Eternal Presence

A Morning Mind Essay

Turning away and touching are both wrong
For it is like a mass of fire.
Tozan Ryokai

Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi

I

I have always had the notion that when I die I will encounter God. I’ve even had the feeling that I’ve died before and have undergone that experience, trying to open to the infinite light and life and love that is God. I have sometimes thought that our failure to do that is what propels us into rebirth; we have an opportunity after death to unite with God, but that vastness is too much for us, so we turn away for a smaller, safer, closed-down life on earth. We continue to undergo rebirth until we grow to a place where we can unite with God.

But it recently occurred to me that there isn’t just one moment—in the future, in the past—when we encounter God’s love. It’s available to us in every moment. We constantly fail to open to it, constantly turn away.

No moment is more eternal than the present one. We constantly face the eternal moment that is the present. What is it to open to God right now?

II

Several years ago my wife spoke to me about her understanding of the Christian concept of grace. The official doctrine is that grace is a gift from God, freely given but unpredictable; it comes unexpectedly, whimsically, showing up where it will. But a priest she met in Central America, lecturing on the doctrine, said that that isn’t quite right: grace is a gift from God but is always pouring out, always available. It isn’t that it appears whimsically, but that we rarely see and accept it. The gift is right before us but we don’t take it. It’s been offered but we don’t notice.

Grace is the present moment.

III

It is possible to do any action—putting gas in the car, going through checkout at the grocery, greeting your wife—in an open and expansive state, where you let the moment be and see it for what it is, or in a closed-down state, where you wish it were otherwise, try to make it your way. It is possible to live your whole life, moment by moment, in accord with the Tao, freely accepting God’s grace. But it requires great attention.

IV

The practice of meditation—forget about all the techniques, koans and visualizations, ways of following the breathing; they are attempts to occupy your mind so you’ll stick around—is just sitting in that eternal moment.

V

There is one incident in my life that I have written about more than any other. It was the subject of the first piece I ever published; it was the focus—fifteen years later—of another, longer essay; it was the centerpiece of a nonfiction book of which I wrote two complete versions but was never able to publish. At this point the incident has assumed legendary status for me. I am long past the point where I know what “really” happened (if I ever did). It has become a story from my distant past. It was a moment when I briefly saw something that was quite large, more than I could take in. I didn’t know what I was seeing. I went to my father, who gave me what help he could.

I see the two people as actors on a stage, figures from another life.

The year is 1958, and the boy is ten. He’s a chubby little thing; he put on weight three years before, when his younger brother was born. He sleeps in a drafty back room with his older brother, who is 12, but that young man has started to study hard (the first major step into becoming a driven compulsive obsessive) and doesn’t come to bed until late, sometimes quite late. David lies in the room alone. He gets to thinking about things and can’t get to sleep before his brother comes in. Some nights he doesn’t sleep even then. He has suddenly seen something about the world, about existence, that keeps him awake.

I suspect that what he actually saw was the vastness of the present moment. He encountered God, and wasn’t able to open to the immensity of that light and life and love. But he made a philosophical conundrum out of the experience so he wouldn’t have to face its reality. He could ponder it theoretically.

His question, stated briefly, was: what happens when we die? He knew the theoretical answer, provided by his culture and religion—we go to heaven—but that suddenly no longer seemed adequate. When he tried to envision eternal life in the presence of God, he pictured a huge grassy shady park under balmy weather where everyone sat around chatting, God in the middle apparently (this was one big park).

That sounded all right for a while—he loved his grandmother, imagined sitting with her—but throughout eternity? People would never do anything? They would never change? Questions flooded his mind. What if God finally got tired of the whole thing and decided to kill everybody, just out of boredom? What if he was moody, like everybody else? He might pick people off one at a time, for fun. Or what if he suddenly died? People thought he was immortal, and he had definitely lived a long time, but it turned out to be extreme longevity, not immortality (not that David knew those words). What if God wasn’t around anymore? Then what would they do?

In addition to all the questions (there were dozens more, hundreds), he kept pondering two concepts that would not leave him alone, infinite space and endless time. He saw himself sailing off through a black space eternally, endlessly. He never got anywhere because, since space was limitless, there wasn’t any where. There was no such thing as location. The thought was dizzying. It was terrifying.

The boy lay in bed pondering those thoughts by the hour. He grew frightened also at the more immediate fact that he wasn’t sleeping. What if he didn’t get to sleep for two hours, three? What if he didn’t get to sleep for the rest of the night? How would he function at school the next day? What if he couldn’t get to sleep the next night, or the next? What if this problem with sleeping became a permanent condition? What if he never got to sleep again?

The questions had a certain similarity to those he asked about eternity, started small and built on one another, finally becoming immense. Eventually he couldn’t take all the questions anymore, went to talk to his father.

The man was 41years old. He was an elder in the Presbyterian church, at the height of his career as one of Pittsburgh’s most prominent dermatologists (his own father had been the city’s first). He had also just found out, or was about to find out—I have even wondered if he somehow subliminally communicated this fact to his son, bringing about the crisis—that he had leukemia, which would kill him six years later. When he had first found out, he kept the news to himself, but his wife noticed his restlessness, heard him heaving huge sighs, finally asked him what was wrong.

His reaction when his son stumbled into his bedroom—sometime close to midnight—with this vague fear of death, darkness, immensity, eternity (I have no idea how I expressed it) was something between puzzlement and embarrassment. Where did such a little guy get such huge ideas? What do you say to a ten year old about the great metaphysical questions of humankind? He sat with him in the easy chair in his bedroom, put his arms around him—that physical part of the transaction may have been the most important—and spoke.

I have sometimes thought that what my father said that night was a perfect answer to my questions, sometimes thought he didn’t answer them at all. Of all the things he ever said to me, it is the most abstract, the most metaphysical, the “largest.” It is the thing I most remember fifty years later.

He said that when we’re young, when we’re babies, we think the entire world revolves around us. We cry and somebody picks us up; we’re hungry and get fed. As we get older, we gradually realize that isn’t the nature of things. The world centers—though that isn’t perhaps the best word—around God. Actually to mature is to realize that fact. The process of growth is from that self-centered feeling outward, toward God.

That was the only thing my father ever said to me that was even remotely like that. Anything else about religion was standard Presbyterian doctrine. At the end of his life, I remember, when our Scottish minister came to the hospital and prayed for him while I happened to be in the room, my father told me how much that meant to him. I was a cynical sixteen year old, already questioning religion, terrified and furious at what was happening to my father, and was genuinely puzzled. Why would God listen to that minister any more than he would to my father (or to me)? Why did the minister have to pray for him? Why couldn’t he pray for himself? What good did it do anyway?

Maybe the comfort was just in the fact that the minister showed up, the same way my father’s embrace comforted me when I was ten.

But that one statement—in the midst of my crisis about the nature of eternity, perhaps in the midst of his own confrontation with mortality—stands. It doesn’t seem standard; it doesn’t seem Presbyterian; it doesn’t sound canned. It sounds like the sense that my father had been able to make out of the mystery in his 41 years, his best answer. It is what he left me.

How do you do that? my questioning self immediately asked. How do you grow toward God?

V

That general pattern from when I was ten—pondering some cluster of questions that have no answers, lying in bed worrying about them, then worrying that I’m missing sleep, that I won’t be able to function, that my mind with all its thinking is somehow out of my control and might tip over into stark raving madness—became a syndrome in my life. It was what I went through during periods of stress.

I can look back on any number of such occasions, but the absolute worst was right after my first marriage ended, and I wondered if I would ever find another woman, or if I was a total misfit who was doomed to live alone for the rest of his life. I pondered all the things I had done wrong in my marriage, which definitely took some time. There were three nights in a row when I didn’t sleep at all. On the third night my son was with me and I was afraid I really might lose it, do something weird or terrible to him or at least in his presence. I had a stark staring feeling in my eyes; they burned, longing to close, but couldn’t seem to stay closed. My body felt leaden, bone weary. Meanwhile my mind ripped away at a terrific pace. At some point in the wee hours I woke up and wrote some lines in my journal, went to look at them ten minutes later to see if they had any coherence. I half expected the ravings of a madman.

VI

For many years after that evening with my father, but especially once I was older, after he’d died, I thought about his words. More to the point, perhaps, I pondered where they had come from: who was this man who had found deep consolation in a religion that seemed so dry and barren to me?

I distinctly remember thinking about my father, and about that old Scottish minister (who died a year after my father, of a brain tumor) as I sat in Durham Friends Meeting at the age of 19, when I was in college at Duke. War raged in Southeast Asia, and though the issues were complicated and my ideas still developing, I knew I couldn’t fight. Having given up on the Presbyterian church for Friends Meeting, where I got no guidance except to look for the Inner Light (which didn’t seem to be showing up), I kept asking myself: what is the consolation of religion? What was it my father found that I never could?

Through the years of my young manhood, well into my thirties, I went to different churches, different denominations, I read widely in philosophy and religion, but I seemed to get no closer than I’d ever been. I honestly didn’t have a clue. I didn’t know where to begin.

VII

At the age of 35, having tried every spiritual practice available to him—some quite extreme—the Buddha sat down under a tree and looked into his own body and mind, his own experience of the world, to find the truth. At the age of 43 I found myself sitting in a dim dank basement room listening to a man suggest I might do the same thing. I was resistant (my wife had dragged me to the meditation class) but I didn’t have an alternative. Like the Buddha—who had taken his ascetic practices to the point of death—I was at the end of my rope. I’d given up on religion altogether, but that left a bitter taste in my mouth, left me angry at the world.

If I’d had to put my central religious conundrum into a question (or two), it would have been: if God knows our thoughts before we have them, if he knows our minds better than we do, if he knows what we actually need, as opposed to what we think we want, why should we speak to Him? Who, after all, is the wise one here? And why (by the way) should we sing hymns, sing the Doxology, recite the Apostle’s Creed, say the Lord’s Prayer, listen to some mediocre intellect interpret scripture; why should we dress uncomfortably every week and sit in a stuffy room just in order to please God? Does that really please God? Our utterly dreadful renditions of those hymns?

The answer of the man in that basement room was: don’t do that. Don’t do any of it. Just sit there.

I didn’t believe what he said. I had no reason to. On the other hand, I had nothing better to do. And for whatever reason, all my life, I’ve been a person who, when a teacher tells him to do something, he does it. Why not? Why the hell would you take a class, paying good money, if you’re not going to do what the teacher tells you to?

Gradually, over a period of weeks, months, years—the process is still very much going on, eighteen years later—I found what I’d been looking for. I found what my father and that old Scottish minister had. I found the heart of all religious and spiritual practice.

It’s not an idea, so no book or sermon could ever convince me of it. It’s more like a feeling, though not really a feeling either, just a felt sense, of connection, to God, the universe, to everything that is. It’s the rough equivalent of my father putting his arms around me that night when I was ten, or the minister showing up in his hospital room as my father was dying, but it doesn’t depend on circumstances, is present all the time. You get it from hours of sitting and contemplating not your existence (as we used to say) but the fact that you exist, the sheer fact of being, what one teacher calls the “isness” of life. It is the simplest action in the world. Also one of the most frightening, and most mysterious.

VIII

Along this path (if sitting on your ass is a path) I had the opportunity, numerous times, to go through a total crisis—like those nights when I was ten years old, or those nights after my marriage ended—by means of what one friend called “the greatest invention of humankind,” the ten-day (or seven day, or five day) meditation retreat. In that situation, whatever you characteristically do in moments of deep stress comes up. I, as I have all my life, worry about questions that have no answer, lie awake and worry about not sleeping, worry about not being able to do the retreat (which is a little silly, since we’re not doing anything). I get into a terrible state. I have a supervised nervous breakdown.

It’s as if I’m ten years old again (oh, those golden days). But I’m older, and have more resources, and have gone through the process many times. There’s no reason for it to happen. It happens for no reason.

What I have found is that all the questions—which seem to be what the crisis is all about—are an utter dead end, a kind of subterfuge. There’s no answer to them, or if you do find an answer, there’s always another question (who created God? Then who created that being?). The questions themselves are a distraction (as the Buddha realized, so he refused to answer them). But what are they a distraction from?

The sheer terror, or sheer joy, the deep intensity, of opening to the present moment, which is infinite and endless.

There’s no alternative to that. It’s something we must do and that we’re deeply afraid of. But if we can allow that terror, if we can open to the fear—which itself is a part of the moment—we find that as we open, the world does too. We open and it opens. Opening happens.

The opening goes on forever.