The idea of being in the present is extremely popular in spiritual circles. A classic book by Ram Dass calls us to "be here now." Another by Eckhart Tolle extols "the power of now." Little children and animals, the conventional wisdom goes, are free of suffering because they're blissfully taking each moment as it comes. We are told that each moment is a gift, which is why they call it "the present."
The Course, too, emphasizes the idea of being in the present. But what exactly does this mean? This question is not as simple as it first appears, because the term "present" can be defined in different ways. In this article, I'd like to use three different definitions of "present"—the temporal present, the sensory present, and the eternal present—to clarify what I think the Course means when it calls us to be in the present.
The temporal present
The temporal present is quite simply the current time—"now" in the most ordinary sense. The temporal present for me right now is 2:42 pm on May 17, 2006. There are lots of references to this ordinary sense of "now" in the Course, as in the practice instructions where we are told to "now do this" and "now do that." We can also see the temporal present in Course quotes like the following:
It [a language that a miracle recipient can understand without fear, i.e., physical medicine] is the highest level of communication of which he is capable now. (T-2.IV.5:5)
The abilities you now possess are only shadows of your real strength. All of your present functions are divided and open to question and doubt. (T-2.IV.5:1-2)
Start now to practice your little part in separating out the holy instant. (T-15.II.6:1)
It is in your power to make this season [Christmas] holy, for it is in your power to make the time of Christ be now. (T-15.X.4:1)
As we can see in these quotes, there is nothing inherently spiritual about the temporal present. It is a wholly neutral thing that can be filled with any content. The first two quotes show it being filled with ego content (diminished communication and abilities); the second two show it being filled with holy content (practicing the holy instant, the "time of Christ"). Yet the very fact that the temporal present can go both ways is important to the Course, because it means that we have the power to choose holy content at any moment. Right now, at this time on this date, we can choose God. We don't have to wait for anything. "It is at this moment that complete salvation is offered you, and it is at this moment that you can accept it" (M-24.6:1).
In this sense, I think that being in the temporal present is part of what the Course means by being in the present. When it is given to the Holy Spirit the temporal present becomes a bridge to the eternal present: "You could live forever in the holy instant, beginning now and reaching to eternity" (T-15.IV.6:3).
The sensory present
The sensory present is what our body and physical senses are reporting to us at any particular moment in the temporal present. Being in the sensory present is focusing on sensation. This is what many people mean when they speak of being in the present. A popular idea these days is that there is something profoundly spiritual about connecting with our body and its senses, because (according to this theory) doing so frees us from the tyranny of the mind and gets us in touch with immediate experience: "Lose your mind and come to your senses."
The sensory present is also what we're really talking about when we say that little children and animals are in the present. They certainly do tend to flit from one sensation to another, without much thought of what happened the moment before or what will happen the moment after. My wife and I jokingly refer to this phenomenon in our cats as "kitty attention span."
This, however, is not what the Course means by being in the present. The Course actually tells us that the body cannot truly be experienced in the present at all (see T-18.VII.3). It has a Workbook lesson entitled "I will not use the body's eyes today" (W-pII.270.Heading)—meaning, I will not use the body's senses to tell me what is true. In its view, focusing on the report of the body's senses reinforces the apparent reality of the illusory world of sin and separation, which actually blocks awareness of the true present, the eternal present in which the real world and God abide:
Everything these messages [from the physical senses] relay to you is quite external. There are no messages that speak of what lies underneath [the real nonphysical world of light], for it is not the body that could speak of this. Its eyes perceive it not; its senses remain quite unaware of it; its tongue cannot relay its messages. (T-18.IX.3:4-6)
The body cannot know. And while you limit your awareness to its tiny senses, you will not see the grandeur that surrounds you. God cannot come into a body, nor can you join Him there. (T-18.VIII.2:1-3)
In short, focusing on the senses "leads to a perception of the world in which the proof of separation seems to be everywhere" (T-19.III.7:3). It is not too difficult to see this. Everywhere we look, we see proof of separation: separate bodies engaged in endless war in a dog-eat-dog world where everyone is doomed to die. How could being in this present bring us to God?
The eternal present
The eternal present is the timeless nonphysical reality that is always here and now but is covered up by the sensory present. Being in the eternal present is experiencing a reality that transcends the body and its senses entirely. Heaven and its knowledge abide in the eternal present, but on earth it is revealed by true perception. It is looking with the nonphysical eyes of Christ beyond the illusory world of sin and separation to the real world of holiness and love, the perceptual reflection of Heaven. This is what the Course primarily means by being in the present:
What time but now can truth be recognized? The present is the only time there is. And so today, this instant, now, we come to look upon what is forever there; not in our sight, but in the eyes of Christ. He looks past time, and sees eternity as represented there. He hears the sounds the senseless, busy world engenders, yet He hears them faintly. For beyond them all He hears the song of Heaven, and the Voice for God more clear, more meaningful, more near. (W-pI.164.1:1-6)
We enter the eternal present through the holy instant, in which we experience "the lifting of the barriers of time and space, the sudden experience of peace and joy, and, above all, the lack of awareness of the body, and of the questioning whether or not all this is possible" (T-18.VI.13:6). This may sound very advanced, but the Course assures us that "no one in this distracted world but has seen some glimpses of the other world about him" (T-13.VII.6:1). A friend of mine once told me of a time when she was walking with her father and all of a sudden she was filled with a deep, indescribable love for him. Their relationship had sometimes been contentious in the past, but now the barriers between the two of them just melted away and she experienced a profound joining in the present that changed her life forever.
Can you think of a time in your life when you experienced something similar, however faintly? This is a window into the eternal present that the Course would have us experience every moment of our lives. Its goal is to bring us to the state where "this life becomes a holy instant, set in time, but heeding only immortality" (W-pI.135.19:1).
The experiential difference between the sensory present and the eternal present
To get an idea of how different the sensory present and the eternal present are, let's do two exercises. The first is based on a meditation technique I found on the Internet, and is focused on entering the sensory present. Right now, sit quietly and do the following:
First, be aware of what is happening with your body.
Feel your breath, your heartbeat, your digestion.
Be aware of your sensations:
the feel of the chair against your back,
the feel of your clothing,
any feelings of comfort or discomfort in the body.
Now, become aware what your physical senses are reporting,
what your eyes see,
what your ears hear,
any smells or tastes you are experiencing.
Don't contemplate these things.
Don't try to make them part of your thinking process.
Just be aware of what is happening in the present moment.
How did that feel? I found it somewhat relaxing; it was a pleasant enough experience. But it didn't feel particularly profound. I didn't feel like my perspective on life was changed in any significant way.
Now let's try a Course exercise in entering the eternal present through the holy instant. Again, sit quietly, and this time do the following:
Take this very instant, now,
and think of it as all there is of time.
Nothing can reach you here out of the past,
and it is here that you are completely absolved,
completely free and wholly without condemnation.
From this holy instant wherein holiness was born again
you will go forth in time without fear,
and with no sense of change with time. (T-15.I.9:5-7)
How did that feel? Though the previous exercise was nice, I found this one much more profound and rewarding. I really felt like I was transported out of my normal frame of reference and put into contact with something truly transcendent. It was more than just relaxing; it felt peaceful in a much deeper way.
Indeed, you can really see how different this "present" is from the one the previous exercise focused on. Here, there is no reference to what is going on with the body at all. Nor is there an emphasis on freeing us from the mind. Instead, the emphasis is on freeing the mind from its oppressive burden of guilt (which ties us to the past and to the body). Instead of focusing on the changes of the body, this exercise focuses on the changeless present that is and will be the source of eternal joy long after the body has gone down to dust:
Each instant is a clean, untarnished birth, in which the Son of God emerges from the past into the present. And the present extends forever. It is so beautiful and so clean and free of guilt that nothing but happiness is there. (T-15.I.8:4-6)
Being in the eternal present actually enables us to be present in the world of the senses in a truly loving way
This idea that being in the present means being in the eternal rather than the sensory present naturally brings up questions. Does being in the eternal present mean that we are constantly in la-la land and out of touch with the world around us? Shouldn't we be present to what's going on in the physical world, especially when we're doing something like driving? Shouldn't we be present to a person who is talking to us, listening attentively to what he or she is saying? Can anything good be revealed through the senses?
I think all of these questions have the same short answer: When we enter the eternal present, the Holy Spirit will use our senses for His purpose of salvation. His use of them will enable us to be present to the world of the senses in a truly loving way.
Ironically, by letting go of our focus on the body and its senses, I think we'll actually end up using them far more effectively. While there may certainly be times when we take leave of the senses entirely (say, during a meditation), He will enable us to use them properly when needed. When we see the world through the eyes of Christ, we'll be far more present to what really needs our attention than we were when our senses were pulled this way and that by every sight and sound. When we see other people through the eyes of Christ, we'll be far more present to them than we ever were when our senses were focused on their physical features and personalities.
And while I said above that focusing on the senses "proves" separation, the Course tells us that when the Holy Spirit's purpose of salvation becomes our own, "The senses then will seek instead for witnesses to what is true" (W-pII.4.2:7). Guided by the Holy Spirit, "They will be…careful to let no little act of charity, no tiny expression of forgiveness, no little breath of love escape their notice" (T-19.IV(A).14:4). Even physical forms, though unreal, are transformed in the holy sight of one who abides in the eternal present: "The smallest leaf becomes a thing of wonder, and a blade of grass a sign of God's perfection" (T-17.II.6:3). Wow! What would it be like to see the entire world in this way?
To sum up: At this very moment in the temporal present, we have a choice about what to focus on. One choice is to focus on the body's senses and see the sensory present. Focusing on this reinforces the apparent reality of the illusory world of sin and separation and actually blocks awareness of what the Course wants us to see. The other choice is take our focus away from the sensory present and use the eyes of Christ to see the eternal present, the timeless nonphysical reality of holiness and love that the Course does want us to see. The eternal present transcends the sensory present, but paradoxically, being in the eternal present enables us to be present to the sensory world in a truly loving way.
What, then, does it mean to be in the present? It means making that choice, moment by moment, to turn away from our focus on the sensory present and let the eyes of Christ reveal to us the eternal present that is always here, always now, always available. Perceiving the eternal present on earth will ultimately lead us to know the eternal present of Heaven: "Heaven is here. There is nowhere else. Heaven is now. There is no other time" (M-24.6:4-7). What could be more joyful than knowing that we have always been in our Father's timeless embrace?