By now, the “Power of Now” message of Tolle, the “Be Here Now” message of Ram Dass, and the “The only moment is the present moment” message of the Neo-Buddhists has become ubiquitous. It’s so commonly known and held that it has become a cliche.
“Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.”
One of the challenges of being a yoga teacher in this era is endeavoring to offer a contemporary approach to the practices and wisdom-teachings of yoga, so that we’re not stuck in old crusty traditions, and at the same time, be rooted in the real stuff, the deep transformational stuff, the stuff that changes lives. My colleagues and I don’t just want to be “providers”, we try to be a tribe of real deal yogis, and real-deal teachers. So from time to time, it’s good to examine these “meme” teachings and distinguish between the baby and the bathwater. In this case, the bathwater is that “Be in the present” is one of those things you can’t really argue with. It’s like “Do unto others…”
“Do unto others” seems like it is so true that it could be the answer to everything. But clearly it’s not. If you hate yourself and treat yourself in shitty way, or even in a mediocre way, “Do unto others” breaks down. Or, at best, it becomes something that gets us to an even Zero. Not bad, but not great. Another little platitude on the pile of empty teachings. It’s not the teaching, it’s the way we approach it.
“Be in the present” isn’t much better. Be here now. Okay, I’m not in the future, I am not in the past, I am here. But in this moment, it kind of sucks. “Ah, grasshopper!” The teacher tells us, “Yes, sucking is all there is! Now eat your brown rice and get back to your boring meditation!”
No! The spiritual path is not meant to be boring! It is so rich, so life-saving. But sometimes we need to dig a little bit to get that baby of out of that deep bathtub of truisms.
Every moment, every thing, every situation has many levels to it. The ancient yogis describe four:
According to the Tantric Indian philosophy, any body – that means any thing – has four levels or dimensions: gross, subtle, causal, and supra-causal.
The gross is the physical dimension made of the elements. You can see, touch, smell, taste and hear the gross. In the human being, the gross body is the physical body.
In situations, the gross level is the level that can be experienced with the senses.
The subtle is made of energy. The subtle can only be felt with subtle awareness. In the human experience, the subtle body is the aura, or prana, or energy field. The subtle body in a person also includes the mind and emotions, memories, fantasies, feelings of well-being and illness, as well as moods. As your awareness becomes more subtle, you can begin to perceive it. Even though you cannot see subtle energy with your physical eyes, it is a major part of any picture. It is what animates the living physical body. At the time of physical death, the subtle body dissolves.
In situations, the subtle layer is the energetic level of things. The “vibration” of the moment.
The causal level is the deeper aspect of the subtle dimension, it is the deeper, more permanent energy that drives karma. In the human experience, there is a causal body – a deep core of energy that holds our deepest impressions and really makes us what we are. In the subtle body we have thoughts and feelings, in the causal body we have deep, strong convictions and unconscious tendencies. The Hindus and Buddhists believe that it is the causal body that passes with the soul from one life to the next and how they account for karma being carried through multiple lifetimes. The causal body holds the seeds of your karma.
Situations have a causal level too. The actions on the gross level and the intentions on the subtle level cause a deeper energy in any moment – the karmic energy that will result from whatever is happening. For instance, a corporate kid’s store that looks nice, and even has an artificially-generated “good” feeling, but underneath is actually harming the kids with the marketing, the environment with all of the toxic materials and plastics, and the health of people with the artificial, chemical candies and foods. Every thing tastes good, looks good, people are having a good time, but what’s underneath is not good. Harm is happening. Bad karma. That’s the causal layer.
The supra-causal body is sometimes called the transcendental body, or the soul, or spirit, or atman. This body is pure soul energy, untainted by karma or life circumstances. This dimension is what is experienced in what we call Samadhi, where we perceive through the experience of the other bodies and rest in our deepest nature.
Everything has these layers. This is one of the big ideas behind spiritual training. There is an outer experience, a gross experience that we can experience with our senses, but that is not the whole picture. Like an iceberg with its visible part above the surface of the water, our outer experience is only a small part of the whole. Underlying any gross experience there are subtle layers, layers of energy. And under all this is the Source energy from which everything arises. In spiritual training, you are learning to navigate all of this.
The Heart of the Present
The key to making the whole present moment teaching something actually deep and transformational is having access to a “vertical” dimension in the moment. Getting “here, now” is only the first step. And if we stay only on the gross level, it’s kind of like “so what?”. So we go deeper. Your practice is building in you the ability to penetrate deeper. So you get “here, now” and then tap in. What is the deeper dimension of this moment? On a subtle or causal level, it’s useful because you can better understand the “good vibe” or “bad vibe” of some situation. But what this lesson is about is going to the “heart” of the moment.
Here we’re talking about getting to that supra-causal, essential, sacred, transcendent level. In any given moment, there is everything else, and there is the Heart of the moment. I don’t mean the heart chakra or even the “love muscle” where we feel love. Here, I use the word heart as in the “heart of the artichoke”, or the “heart of the matter”. The innermost. The essential. In your meditation, you are doing this with your own layers. Getting toward your center. In life, you learn to do this by, yes, first getting present, and then going deeper.
Right now, can you touch the heart of this moment?
One way is to go through the layers. On the gross level you’re reading on a computer. On the subtle level there are ideas and feelings and lifeforce moving in you. On the causal level, there is karma here, these words and the time you’re spending with them are causing some effect. What’s deeper? Can you touch it?
The Quick and Dirty Method
The way I have always done it is even simpler. I just ask, “Where’s the Love?” This is another way you can look at the heart of the present moment. Where’s the love? In any moment, there is a potential to be present to love or oblivious to it. Just asking, just doing this inquiry is powerful in-and-of-itself. You have to open a little bit to even do it. Then it has the power to snap you back into wisdom, and also snap you into action. The question becomes, “How can I be loving in this moment?” It almost ALWAYS helps to bridge beyond the mundane.
For spiritual nerds (people who read a lot and do a lot of thinking about non-dualism etc.) this “Where’s the Love?” practice is a better technique than penetrating through the layers and getting to that ESSENTIAL TRUTH of the moment. Sometimes, that can just be a head trip and I know many spiritual people (mostly men) who think they are doing this transcendental shift to the deepest level, but instead they are doing a kind of spiritual bypass.
The heart of the moment is not cold. In fact, it is supremely warm. Every time we meditate, we are practicing shifting in this vertical way, we are practicing going deeper into the here, and now. Into the me and I.