by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, February 2019
First published in Parabola
“With an open heart we can see and sense the sacred nature of all of life.”
A simple and essential spiritual truth teaches that only being awake in the moment is real. Only then can the strawberry be tasted in its full sweetness, the plum blossom be seen in its fragile beauty, without memory or preconception. This is the Zen moment of satori, when we are fully present in the experience, in life, as it is. It is a moment “in and out of time,” which we usually glimpse only for an instant before the thoughts and the patterns of our consciousness cloud over our eyes.
I first experienced this at the age of seventeen, when, through a strange set of circumstances, I was sent for work experience to a coconut plantation on a remote island off the coast of Papua New Guinea. This tropical island was so beautiful and remote, and so other than anything I had experienced until then, that all the images that normally covered my mind, or gave me any sense of self, had no grip and slowly faded away until I found myself moment by moment present in its primal world: butterflies in myriad colors, wild parrots screaming in the palm trees, storm clouds a dark wall over the water. Here there was no time, no thought, just pure awareness—changeless and changing every instant.
After half a year I packed my bag and travelled gradually back to the world I knew, and time returned to my life. Half a century later I still find those moments—the egrets white in the wetlands on my early morning walk, a downy falcon on the telephone lines. In the evening sunlight, watching the different birds at the birdfeeder, life is present as a simple essence. But a certain innocence has been lost: these present moments are surrounded by an awareness of a world that is changing, a beauty that is being polluted, a wonder vanishing.
Spiritual practices—meditation, mindfulness—can help give us access to these moments. But is it enough just to live them in their innocence, or do we need to bring an awareness of the changing story that surrounds them, a story of the Earth abused and exploited, species depleted, waters made toxic? And how can we reconcile the wonder of the moment with our responsibility and love for the Earth that gives us these moments? What does it really mean to live in the now?
When I was immersed in the primal beauty of a remote island, there was no sense of responsibility. Life was fully present around me—the power of the wind and rain bending the palm trees, the fragility of a spider’s web caught in sunlight. And I was part of this landscape, aware but not separate. Now, when I watch the fog coming in from the ocean, or a baby fawn eating the grass outside my window, there is another quality of consciousness present, a deeper awareness. The passing years have changed me; an innocence is lost. Often there is a sadness beneath the surface, a sadness that comes from knowing how humanity is treating this beautiful and fragile web we call life. I wonder how long this landscape will last, how will it be for my grandchildren.
And it is not just the surface landscape that calls to me. The primal beauty that spoke to me when I was a teenager carried a note that I now know belongs to the sacred—to that hidden pulse that gives life its wonder and meaning. And this note I sense is also passing, is becoming even more hidden, less accessible. Something essential within the core of life is changing, often without our noticing. We are in the time of the “Great Forgetting,” of losing an elemental color of life, while our surface life distracts us with its constant noise and clutter. The moment is fully alive, both in what is present but also with what is more and more absent, like a childhood landscape remembered only in your dreams.
Passing from innocence to experience, awareness of the moment has many ingredients. If we listen carefully it carries the stories of the present time, of what is being destroyed, abandoned, desecrated. As much as we respond to the joy of a newborn baby, it is important that we are also aware of the colors that are beginning to fade, of an interior music that is becoming fainter and fainter. We are here to hear the stories of the Earth, of the life that is around us—not as children without responsibility, but bearing part of the burden for what is happening. Each in our own way we recognize and respond to what is changing.
Sadly much contemporary spirituality that helps us to be present in the moment does not embrace this responsibility, but instead focuses more often on self-fulfillment or well-being. Then too easily we remain as children—entranced, but not fully engaged. The now is the seed of the future, and as such needs to be held within the heart and soul if it is to grow, if our grandchildren are to see the same colors in the rainbow. Love and care for the Earth and all its communities belong to the moment that is fully felt, that is lived from the depths of one’s being. When Rumi said, “Return to the root of the root of your Self,” he was speaking of the real mystery that lives within each of us, that connects us to the sun and the moon as well as to all of creation.
In the now there is no change. There is no before or after. Each moment is complete in itself. This is part of the intensity of the experience that belongs to the consciousness of the Self—eternal, immutable, the still center of our turning world. And yet because life is a single, interconnected, living being, within each moment is threaded the flow of the tides and the turning of the galaxies; to the geese flying south, a “v” across the sky; to lovers caressing each other. These are the stories of life born moment by moment, woven together into a single living tapestry. In each moment what is unchanging and what is always changing are bonded together, telling the secrets of creation to anyone awake enough to listen with the ear of the heart, see with the eye of the heart, feel with a lover’s sensitivity.
The moment is magical, alive in many dimensions. It is far more than just an awareness of the physical world around us. Often we experience these moments most easily in nature, because nature is alive only in the eternal present. But of course every breath is now, whether walking a city street or riding in the subway. If the moment is fully lived, it connects the soul and the body and allows for the direct, unconditioned experience of life. It also enables the soul to see the story that is unfolding, so that it can guide us to how to participate for the benefit of the whole. In the moment all the interconnections of life in the inner and outer worlds are present.
Being fully present in the moment we can see the vibrations of the hummingbird’s wings as it drinks nectar from the flower. And we are also alive within the story of the Earth stretching across millennia. At this moment the Earth’s destiny is in transition and crisis, in the midst of the sixth mass extinction of species, or Anthropocene, the first mass extinction caused primarily by human beings. And there is also another story: that this planet has the potential to make a spiritual shift in its evolution at this time, as hinted at in the Mayan long count calendar that saw 2012 as a moment of galactic alignment and the beginning of a new era—a “Great Turning.” Time and the timeless are woven together in the stories that surround us, and we are a part of this fabric of creation, co-creating a destiny that stretches to the stars.
How we live this destiny depends upon how we live the intersection of change and the changeless, the eternal and the transitory. This is where the two seas meet, where the Divine and human intersect. It is here that the destiny of the soul is fully realized, and here where we are also awake to the world soul, the anima mundi, and its sacred nature. Here our hearts can hear the real need of the time, and open to the story of love that is life’s greatest secret. Science may tell us that our world is made of atoms, particles, and electrons, but there is a deeper wisdom that knows that the world is created out of love. As human beings we have the capacity to fully live this mystery of love, and so participate in the healing and transformation of the Earth.
The Earth is a living being born from love, being remade by love each instant. And the Earth is waiting and needing our love. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh:
Real change will only happen when we fall in love with our planet. Only love can show us how to live in harmony with nature and with each other and save us from the devastating effects of environmental destruction and climate change.
The Earth has been wounded by our greed and exploitation, and by our forgetfulness of its sacred nature. It needs us to remember and reconnect, to once again recognize that we are not separate but a part of this living being. And love is the simplest key to this reconnection, because the nature of love is oneness. Love is the most ordinary, simplest, and most direct way to uncover what is real—the innermost secrets of life and its primal unity. It is at the root of all that exists, as well as in every bud breaking open at springtime, every fruit ripening in fall.
Love can open us to deep participation in the life of the whole; it can teach us once again how to listen to life, feel life’s heartbeat, sense its soul. It can align us with the sacred within all of creation, and reconnect us with our innate knowing that the Divine is present in everything—in every breath, every stone, every animate and inanimate thing. In the oneness of love, everything is included, and everything is sacred.
The “sacred” is not something primarily religious or even spiritual. It is not a quality we need to learn or to develop. It belongs to the primary nature of all that is. When our ancestors knew that everything they could see was sacred, this was not something taught but instinctively known. It was as natural as sunlight, as necessary as breathing. We all have within us a sense of the sacred, a sense of reverence, however we may articulate it. It is a part of our human nature.
We each carry this primal knowing within our consciousness, even if we have forgotten it. A relationship to the sacred is older than any formalized religion, even though it is found at the foundation of many religions. It is a fundamental recognition of the wonder, beauty, and divine nature of the world. It is a felt reverence, an inner sense—we even speak of “a sense of the sacred.” If we remember the sacred we will find our self in a world as whole as it is holy. However we may call this mystery, it permeates all of creation. It may be more easily felt in certain places—in ancient groves, beneath star-filled skies, in temples or cathedrals, in the chords of music. But this is a mystery that belongs to all that exists—there is nothing that is separate from it. As such it celebrates the unity that is within and around us, the oneness of which we are a part. Our sense of the sacred is a recognition that we are a part of this deeper all-embracing mystery.
With an open heart we can see and sense the sacred nature of all of life. We can return reverence to the multiplicity of creation, and to its “interbeing.” Love and the sacred nature of creation belong together: they are crucial to life’s well-being. And in each moment we can live this power of love; with all our senses we can be awake to what is sacred. Here we step into the arena of real service, service to life and love, with our hands and hearts. Life will speak to us as it spoke to our ancestors, and if we listen attentively it will tell us how to help in its time of need. This is when the moment becomes fully alive and prayer and action are bonded together.
We cannot return to the simplicity, the innocence, of an indigenous lifestyle. We live in a world more complex and fractured. Science and technology can help us—it is essential we reduce carbon emissions, plastic, and other pollutants—but only if that knowledge is in harmony with the whole of creation, and does not just constellate more patterns of separation, which sadly have until now been a central part of their story. The head and the heart need to work together—the wisdom of oneness be born again.
With simple acts we can weave the stories of love back into life, so that once again it can sing the note of unity, and so begin the work of healing itself. Small things with great love reach further than we can see, because they become part of the fabric of creation. And there are many ways to engage: from the simple act of praying for the world, to planting flowers or vegetables in our garden with loving hands, to listening to the troubles of another with a receptive heart. Through our loving we nourish life in unseen ways. Because life is an expression of love, each act of love is a participation and gift to the whole.
Love belongs only to the moment. Love, born in the eternal now, frees us from the patterns that constrict and bind, which is why Rumi says, “Step out of the circle of time and into the circle of love.” Love cannot be caught or conditioned, but “arrives complete just there like the moon at the window.” Its essence is too pure to be changed, but it changes everything. Love makes the atoms spin and hearts turn towards God. It is life’s greatest gift, and we can give it back to life—a meal for family or friends cooked with love and attention that nourishes the body and soul. Walking “as if you are kissing the earth with your feet” you offer this gift to the Earth, where it is most needed.
Through the hearts of humanity love can flow into creation, awakening the world moment by moment. Love grows with the giving, and it flows through the web of life, changing everything it touches. Freeing both the world and humanity from the self-destructive story of separation, it can return us to the oneness that is life’s true nature. Then life can start to sing again, not of exploitation or greed, plastic-filled oceans and clear-cut forests, but of wonder and beauty and the sacred nature of all that exists.