Finding “Now”


“Be here now,” Ram Dass once wrote. That saying became a mantra and a key for many Westerners in understanding meditative traditions including Daoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Centering Prayer.

Spiritual practice. Introspection practice. Meditation. Centering prayer. Mindfulness. Whatever you call it, slowing down and noticing what is happening around you and what is happening in your mind right now is the essence of many religious and philosophical practices.

The practice of being in — or being aware — of the moment works to take us out of our default mode. Concentration takes us off of autopilot and mindfulness is the result.

Mindfulness is credited with all sorts of health benefits. But before we think about that aspect of mindfulness, let’s think a bit about when “now” is.

As we learn more about the working of the brain, it appears more and more likely that what each of us perceives of as “I,” the self, is a “user illusion.” This term comes from computing. The icons on a computer screen show pictures of calendars and stamps and musical notes and such. None of those pictures have anything to do with what they picture, except that they lead the user to a program associated in the use’rs mind with the pictures. Contemporary science appears to show that “the self” is an icon or picture developed by the brain as a useful fiction for survival. A user illusion.

When is “now”? Advances in cognitive science have called into question our ability to register “now.” Cognitive psychologist Alex Holcombe has been experimenting with our ability to register perceptions. Holcombe postulates an 80-millisecond rule. For example, we perceive a smooth combination of sound and motion in film up to an 80-millisecond difference, but we perceive a further gap as out of sync.

Our senses do not work at the speed of light. Perceptions move to our brains at 240 miles per hour — fast but not light speed.

Just as the light we see from stars is a trip back into the universe’s past, the sensations flooding our bodies arrive to us out of the past. No, 80-milliseconds in the past isn’t that far in the past, but it isn’t immediate, either.

The reality we perceive around us is an approximation. A simulation, if you will.

Interestingly, the Buddha had this insight a long time ago.

Our brains are much like the chocolate scene from “I Love Lucy.” I’m sure you’ve seen the clip: Lucy and Ethel are working wrapping chocolates on an assembly line. If they leave one chocolate unwrapped, they will be fired. All goes well at first, but slowly they begin to lose control. First, they pop the unwrapped chocolates in their mouths. Then they begin to hide them in pockets. Then their hats. Then they stuff them down their tops. They succeed in hiding the unwrapped chocolates when the boss returns, which leads the boss to conclude that they can handle a faster assembly line.

In most cases we are accustomed to the flow of sense perceptions, and our brains do fine in assembling a usable picture of our surroundings. The illusion holds. But that doesn’t mean it’s “true.”

This is an ancient insight.

“Maya” is the Sanskrit word for “Illusion.” In Hindu thought, maya — illusion — prevents us from seeing the true self, Atman, which is the realization that all — including us — is Brahman.

“Brahman” is often translated into English as “god,” but “Brahman” is not identical to Middle Eastern and European ideas of a monarchical god. Rather, Brahman is the essence of everything.

The way I try to wrap my head around it is to think that the Western concept of “god” is of a thing — a thing that does things such as stirring up storms and answering prayers.

The Hindu concept of Brahman is the totality of all things that are happening.

The difference between a noun and a verb.

The Buddha came out of Hindu tradition. Buddhism is a “heresy” within Hinduism, just as Christianity is a “heresy” of Judaism.

The Buddha removed the concept of Brahman from the equation, saying the human condition is too difficult to worry about such abstract puzzling. The Buddha asked what we can do right here and right now to ease the inevitable suffering of human existence.

His answer was that, yes, we must realize that the self is maya — the self is an illusion. We must realize that the “I” is a story we tell ourselves. The self, the I, like all of the universe, is in flux and flow.

Our suffering comes from grasping for something permanent in the flux and flow of everything. That grasping can be anything from egotism to alcohol to an idea. Whatever we grasp to stop the flow of change will prove to be an illusion and will add to our suffering.

When we stop grasping; when we realize that all is an illusion, we snuff out the candle of suffering — that’s the meaning of the word “nirvana.”

Getting into the moment, into the now, even if there isn’t one — or perhaps especially if there isn’t one — enables us to stop grasping.

But what, specifically, do we do in this moment of mindfulness? And remember, the point of the practice is to take us out of our default mode — autopilot. Concentration takes us out of the default mode, and mindfulness is the result.

The “what?” of mediation in the now takes several forms. Some meditators try to stop the “monkey chatter” of the brain entirely. Some only attempt to realize that the voice in our heads is not the “I.” Other traditions work on self-examination: examine your emotions; examine your patterns of thought; examine your impact on others; examine your preconceptions and prejudices; examine your impact on others and on the planet.

Whatever the technique, the point is to get into what the Roman Stoics called hic et nunc,“here and now.”

Discovering that there isn’t a here and now and that there isn’t a self to find it is a great way to spend a quiet morning.

#Unitarian Universalism #Humanism #Mindfulness

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