A cartoon from the New Yorker shows two monks, an older man and a younger one, sitting side-by-side in lotus posture. The senior monk is telling his junior, who looks bemused, "Nothing is going to happen. This is it!"
Another story, narrated by Amma, tells of two aspirants sitting under two different trees, and meditating. Years later, the celestial minstrel and sage, Narada, arrives there en route to heaven. The seekers request him to ask Lord Brahma when they will become enlightened. Narada goes to the abode of the Lord, who tells him that the seekers will be enlightened after as many lifetimes as there are leaves on the tree under which they are sitting. When he hears this, the first aspirant becomes dejected and abandons his spiritual pursuit. The second seeker, learning that his enlightenment was vouchsafed, jumps up and down in utter delight. As if rewarding him for his enthusiasm, the branches looming over him shower all its leaves on him, and in that moment, he attains enlightenment.
Which of the two depicts an accurate picture of spiritual life? The first, in which spiritual life is depicted as a not very 'happening' realm (much to the novice's dis-may), or the second, in which enlightenment is seen as the uncertain outcome of unflagging effort and enthusiasm? Both. They are contradictory only from the vantage point of time. The point of the cartoon might well be that, when we totally surrender to the present moment ("This is it!), we let go of the past and the future, and awaken to the blossoming of life as it unfurls moment by moment. Nothing is going to happen because the experience of any event takes place in the present. This is the Jatori the second aspirant in the story experienced. Un-like the first seeker, whose hopes were pinned on enlightenment in the near future (and who became dejected by what seemed like fate's cruel dealing), the second aspirant remained fully awake to the potential of the present, and was thus suitably rewarded.
The essence of the present is timelessness. One of M.C. Escher's enigmatic paintings depicts white birds flying in a pattern. Upon closer inspection, one sees how the spaces between the white birds are actually filled with black birds flying in the opposite direction.
This is the mystery of the moment, a visual analogy of how past and future figures in the present moment. Like the painterly stillness of the birds poised in midair, the pull of the past and future is arrested in the present moment the still point upon which the universe turns. How do we access this 'still point?' Through awareness. This does not mean stopping whatever we are doing, and becoming immobilized in some caricature of meditation. It means being mindful about whatever is happening (note the present continuous tense). It is enlarging the scope of our consciousness so that we begin to notice much more of what is happening. Are we fully awake to the present moment? Are we alert to the sounds around us? Are we in full acceptance of what is happening, or is there any mental resistance? If there is, how is it expressing itself physically? (Are our teeth clenched? Is our tongue slack? Are our eyes darting?) Are we aware of our breathing, the rhythm of our inhalations and exhalations, and the alternating coolness and heat of their currents? Or are we daydreaming? This is the ground on which we are standing. Awareness makes us more grounded.
Look at Amma. She is natural and simple, and has no airs about her, yet her radar re-mains uncannily alert to all the pulsations of life. She compares her life to a river that is ever flowing. Life too is an unceasing flow. 'Going with the flow' does not mean getting swept away by the vicissitudes of life. It means anchoring ourselves to the continuous present. In doing so, we get glimpses of the riverbed of eternity upon which the tides of time ceaselessly flow. In the present moment lies the answer to all of life's problems. Lao-Tzu asks: Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself? What exactly is the 'mud' that occludes clear vision? It can be thoughts churned by dredging up memories or by fantasies about the future. Often, the mud is the conditioning that past experiences create. A turbid mind clouds our perception of life; conditioning colours it. We are thus unable to perceive life in its pristine state and to respond purely to it. Thus we miss the most beautiful scenery. Thus we misunderstand people.
How can we clear our minds of its thoughts and conditioning? It is next to impossible, since the mind is, by definition, a swirl of thoughts. And yet, awareness can help to erase at least parts of the scribbling that has come to characterize the tablets of our minds. Spirituality is not about following any particular script; that is just more scribbling on our mental slates. It is becoming free of all scripts and dogmas.
Thoreau took off for the woods so that he could create "a broad margin to my life." At Walden Pond, where he spent two years and two months, he learned "to live deliberately," i.e. with awareness. Often, he would sit by the threshold of his hut, and listen to the sounds of nature. That is when he discovered "the bloom of the present moment," which he could not "afford to sacrifice ... to any work, whether of the head or hand." Perhaps, this is what Lao-Tzu meant when he wrote that we should 'remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself.'
However, taking time off to discover oneself, like Thoreau did, might seem im-practical or self-indulgent. However, Walden Pond is within reach. It is a metaphor for the present moment ('This is it!), whether it is the time we set aside for meditation, the distance we have to walk eve-ryday to the subway, the time spent waiting for the train, or the train ride itself. For the spiritual aspirant, anything and everything can be grist for the mill, precious opportunities to practice awareness.
Awareness is not a luxury. We all need broad margins in our lives. Cultivating aware-ness is akin to opening the windows of our minds, win-dows we might not have known existed. Doing so not only dispels the inner darkness (or lack of clarity), it also ventilates our minds, helping us to release the psychic burdens we all carry anxiety, pain, an-ger, sorrow, confusion, beliefs, etc.
Mindfulness makes the density of our thought-baggage more transparent. We begin to see through the burdens, and they chase to have such a compelling reality for us. Awareness positions us differently to our experiences. While it may not quell the waves of our minds, it can help us surf those waves. Awareness roots us to reality. A person who is profoundly rooted in reality intuitively knows what needs to be done.
In a story by the acclaimed Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami, two hungry lay-abouts both university graduates who just didn't want to work to earn a living decide to rob a bakery. Brandishing knives, they demand that the elderly baker hand over all his bread. Unfazed, the baker tells them that they can help themselves to as much bread as they want ... after they listen to two overtures by Wagner. The robbers are taken aback. It was not a reaction they had expected. After a few moments thought, they agree to the condition, seeing no harm in doing so. Why not humour an old man? They sit down and patiently listen to 'Tannhauser' and 'The Flying Dutchman.' When the pieces have finished playing, the baker tells them to take what they want. The thieves grab all the bread, drive away, and gorge on them to their satisfaction. Comeuppance assumes a strange form. Their experience at the bakery begins to haunt the two robbers. A hunger of a different kind begins to gnaw at their souls. An unnameable disaffection causes the two to break up their criminal association. Both apply for jobs, and begin to work. It is a tale about the transformative power of true presence has. The baker did not get thrown off balance by the threat he faced. Nor did he call the police. Instead, he responded to the situation with unusual calm and tact, thus transforming robbers into honest citizens. Such is the alchemical power of presence. This is not to say that presence of mind will help to resolve all situations painlessly.
There is an ancient Zen parable about a man who is chased by a tiger. He runs for life and finally leaps over a cliff edge. As he is falling, he grabs a creeper. When he looks up, he sees the tiger scrabbling away at the edge. A rat is gnawing away at the creeper. Down below, there is another tiger eyeing him with anticipation. At that moment, he notices a delicious strawberry. With glee, he reaches out with one hand and grabs the luscious fruit. The point of this story is not what happened to him. (Did the tiger above grab him, or did he plummet into the jaws of death?) What is significant is his response to the situation. He did not passively submit to the threats; he did what he had to do (run away from danger). Yet, at the very end, when he realized that there was nothing else he could do, he sought consolation in the present moment, symbolized by the strawberry. He was able to apprehend joy and beauty in the most adverse of circumstances. Like the startling red of the flower that blooms in a crack between grey cobblestones, life presents its defining moments unexpected ways. All we have to do is be aware.
Amma, Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi