In stressful times many more people feel fear than in normal times. What this means is that an ability to be fearless becomes more essential than in normal times. How is that accomplished? Being fearful is a skill you can master. It doesn’t require any of the things society falls back on. You don’t have to be tougher, stronger, more of a man (if you happen to be a male) or call upon a strong man for help (if you happen to be female).
In reality you only have to be present, because in the present there is no fear. At first this sounds wrong, because when you experience worry and anxiety, the most common types of fear, they hit you here and now. But here and now isn’t the same as the Present. Here and now describes clock time. If you are waiting for a bus and it is five minutes late, once it arrives, it is here now. The present moment, however, has nothing to do with clock time. The present is a state of mind, and in fact is the most natural state of mind, the state your mind wants to be in.
One of the key concepts in my new book, Total Meditation, is that the mind will return to the present effortlessly if given a chance. Even though “living in the present” has become a popular phrase, most people still approach it as a kind of spiritual challenge that requires them to intensely focus to make sure they stay mindful and present. This is the mental equivalent of balancing a penny on the end of your finger. The penny naturally wants to topple over unless you exert an effort to keep it balanced.
The active mind can feel like that. When fear and anxiety are roaming the mind. Balance seems difficult. In reality it’s not. Fear, despite its unique power, is just another mental distraction. Distractions can also be pleasant, as we all know watching a movie, and the active mind finds them very useful, because when you are distracted, you get a vacation from the endless stream of thoughts and feelings that the active mind must deal with.
Meditation isn’t the same as a distraction. It too gives the active mind a vacation, but with a difference. When watching a movie, texting, playing a video game, or doing a household chore, your attention goes outward. As soon as the distraction is over, the underlying worry and anxiety you were trying to escape will return. Meditation, on the other hand, goes to a level of awareness that is beyond fear; this is present mind. It is mind meeting itself rather than being filled with thoughts and feelings.
The theme of Total Meditation is about the need to keep meeting yourself throughout the day. Rather than setting aside a fixed time for meditating, you let your awareness return to present mind the moment you notice that you are distracted, stressed, worried, or on any other state of imbalance. The reason that anxiety can dominate even a person who isn’t normally anxious is that the person gets trapped in conflict between warring parts of the mind.
We experience these warring parts as voices in our head or sometimes as inner impulses. Dieters know the experience as the tug-or-war between “I want to eat this” and “I really shouldn’t.” there might be times when the “good’ voice wins, but this only frustrates the “bad” mind even more. So it lies in wait for a weak moment, and then instead of being “good” for not eating a candy bar, you eat a pint of ice cream, which is “bad” for you.
The issue should never be about any kind of inner conflict, because once you get sucked into one, you become a combatant against yourself. Unfortunately, as a legacy of our past, we all have years of inner conflict behind us. All kinds of fragmented memories lie in wait, charged with unresolved feelings of fear, anger, frustration, failure, humiliation, grief, and self-doubt. They form a rich field of material for fighting against yourself. But present mind has nothing to fight against, because the residues of the past are just distractions when you stand back and see them as a whole.
I realize that there is great suffering in people’s lives. Some of it is happening now; some of it is remembered from the past. For countless people the only choices are to put up with suffering or fight against it, and sometimes the struggle is just too much. Then we simply give up. But there is another choice, and the way is opened by letting the mind return to a state of being present, not with the outside world but with itself.
The secret of present mind can be hard to grasp, because we are so used to the fragments of our mind fighting against each other. You need to have an “aha” moment in which you see that the problem is inner conflict that arises form a divided self that has gotten into the habit of fighting itself. You must see, once and for all, that the solution is to go beyond conflict, which can only happen in present mind. You don’t struggle to get there, which would be just another kind of fighting against yourself. You find present mind in meditation, learn to recognize the experience, and then return to that experience any time you want to. Only in present mind is there no fear. With that one lesson you can survive, and even thrive, in the most distressing times.
Reprinted from San Francisco Chronicle with permission
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