In the now

There is an old story about a group of ancient Greeks, a group of mercenaries known as the Ten Thousand. They were part of Cyrus’ army when he was defeated at the battle of Cunaxa on the Euphrates by the Persian King Artaxerxes. They were led by the Athenian general and historian Xenophon. For months they struggled through hostile lands and over alien mountains, despairing sometimes of ever seeing home again. Until, at long last, on scaling the last mountain they saw, in the distance, the Black Sea. And a great cry went up, “Thalassa, thalassa.” (The sea, the sea.) They were as good as home.

I remember once in the American Mid-west looking around me and thinking – go for a thousand miles in any direction and you still will not reach the sea. For someone born and bred within yards of the Atlantic it was a very claustrophobic feeling. For me, as for the ancient Greeks, to be by the shores of the sea was to be in touch with home. The waters that lapped the eastern shores of America were the same waters that surged round the shores of Europe.

To be in the now is like being at sea, the same sea that touches simultaneously every coast in the world. To be present to this moment now is to be in the same now, the same present moment, of every single person. It may be the only thing we share, but share it we do. Many, perhaps most others, are not present there with us. They are, perhaps, wandering the alien mountains of the mind, or captured by fantasies, or enthralled by dreams, or preoccupied with their obsessions and compulsions, infatuated with money, or sex, or power, or just drifting. But for many this now is real, unforgettable, palpable reality. It may be raw and bleeding; it may be ecstatically happy; it may be of the utmost significance, but whatever it is, it is unmistakably real. This is the now that we share, whether we realise it or not. This is the now which is pregnant with possibilities. It is the fulcrum on which we move our lives.

But some, very many people, are imprisoned in this now by suffering, by pain, anguish, grief. If they could escape from it of course they would, but such is the centripetal effect of suffering that it draws all our attention, all our energy, away from wider perspectives into the affliction from which there is no escaping. For many more of us our awareness of these people in this now which we all share — that they are hurting, that they are in despair, that they are facing torment and death — this awareness is distressing. We feel for them. We would, if we could, help them, but we feel so powerless.

Tibetans have a practice they call Tonglen. It is a form of breathing meditation, a way of exercising compassion. Compassion means, literally, to suffer with. As one breaths in one breaths in all the pain, anguish and suffering of those with whom we share this present moment. As one breaths out one breaths out peace, gentleness and love. We may be separated by thousands of miles but we are all linked by this present moment now. We are linked by our common humanity. We are linked by the Spirit who lives and breaths in us and comes to the aid of our weakness. In this now we all touch Reality.

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