I am reading a book about Zen meditation by Elaine MacInnes which is very helpful, especially in its insistence on being in the body in the present moment. Only this is real. The past does not exist, nor the future; only the present moment. If one is to become aware of Reality it can only happen in the present moment. One of the reasons why falling in love is such an exhilarating experience is because when one is with ones lover one is wholly in the now, in the present moment. All the senses are absorbed by her, her beauty, the music of her laugh, the shape of her, the texture of her skin, her smell. Past and future no longer matter. All that matters is this magic now when all ones senses are captivated by this object of every desire and the prospect of possessing her, of being oned with her.

However, such an experience can so dominate the attention that all perspective is lost. Meditation allows us to place some distance from the attention and objects of desire. In meditation there is no object of desire. There is no object. Dualism runs right to the heart of the psyche; mind-body, body-soul, subject-object, I-Thou. Sartre describes the tyranny of The Other seen as a constant threat to the ego, which is tender and diminutive, hesitant to reveal itself lest it be dominated by, or worse, rejected by the other. And yet, paradoxically, the longing to annihilate this rift runs equally deep. Hence the desire to possess the other if possible. Failing that to overcome or annihilate the other. Failing that the only recourse is into a private stronghold, walled and barred against the outside. The experience of enlightenment, on the other hand, is that there are not two. There is neither ego, nor other. Tat tvam asi. That art thou.

The trouble when one gets to my age, especially if they have a health problem which makes them aware of impending mortality, is that they become aware of all the things they have not done and of the things they have done but now no longer can. The imagination becomes filled with regretful nostalgia, wishful ‘if only’, and a longing to be able to live dozens of lives so that one could do all the things one desires. But it is not to be. I can see how this could generate bitterness and mordant regrets. I can see why the idea of reincarnation might be very attractive, if only one could carry over memories from life to life. But all this is due to a failure to understand what the process of life is, where it leads and what it means.

Life is not about experiencing for the sake of experience, nor about savouring and enjoying the new, the exciting, the exotic. Nor is life about cultivating the ego, expanding and embellishing it so that it can stand on its own in an alien universe. Life is about love. Only love can annihilate the gap between the ego and the other and make the two one without diminishing either. On the contrary. This is why love is at the heart of all religions.

Descartes was right in a way in assuming a split between mind and body. Though I think the split is not so much between mind and body as between being in a world of fantasy and ratiocination and being a physical and mental unity of awareness. Zen meditation is concerned, I think, with getting back to that original awareness before self-awareness allowed us to construct a mental world of fantasy and concepts, of day-dreams and wishful projections. We live too much in the head and the mind is a cork bobbing on a sea of emotions, feelings and moods. Meditation helps us to get out of the head and to be fully in the now so that we are physically present in our actions and not, as so often, miles away.

But why should inhabiting the now be so important? Why should one go through years of discipline and long hours of meditation simply to be fully present to oneself? Part of the answer is that only the now exists and our actions and reactions can only take place in the now. Too often the remembered past and the imagined future colour, distort even, our perceptions and determine our actions. To live in the now is to be fully present to oneself, to the others we meet, to the world we inhabit. It is also, though I haven’t quite worked out why, to be aware of the limits of existence and therefore of the transcendent.

In a sense, the fantasy world of the mind is a timeless world. The past and the future can be made present at will and the present can be made to disappear. Being timeless there can be no progress. The process of becoming is held in abeyance. It is a sterile place. The world of the now is a world that is constantly becoming, a world of a multitude of possibilities. It is not closed in on itself but open. It is open to and aware of the stream of life, open to the kaleidoscope of nature, to the actions and interactions of others, to being. Being in the now is not the total absorption in a task, or an activity, or a sensation, so that one is hardly aware of anything else. Being in the now is to be present to the now and, at the same time, present to all that is going on within and without.

(MacInnes, E; Light Sitting in Light: A Christian’s Experience of Zen, Fount, London 1996)

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