Yesterday I spent the evening with the Green Papaya sangha at the Yoga Tree in Chiang Mai. Around forty people where there, many regulars, some visitors like me. The sangha – a Buddhist term for a spiritual practice group – are in the Plum Village meditation tradition. A little different from vipassana meditation, which trains students to analyse their thoughts, Plum Village is more slanted towards engagement with the present moment.
We did three sessions of meditation – one guided, one walking, and one silent sitting. For the walking meditation the meditation leader recited a chant to help pace our footsteps.
I have arrived.
I am home.
In the here.
In the now.
Being in the here, in the now, is at the heart of – not just meditation – but all spiritual practice. But it is soooooooooooo hard! And another load of oooooo’s and it’s sill harder than that. The mind – my mind, your mind, our mind – isn’t very good at being where it is. It likes to be in either the past – remembering what has already happened – or in the future – imagining what is to come.
If you have some spare minutes, sit quietly for a while and watch what your mind dos. Label the thoughts that arise. Are they of of the past? Of the future? Are you perceiving the present moment? You’ll find that very little of your time is spent in the here and now.
What you remember of the past is not real, just a memory. What you imagine of the future is not real, just a projection of your hopes or fears. The only thing that is real is where you are, in the here, in the now. There is no past or future, just the ever changing now.
The first time I encountered this idea was through the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle. It’s the pivotal idea in his now world famous book The Power of Now. But I heard it in a recording of a four day retreat conducted by Tolle, published as the Journey In To Yourself. I was 30 and, by any measure, deeply unhappy. I’d been pushing down a lot of horrible emotions from a damaging childhood, grief from many losses, and had trapped myself in a life I didn’t fit in to from a desperate need to fit somewhere, anywhere. I had no kind of spiritual practice at all. I was a standard issue atheist, and any encounter I had with religion was edged with inherited and unexamined scorn. Consequentially, I really had no tools to process the pain I was feeling. Today, my argument with the radical atheist rhetoric of people like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett – both of whom I had read heavily at university – is that it leaves the bulk of its believers utterly amputated from their own emotional reality. It certainly had me. I was miserable, and in trying to escape from the causes of the misery I’d driven myself, repeatedly, to the borders of emotional collapse where I had, at long last, collapsed.
So downloading a talk by an odd sounding German guy from Audible was probably, on the level of latent spiritual instinct, a last ditch attempt to pull myself out of a very dark place. For some reason I lay down on the floor of my apartment to listen to Eckahart Tolle’s characteristically odd voice as it pipped out of my laptop. And the next thing I knew, I was caught up in uncontrollable laughter…not that I was making any effort to control it. Not the laughter of scorn and anger that so much modern humour is rooted in. Not truly the laughter of humour at all. But the laughter of release. Massive, explosive, unexpected release, like a lock had been unpicked to the chain holding my emotions in place. And the key was Eckhart Tolle’s words about past and future, and our mind’s obessive need to escape to one or another, away from the present.
Walking in meditation with the Green Papaya sangha I remembered that first moment of radical contact with the present. The first time I had arrived, home, in the here and the now. And in the studio of the Yoga Tree, I found myself there again. “Home” is a very good word for the here and now of the present moment. When you come back to the present, even for a second, and regardless of where you are, however foreign it may be, it feels like arriving back at home. It’s why I think meditation, yoga and other spiritual practices are so common among travellers. Once you have found the present moment, you carry your home with you wherever you choose to travel.
It is easy to wander off the path and loose your home though. For some months after getting there, with the help of Eckhart Tolle, I felt elated, ecstatic, barely part of the world any more. Liberated, in a very real sense, from the sadness I had been carrying around. As I later discovered from the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, this is a common period in a meditation practice. Inevitably, it is followed by a return to normality. I spent the next four years trying to understand that experience, reading widely about Buddhism and other spiritual paths, and learning to meditate. That period culminated on a trip to California in late 2011, where I spent most of three weeks meditating and running on the beach in San Diego. In the two years since then that spiritual practice and meditation have settled in to the background of my life. I’ve returned to more worldly pursuits, spending more time on my writing career again.
Padding in circles at the Yoga Tree, I realised I had lost the moment for a long time. In day to day life it’s so easy to stay wrapped up in your memories and imaginings of past and future. It’s easy to sit down and meditate and spend an hour thinking through your hopes,fears and ambitions and never hit the here and now once. This is both natural and sad. It’s like being right outside the front door of your home, but never going in, staying on the cold steps outside instead. Last night, for a while at least, I came home again.
I have arrived. I am home. In the here. In the now.
There is a 21 day meditation retreat at Doi Suthep, the temple above Chiang Mai. Later this year, I’m going to go and do it.
The poem above is by Thich Nhat Hanh. You could read it and an extended talk by the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher here.