is on offer in the West. We might have the impression that the Buddha used the phrase “here and now” hundreds of times in his teachings, but I can’t find a single reference to “here and now” in his 5000 discourses. When the term “here and now” does appear it is usually as a translation of two words that the Buddha used - dittha dhamma. However this is a very, very free translation since neither dittha nor dhamma means here or now respectively. The Buddha would not be so shortsighted as to fix the now as the only truth.

Our culture has put such a positive spin on living for the moment that, sadly, this standpoint has entered into exploration of the Dharma. Dittha dhamma literally means “a thing seen” or when in the locative case ditthe dhamme – “in the visible order of things; in this seen dharma”. The Dharma points to awakening amidst the view and presence of phenomena. It is not a teaching of being in the Now or identifying with it in any way.

Dismissal of Vision

There seems to be a strong modern Western tendency to want things to happen here and now. I want it here and now, not even as soon as possible. “Buy now, pay later.” “This offer is only for today.” “It’s available. Don’t wait.” “Seize the moment.” “Why wait any longer?” “You deserve it.” “It’s now or never,” “live now, you’re a long time dead.” The language of the now gives spiritual support to such crass views and the dismissal of vision.

This ideology of being in the now and wanting things to happen now is not only problematic but destructive. When we dismiss the past and the long history of life and have no regard for the future, we lose touch with unfolding nature and concern for the conditions that bring about events. The perilous state of our planet shows the consequences of living for the moment. “Ditthe dhamme” is concerned with our view of things. It is not restricted to this particular moment.

If we only want to be in the Now, we will cut ourselves off from reflection on our history as a species, and our own patterns and influential conditions running through time, as well as the lives of others and their circumstances. We have to renounce this moment to engage in such profound reflections.

Dharma teachings are vitally concerned with both conditions for what has arisen, what is arising and what will probably subsequently arise. Dittha dhamma is our view of things. To state it very simply: the present is tied to the past and the present is tied to future. The present is not worth grasping onto. There is no content in the now that stands free of the traces of yesterday and tomorrow. The Now cannot stand alone, unique and self existent.

There is the well known passage (D ii 94. 217) “Well-proclaimed by the Buddha is the Dharma, immediately visible, timeless, inviting inspection, leading onward, to be comprehended by the wise each one for himself' (svakkhato bhagavata dhammo sanditthiko akaliko ehipassiko opanayiko paccatam veditabbo vinnuhi'ti)

Timeless (akaliko) means not bound to the three fields of time – past, future or present. Sanditthika is a compound of sam 'together' and ditthika ‘seeing’ - meaning a comprehensive seeing clearly of the Dharma. The concept sanditthiko encourages a common sense view of the relativity of past, present and future without making present moment into some transcendent metaphysic. Sanditthiko implies both seeing the relativity of time and knowing the timeless as immediately accessible.

With a timeless wisdom, we can freely explore past, present and future without a bias to the present over past and future.

Some Brahmanical and mystical Indian traditions claimed it was not possible to gain liberation (moksha) in this lifetime. These yogis believed life and the world of the senses, feelings and thoughts held consciousness in its grip. Death was the only moksha. The Buddha dismissed this view and made it clear that total liberation, nirvana, was possible and not dependent upon death but available and accessible in the midst of life. In this context, there is realisation of liberation in the face of ditthe dhamme, namely our view of things during our very life.

Naivety of Dismissing Thought

Whether we meditate, listen to teachings or read spiritual books, we have important questions to ask ourselves.

• Have I placed the Now at the absolute centre, as the only thing that matters?
• If so, am I deceiving myself?
• Have I reduced enlightenment to a deep experience of the present moment?
• Where did this view come from?
• Is it second hand?

There are spiritual teachers who believe the Now is significant because it doesn’t require thought whereas past and future require thought. This view is trundled out with alarming regularity, and the authorities of the Now give immense significance to letting go of thought, as the answer to our prayers. This renunciation of critical thought is na├»ve in the extreme. It encourages dependency on the views of the teacher, blind devotion and submissive listening. As a result, the Now must remain beyond reproach – echoing the notion of God in western religion.

We need to be very clear that the here and now relies upon a person to determine its significance. Obviously, the here and now has no power in itself to say “The here and now is significant.” The perceiver determines the significance. Instead of inquiry into the thoughts and beliefs that promote the significance of the now, followers find their dialogues with the teacher usually restricted to personal experiences. Both teacher and followers treat the Now as an absolute, independent truth outside of critical examination. When we place together the two words now and here, we have the word nowhere – perhaps that is closer to the truth of things.

The new high priests of the religion of Now inform us that our life has a higher purpose and our enlightenment is to surrender to the Now. It makes for compelling listening, especially if we are struggling to get along with life, stressed out and anxious, and constantly yearning for a break from all of our various responsibilities and commitments born from the past and continuing in the future.

We desperately want to feel good about ourselves, to be at peace with the past and present, and have a worthwhile future to look forward to. But this view contradicts the ideology of the Now which tells us that there is no past, nor future, thus rendering meaningless a worthwhile life, spiritual development and higher purpose since these involve a personal direction in time: “I was like this, now I am like this and I will be like this…”

The purveyors of this view tell us in their public talks and on their websites (see list of teachers on ) of their own enlightenment. Perhaps prior to enlightenment they viewed themselves as great sufferers, great seekers or dedicated meditators. Perhaps they were enlightened while alone, in front of an enlightened teacher or even in meditation, though teachers of the Now often view meditation as ego, an effort of the self to get somewhere.

Such teachings leave us in an unenviable position. We either believe our life has purpose, which means bringing in the three fields of time. Or we believe only in the Now, and that does away with purpose and personal evolution. We may try to argue that both are true, but if there is both the Now AND evolution, then

• What part of the Now and me is unchanging?
• What part of the Now and me is evolving?
• Do I concentrate on the unchanging part once identified?
• Do I concentrate on the evolving part once identified?

It is thought that fixes the view that the Now matters, or spiritual evolution matters, or both matter or neither matter. Thought invests everything into the Now or thought invests some significance into it or no significance. There is no constancy to any of these views for the ‘enlightened master’ or anybody else. We need to ask ourselves the basis upon which we uphold the concept of spiritual evolution, other than a pleasing and satisfying feeling. Are we adopting the view of the high priests of the Now with unquestioning obedience?

• Is there anything travelling through the senses – eyes, ears, nose, tongue and touch - that inherently and implicitly states that the raw sense data belongs to a spiritual evolution?
• Is there is anything in this moment that says you are fulfilling a divine purpose or making some great evolutionary leap forward?
• Is there a projection onto the Now as being inherently transcendental?
• Are we living in a period when the quest for something profoundly spiritual has formed itself into a marketable package?
• Are the high priests of the Now in touch with reality?
• Are they contributing to our liberation or our confinement to the present moment?
• Is there a spiritual cult of Nowism?

According to Nowism: If you have the experience of Oneness, Being, Consciousness and Non Duality, while abiding in total acceptance and complete surrender, with no thoughts of the past or future, then this means you know your True Self and are enlightened. Being enlightened, you abide effortlessly in the Now knowing that there is nothing to do and nowhere to go, and all effort is ego This is complete unexcelled enlightenment.

Are you sure? Is this really the fulfilment of all human aspiration?

What is excluded from enlightenment

This package is rapidly becoming an agreement in certain spiritual circles, shaped by an unquestioning obedience to a very limited definition of enlightenment. This packaged enlightenment conveniently doesn’t require:

• any kind of real renunciation
• exploration of a vast number of ethical issues
• depths of meditation experience
• fearless compassion
• global consciousness
• insights into social, political and religious ideologies, old and new
• investigation into dependently arising circumstances
• love and compassion for all beings
• questioning of the so-called reality of the Now
• single change of lifestyle
• seeing the wisdom of the emptiness of clinging to the here and now
• wisdom of seeing the absence of self-ness of all phenomena
• realisation and application of a liberated vision

Identifying with the Now is a money-spinner. One three hour talk/questions on the Now for hundreds of people cost £60 ($120, €90) per seat in London in July 2007 (£75 $150 or €112 per seat for the front rows), plus sales of books, DVDS, and CDs. There are nine million people crippled with debt in the UK. More than half the population has less than £250 in savings. Why does it cost more to listen to a spiritual teacher than going to a public lecture, a concert or a football match? Why? Because the Now has become a marketable package fitting in with the ideology of our times.

When the mind is stressed out with thinking, then the ideology of the NOW and non-thinking can hold great attraction. But have these spiritual teachers simply stopped deep inquiry and settled for Being-in-the-Now as enlightenment?

One popular teacher promises on his website: “These sessions (with the teacher) represent an invaluable opportunity to allow yourself to be drawn into the awakened state by the intense conscious presence of the teacher and thus experience it first hand.” Can one really be drawn into the awakened state by someone else? Is this really the awakened state? Is it enlightenment? Or is it nothing more than a temporary absorption of mind with clarity and calmness due to concentrated attention, with possibly some accompanying insights?

It appears that teachings on the Now steer away from the vital issues listed above. It is easy then to adopt another common standpoint namely that these other issues about life are irrelevant since they take us away from the Now. Frankly, when the self (with or without a capital S) is drawn into the now, lands in the Now and stays there it is stuck, truly stuck.

If we are not going to buy the package, literally or metaphorically, we will need to inquire whether being here and now – while offering genuine benefits - can become an escape from clarity, realisation and vision.

We have to break free from establishing an ontology whether it is called Being, Consciousness, the Now, the Here and Now or whatever.

Examination of views to give substance to now
Let’s examine some of the views that go with the package that claims that being in the Now is the Truth, the Eternal and the Absolute.

1. You can ONLY know True Reality when the mind is still.

How still? A little still? Very still? Absolutely still. This means we can’t know True Reality when the mind moves. This begs many questions:

• Does this mean we must be in a state of sublime meditation to know Reality?
• Does the mind determine everything?
• Is the mind more powerful than the True Reality since it hides it?
• The still mind doesn’t always reveal the same ‘reality,’ so which one do we choose as the True Reality?
• Our mind moves in all sorts of ways. Does everybody who experiences a still mind naturally know True Reality?
• Can the still mind cause the revelation of True Reality?
• Can the moving mind hide True Reality?
• Does it mean we know True Reality when our mind is still?
• Does it mean we only know unreality when our mind moves?
• Is there a True Reality to be known?

Just as health and sickness, gain and loss go together; stillness and movement confirm each other.

Frankly, I want my mind to move, to breathe, to feel, to think, to question, to criticise. I don't want my mind to be still or stuck in the now all the time. It would be a living death. To set up such an ideal of stillness of mind is to reject movement of mind, expression of mind.

We need to look beyond these ideas and see the emptiness of the view of stillness of mind as the ideal and movement of mind as the problem. Movement and stillness are inseparably related. One confirms the other, depends on the other and reinforces the other. There is no hierarchy of stillness above movement.

2. You realise the state of pure consciousness.

Exactly who determines what pure consciousness is? Is there a detached witness within us who splits the inner life up into the pure and the impure? The setting up of the notion of what is pure means there will be a constant threat from within or without to what we deem as not pure. Our enlightened masters imply they have realised pure consciousness while the rest of us are impure. We are now moving dangerously close to the religion of self-righteousness, the realm of the pure and the impure. The inner judge enters into this fragmented view and sets up pure consciousness against impure as if one could exist without the other.

3. I create my own world. I will create no more problems.

A bizarre idea. If we create our world, then why don’t we create happiness, love and compassion for the whole day, every day, for the rest of our lives. In fact, conditions enable experiences and events to unfold. There is not a scrap of evidence that we can tell ourselves to stop creating problems and the mind will obey. You can try with mantra-like enthusiasm to persuade yourself that if you are in the present moment there is no problem. The clinging to the present moment as the answer to problems is itself a problem! Unresolved issues will come back to haunt you, sooner or later. Wisdom and realisation resolve problems, not conferring a God-like status on the now.

4. Enlightenment is beyond thought.

That’s an interesting thought!

In the substance view of the here and now that its followers propagate, there has to be a villain, a threat, a problem. Thought has become the problem. Stop thinking. Cut thought. Rise above thought. All thought is corrupt.

Is an enlightened state beyond thought? That means every time an enlightened master has a thought he or she is no longer in an enlightened state. What anguish for such a master. The poor devil would be in and out of enlightenment like a yoyo.

No wonder “enlightened teachers” stop thinking deeply about the real issues confronting life and give discourses to others to get them to stop thinking as well. There is a freedom abiding in the now, but it is comparable to the freedom of the canary in a gilded cage. At best, the now is a regular locality for consciousness, useful and beneficial at times.

Enlightenment does not rise above anything, sink below anything, rest in anything or hold onto anything. Thoughts have no power to hinder awakening, nor reveal awakening. Thoughts have no power, no essence and no substance. The number of thoughts emerging are as unproblematic as the number of leaves emerging out of a tree.

5. Surrender to the present moment

There is no evidence that we constantly allow the present moment to be. On a hot day the heat from the sun makes contact with our body. We don’t allow the experience of the present moment to be and nor should we. We act in response to it. To surrender to the burning sun in the present moment would be an irresponsible act. Unconditional acceptance and surrender are expressions of spiritual idealism. I don’t unconditionally accept the hot sun, global warming, war, nor surrender to verbal abuse thrown at me and much else.

We start off with the view that we have not surrendered. That implies there are two events. There is the present moment and there is the non-surrenderer, who stands outside the Now. We are told that we will become enlightened if we surrender to the present moment or if we unconditionally accept it. If the now is so good for us and there is the power of the now, then our whole species would surely have realised that long ago. The track record shows that there is little power in the now to encourage us to surrender to it.

We are told it is not the contents of the now that matters but true reality lies behind it.

Does this mean that the contents of the now - sights, sounds etc are not the True Now?
How far behind the not True Now is the True Now?
What is it? Why is it so absolutely hidden?
Non-True now seems more powerful than True Now – how could that be possible?

Wisdom tells us when to let go and wisdom tells us when to act to change. Sometimes it is vital not to surrender to the present moment. We need to express concern, to voice criticism and resist what is present. In the present moment, the UK and US governments are waging an obscene war on the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. Armies, organisations and individuals commit acts of terror. Do I want to surrender to what is happening in the present moment? NO!

6. The Present Moment is all you ever have.

If all I have is the present moment, I am a prisoner to it – emotionally, psychologically, physically and spiritually. Experience tells me that sometimes I am in touch with the present moment and sometimes I am not. It may be more or less frequently. We experience being in the moment and we experience being out of it. What’s the problem? There is far more to realise than the present moment.

The more I want to stay in the Now, the more I will resist not being in the Now. The idea that the present moment is all we ever have is a myth, a popular one, naive and small minded. This moment consists of the construction of senses with sense objects and consciousness. The meeting of the senses with consciousness enables our experience of the present moment to arise. Consciousness has a wide ranging capacity to have experiences, reflections and access to insights not tied to the present moment.

I suppose one could claim that it is all happening in the present moment. This is an ephemeral view that we can’t hold onto even if we wanted to. At times, past and future, creativity and vision have real meaning for us. Why is there is this need to put every experience of consciousness into the present moment, except to force everything into the same box, called the Now. What’s the point?

Presence has no substance to it. It requires absence and other influences for its presence. There is more to life than the present. Whatever arises has a context to it including a variety of known and unknown major and minor conditions, a dependency of multiple factors and a widespread contingency.

7. Time is an illusion.

A cow flying through the air is an illusion. Horns on a rabbit’s head are an illusion. The son or daughter born to a virgin is an illusion. If time is an illusion, then every single thought, every appointment, every entry in our diary supports an illusion. That means that every time our enlightened masters have a thought about yesterday, today or tomorrow they are abiding in an illusion.

Every photograph for the album or ‘flickr’, every word to prepare for a future talk, or every written word for the next book feeds the illusion. Every journey to the airport to catch a plane on time supports the illusion. Why would one to put so much time, energy, money and pursue certain ends to feed an illusion? How can one be enlightened and live in illusion at the same time?

The present moment arises through dependency on multiple conditions, such as the past. If the past is an illusion, then the present must be an illusion as well, and so must the future. How can illusion (the past) create a non-illusion, namely the present? And how can the present go from a non-illusion and then become an illusion again?

If there is no past in the present and no future in the present, then what is left? Can we show it? Can we name it? Can we describe it? If there is no past in the present moment, then the past has no relationship to the present. Absolutely none. If there is no future in the present moment, then the future arises absolutely independent of the present. Past, present and future would all be absolutely different from each other.

The illusion is the claim that past and future is an illusion and the present is not an illusion.

8. You have to make a quantum leap in the evolution of consciousness.

If a quantum leap happened, either intentionally, through practice or spontaneously it would disturb my passive response to being in the Now. I can’t watch a leap. I can’t see a leap unfolding. I only know a leap after it happens. We are told there is only the Now, so there is no before or after now. If I know a quantum leap only after it happens, it must be an illusion since the leap belongs to the past.

9. Only the present can free you of the past.

Another unexamined view. The traces and influences of the past are found everywhere in the present. Haven’t you noticed the difficulties in a personal relationship manifesting right in the present moment. Those difficulties reveal the traces from the past.

You could throw yourself into the present moment – TV, drink, food, sex - to escape the past. Or you might take a more subtle approach and be concentrated on the present moment in meditation, or keeping your eyes wide open, or lots of movement in the present. But either way, the present can’t free you from the past.

The present moment serves as a resource not some absolute liberated state. To be free from the past is equally to be free from the straightjacket of the present. There is the possibility of a backlash in wilfully trying to force the mind into the present to block out the past.

The future is mooted in terms of what is conceived in the present. The past is also found in what is mooted in the present. The present is to be distinguished from the non-present.

What can free you of dukkha (from unsatisfactoriness to great suffering) in the past?
What can free you of dukkha in the present?

The present cannot free you from pain the present.

We can only give significance and substance to the so-called Now if we refuse to acknowledge what supports it. One has to refuse to acknowledge conditionality to give the present its substance or uniqueness.

There is no essence to existence, nothing than can be found to exist in its own right. Every thing is contingent upon everything else. Nothing is itself. Nothing stands outside the field of so-called differences. Differences arise when one thing is named and described in one way and something else in another way. In reality, it is a view whether there are differences or no differences between past, present or future.

Every situation where dukkha arises is in a context. There is no security in being in the present moment. It can be painful being in touch with it, and it can be painful not being in touch with it. Pick up a hot coal to remind yourself, if you must, of pain in the present.

Each time a teacher advocates practices and methods to be in the Now, he promotes conditionality. He or she encourages the development of a skill in time in order to be in the Now. Once again the old chestnut arises.

How can one develop something in the past, and thus an illusion, to get one into the present which is not an illusion?

There is no need to make a great fuss about the here and now. There is no need to invest in it. There is no need to withdraw from it. Why make such a difference between past, present and future?
At times, the power of now holds our attention and at times the now is powerless to hold our attention. Let us not neglect the profound significance of the raw insight “ditthe dhamme” - the seen phenomenon – rather than clinging to the Now as Truth.

10. There is nothing you can do to get enlightened. It just happens.

Some “enlightened” teachers ridicule methods and practices that lead towards enlightenment. They claim that this involves will power, desire and a separation of the path from the goal. “How can you go from the limited (the practice, the method, sitting meditation) to the limitless?” they argue. It all sounds reasonable so the followers nod their heads with approval. Perhaps already disillusioned with meditation and various practices, they are relieved to give it all up.

There is a problem here. The devotees have merely replaced one form with another. The new form is attending satsang (spiritual meetings with an enlightened teacher), listening with attention and devotion, suspension of all authentic questioning, unconditional acceptance of the words of the master and waiting to have an experience that the master will confirm as enlightenment. Having memorised the words of their teacher, the followers claim there is nothing that you can do to get enlightened. Yet, there is something the followers have done. They have gone to satsang! Some disciples claim their experience of enlightenment had absolutely no relationship to prior practices or years of meditation.

• How can you know that an experience called “enlightenment” bears absolutely no relationship to supportive conditions, past and present?
• How do you know that any prior inner development has not contributed to receptivity?
• How do you know an “enlightenment experience” has no bearing whatsoever on time and place?
• How do you know that your view “enlightenment just happens” is truth and not just an opinion that you picked up from somebody else who got it from somebody else.

11. The World is a Dream

We are told from an absolute standpoint that the world is a dream. War, conflict, love, compassion is a dream. Clearly, if it is all a dream, there is no point in acts of love, service, relationships or commitments since they reinforce the dream. Suffering and happiness, actions and results, belong to the truth of experience, not the inherent truth, but nevertheless a truth. To believe that everybody, sentient beings and nature, are merely figures in a dream and then to uphold a True Self is narcissism to the extreme. It is through seeing the truth of experiences that we act.

Only the dreamer can claim the world is a dream.

There are four primary conditions for an experience, profound or superficial

1. intention
2. flow of past events and inner development
3. immediate situation (time and place)
4. multiple circumstances, known, partially known or not known, gross and subtle.

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