A Five Stage Re-entry into the Here and Now

By Paul Dunion | October 19, 2020


The idea that it may be worthwhile to live as much as possible in the here and now seems to have been reduced to a minor spiritual axiom. Recently, while having dinner with an old friend who has enjoyed a generous amount of professional success, I heard a reference to the here and now as an extraneous cliché. “I know I should pay more attention to living in the present, but the excitement of my books booming and my art-work getting a new-founded notoriety just pulls me into a “what’s next” orientation toward living.” I heard myself in my friend’s declaration and was curious about how each of us had developed such a cavalier attitude toward living where we belong.

I began to wonder how is it that folks who care about how they live take on such a casual attitude toward living in the here and now. I witnessed folks pulled back to the present by the loss of a loved one, suffering from a catastrophic illness or the result of surviving a serious accident. Is that what it takes to return to the moment? I felt some resistance regarding having to wait for one of those kinds of events to move me into the present.

I decided that it was likely that I and others did not leave the here and now where life can be fully lived, just because it was fun to jump to the next moment. There must be something about the present that offers more than the joy and delight of living. My hope is that in understanding what actually can take place in the here and now might offer some clarity about how to reenter it mindfully. What began to unfold was the possibility of five stages, not necessarily happening sequentially, that might give some guidance.

Stage One

An Unconscious Adversarial Relationship

Contrary to all the applauding done about a life lived in the here and now by both spiritual and philosophical traditions, more may need to be said about such a choice.  Children instinctively figure out on a preconscious level that the present is a lovely place to live as well as the only place where hurt, exclusion and shame take place. Hence, the present has this double-edged identity, one allowing for love, creativity and generativity and the other for pain and rejection. The psyche is generally better equipped to support a need to be protected from what may be injurious than it is bringing about fulfillment. Children decide to leave the here and now instinctively and unconsciously, in favor of relocating in the alleged safety of the future.

Taking up residency in the future is anything but a cavalier shift. It is a desperate move to secure protection from the inevitable perils befalling the present. The here and now has unconsciously become the enemy and we scramble feverishly toward the alleged sanctuary of the next moment and the next, until we accumulate months and years that have not been lived.

Stage Two

A Conscious Adversarial Relationship

Stage one does not allow for much movement since it is lived unconsciously. Stage two means getting honest about the alleged glamour and charm alluring you to the future. That means at least holding a willingness to acknowledge the inherent challenges waiting for you in the here and now. A conscious adversarial relationship with the here and now suggests you may not be ready for creating an armistice with the present. However, it does mean you are aware of how and why an adversarial relationship was created. You are likely also cognizant of who may be waiting for you in the present: someone who is lonely, frightened, lost or brokenhearted.

You may continue to decide that the here and now is the enemy. In which case, the parts of you waiting there for you, will feel disfavored and exiled. These displaced parts of yourself tend to operate like real people who have been banished. They bang upon the door of the psyche seeking inclusion and leaving you feeling the angst and inner quaking of their protest. As long as the moment and who is waiting for you there are seen as the enemy, you will need to fortify your psychological garrison. These defenses may include alcohol, drugs, sugar, or simply a consistent state of frenzy leaving you spinning from moment to moment as both your actions and your speech speed away from the present.

Stage Three

A Conscious Non-Adversarial Relationship

This stage is marked by acceptance of how it served you as a child to relocate to the future. It also involves accepting that you are asked to live life on life’s terms, which means accepting both the delight and the ordeals waiting for you in the moment. Most of all, it means opening your heart in acceptance of all the parts of you waiting to be welcomed by you in the moment.

I don’t recommend attempting to create a conscious, non-adversarial relationship with the here and now by yourself. Shifting your attitude toward the present from foe to friend can be an arduous psychological task. You will be undoing levels of denial as well as deepening the quality of your acceptance. This calls for a robust emotional resiliency and new levels of heart opening. Let yourself be accompanied by someone who is acquainted with the territory, such as a mentor, someone who can help ease the transition into being more awake and more at home with yourself.

Stage Four

A Relationship Founded on Gratitude

As you become more familiar with the person who has decided to make peace with the here and now, you will be touched by the bounty of life’s offerings. The present offers a large opportunity to encounter beauty, kindness and inspiration. Nothing avails us more to the depth and breadth of life than being able to say, “I am here now”.

A good friend has experienced a severe illness escorting him to the here and now. He returns from his medical appointments expressing gratitude for the kindness that the staff shows him. “The nurses, Technicians and the Docs greet me, inform me and guide me with clarity and respect from one test to another. I even get a call, several hours after returning home, from a nurse wanting to know how I’m doing.” When I hear these kinds of stories, I can’t help but wonder, have folks in the medical profession changed or have my friend’s eyes changed?

We can stop taking life for granted in stage four. We might drop through levels of feeling gifted, letting go of the attitude that life owes us. I recall having a similar attitude at a Matthew Fox weekend workshop, where he encouraged us to find gratitude for a single breath. I knew immediately that gratitude for a single breath was not something I could easily access. It made sense to me and at the same time felt extremely foreign.

The following day around noon, I took a sip of water with my esophagus going into spasm. I could not breathe, and I was home alone. I immediately felt frightened and desperate, as I began jumping up and down in the hope of disrupting the spasm. With no change, I ran out the front door of our home with no clue regarding where I was headed. The idea of running to a neighbor’s house came and went. Suddenly my esophagus relaxed. I sat on the outdoor step still shaking from the ordeal, feeling not only gratitude but also a relief flushing over my entire body. Loss does have a way of reminding us about what deserves our gratitude.

Of course, when life’s demands roar in the hear and now, gratitude may feel remote. The “life owes me” attitude can certainly raise its voice at this time. Emotional resiliency is easily compromised mostly because of a demanding urgency arising in us to flee or fix what is happening to us. Actually, when this urgency takes us hostage, it becomes much more difficult to cope with what life is presenting. Breathing into a pause can leave us more accessible to more creative ways in responding to life’s demands. The pause may open us to one single truth, “At this time I’m not able to access any gratitude for the here and now.” However, that keeps you in a relationship with the present that can be strengthened by asking, “What is this experience asking of me?”

When I recently suffered from a Meniere’s condition with symptoms of loss of hearing and vertigo. I quickly responded with, “Life you owe me.” It took some time before I was willing to pause and allow myself to remain in a relationship with the here and now where my symptoms were waiting for me. I finally got to the questions while still feeling somewhat victimized by them: What are these symptoms asking of me? Slowly, voices from within began to surface: Listen to yourself. Listen to your limits. Listen to your adversarial relationship with aging. Although my left ear was losing its proficiency to hear, the inner voices were extremely audible.

Stage Five

Loyalty to the Moment

Around thirty years ago, my friend John, my son Jason and I were visiting a Benedictine Monastery in Weston, Vermont. These monks were known for the quality of music they created as well as offering to sanctuary to an immigrant Guatemalan family. Both counts intrigued us. We stepped out of our vehicle and were prepared to walk across the parking lot to the gift shop. As my friend and my son made their way, I became fixated on a monk who was harvesting potatoes in the nearby field. My friend yelled back to me when he witnessed my pause. I assured him that I would join them momentarily. I remained in the grip of the vision of this monk attending to his task. For years I wondered what captured my gaze that day while visiting the monastery.

Many years later I came across the Orders of St. Benedict which were his guidelines for monastic living. One of which was ‘loyalty to the moment’. It caused me to pause and remember the monk I saw years ago working in the potato field. Had I witnessed a man working with a loyalty to the here and now? And what might it mean for a person to work with a loyalty to the here and now?

Loyalty is living faithfully. We say that a loyal friend knows how to show-up for us and is faithful to his word. We say that we are faithful to a friend or spouse when there is a commitment, a promise to accompany that person in good times and not so good. This is also an implication that we will do our best not to allow ourselves to get excessively distracted from our commitment. Sometimes verbally, but quite often non-verbally we know where or to whom our loyalty lives. If we’re willing to get honest, we also know when loyalty from us or to us has been violated.

We obviously know what it means to be loyal to others, but what about loyalty to the here and now? Let’s look at how we can live faithfully to the moment.

  • Loyalty to the here and now can only begin once we are aware of living an     unconscious and adversarial relationship to the moment.
  • Once we can appreciate that that kind of relationship did take care of us, we can begin to call off current hostilities and decide that the here and now is where we now truly belong. We accept that the moment is life is to be fully lived, the delights and joys as well as the defeats and hurts.
  • We can get honest about our belonging to the here and now by admitting we will on occasion get excessively distracted into the past or future.
  • Our loyalty is measured by our willingness to disrupt our distractions and return to where we belong.
  • We remain mindful that we betray ourselves when we wander away from the here and now. That is, we sabotage the only place where we can be fully alive.
  • We can strengthen our bond to the present by being aware of what we desire from it and by asking it: What are you asking of me”. Such focuses keep the juices flowing from us to the present and back again.

Any talk about the here and now is ultimately a story about belonging. We are asked to surrender to more irony than we ever bargained for. The here and now is home, the time and place to love, be loved, for joy, triumph, defeat and suffering. Certainly, running feverishly into some alleged exciting next moment, as well as dwelling on some memory of the past stirring a heartfelt sentiment are places to visit. However, if we allow, we can bet on being greeted, welcomed and challenged in the here and now. We are both the host and the guest. There is always some part of us waiting in the moment for our welcome, some part that got pushed out in favor of a part of us we decided would likely make us look much better, at least to ourselves. Home is where the forgotten are remembered and where we can pause and settle into who we are, even when harvesting potatoes.

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