If not now, then when?

“If not now, then when?” asks Tracy Chapman in her beautiful song, “If not now”. It is a question Zen monks have pondered for centuries before her, not as one requiring an answer, but as a koan, a seemingly nonsensical query pointing to a deeper truth that must be grasped beyond intellectual concepts.

I was thinking of this when I overheard someone here describing themselves to their friends as a “spiritual seeker.” The gathering seemed to agree that it was important to follow a spiritual path. But is seeking really a virtue? Does it not simply keep us stuck in the notion that the passing of time is in some way going to help provide the answer to fulfilment or inner freedom in our lives?

For my part, I have no sense of being a seeker, though I certainly imagined I was for years. I am not seeking happiness, nor self-realization, nor even the enlightenment I once thought I aspired to. I must tread carefully here, so as not to sound pretentious, or imply that I have achieved a higher state, reached a stage where I am free, or become a master of my condition such that there are no longer any problems. I have not. I am no wiser than the next person. It’s just that it would seem I have finally understood, not with my mind, but from the very depths of my being, that the only time available to me is Now. There is no other moment to which I will ever have access other than the present one. As such, when would I ever seek? And, more importantly, when would I ever find? In this moment, there are only two modalities (some might say choices): to be consciously aware, or not to be. There is no span of time here in which I might move from one state to another, better or worse.

But what use is this knowledge to me, you may ask, if I have not found unshakeable peace? Or if I am still prey to negativity? Which, of course, I am. Beginning with what Eckhart Tolle would no doubt call the pain body, a significant backlog of pain, sadness, suffering, disappointments, regrets and so on, a darkness and heaviness, which every now and again surface and demand attention. Or you might call it unfinished business, past events I have not yet properly dealt with. Then, also, there is the incredible momentum of conditioning, which, if left unobserved, would seem able to produce the same stale thought forms (I include emotions here) ad infinitum.

But the idea of seeking, of searching, is hugely seductive. Indeed, it seems to be a basic human impulse. And without it, publishers of spiritual books, and self-proclaimed teachers, coaches and guides, would go out of business. One need only look at the plethora of teachings being promoted all around us, from The Secret to the Toltec tradition, via LaHoChi, Angel Therapy, Manifesting and the Law of Attraction, and all the more traditional spiritual paths and practices such as Buddhism and meditation. The underlying premise most of these offerings, is that there can be a movement, a progression, towards a better life or a better state of being, at some point up ahead in the flow of time.

I forget which Greek philosopher said that Man does not pursue things, but the pursuit of things. God forbid the seeking should end. What would the mind do with itself? What we do without our sense of self, the one stemming from all that we do to be happier, more at peace, to rectify our life course, or be captain of our ship? What would there be left to grasp at, to hang on to?

This is illustrated by the story of the enlightened Indian master, whose disciples kept pestering him to grant them liberation. One day, before evening satsang, a group of them agree to go and make a formal request. “Master,” they say, “you are enlightened, and yet you do not share your enlightenment with us. Can you not be compassionate and give us that freedom, rather than let us continue to suffer and wallow in helpless ignorance?”

The master thinks for a while, then answers, “Very well. I will give you liberation. Come back here tomorrow morning at eight o’clock.” During the course of the evening, however, one by one the students suddenly remember pressing business back home, or find they are feeling unwell, or simply discreetly slip away, and on the following morning, not one of them turns up to claim their gift.

For my part, the awareness that Now is all there is, is not constant. In fact, not much has changed for me, the present moment is often unsatisfactory, the mind still works out on the treadmill of pointless rumination, indulges in excursions into memories of the past and incursions into a hypothetical future. And when I am able to rest again in this clear knowledge, it is certainly not something I can claim the slightest credit for. Indeed, it is quite likely the long years of discontent and unease, the constant looking to projections into the future for salvation and solutions, exhausted me to the point where it gradually became obvious that neither I, nor “my life” exist anywhere outside of this moment. Certainly I want happiness, and peace, freedom from painful thoughts and emotions, and the noise of the mind. But I want it now. Not in a few years. Not, in fact in five minutes. What use is any form of enlightenment or freedom if it can’t help me now? Waiting can become a state of mind. As the song says, “I want it all, and I want it now.” Which, in a sense, is fortunate, because there is no other time I could have it. And so, I’ll take partial happiness now, whatever background noise and vague unease may linger, over hypothetical perfect happiness later. I’ll settle for imperfect peace now, rather than possible perfect peace in a while. And the funny thing is, when I do, what I have now is at once transmuted into fullness. Nothing needs changing. And the Zen koan, “What, in this moment, is lacking?” becomes a rhetorical question.

This reminds me of another Indian tale. One day, two sadhakas are sitting in meditation in a grove of trees, when their master walks by. “Master,” says the senior of the two, “please tell me today if I will one day be liberated!” The Master pauses, looks around a while, then points to a broad-leafed tree and says, “When you have have been reborn as many times as there are leaves on that tree, then you will be liberated.” The disciple says nothing, but frowns, and inside vows to try harder in his practice. Then the younger disciple also asks, “Master, what of myself, will I be free one day?” The master looks around and points to another tree, with infinitely more leaves, so tiny they shimmer in the breeze. “As for you, when you have been reborn as many times as there are leaves on this tree, you also will reach liberation.” The disciple smiles, and at once falls into a state of bliss. Instead of being distressed by the lives separating him from freedom, he hears the news, “you also will reach liberation,” and rejoices. And so, of course, he is free at once.

I recently watched a documentary on the 1972 Andean crash of a plain carrying an Uruguayan rugby team bound for Chile. It was extensively commented by Nando Parrado, one of the few survivors of the crash, and indeed the one to whom, ultimately, all the remaining survivors owe their lives. Now, all these years on, he describes himself as (and genuinely seems to be) a supremely happy man. He shares how he enjoys life every single day, and is clearly not looking to the future for anything whatsoever. I have spent much of my life postponing things, until tomorrow, or next week, or even putting them off indefinitely. And I often think being truly happy may be one of these things. Fortunately, I don’t think we need to survive a plane crash to learn the art of happiness. But if we are caught in this cycle, just when exactly will we start really enjoying our lives? I’m surely not the first to suspect that “being happy”, is just as much about “doing” happiness. And if so, when are we going to finally do it? Tomorrow? In a way, tomorrow never comes. So if not now, then when?

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