A basic spiritual teaching is to live in the present moment, the now. Rather than being caught in our mind’s patterns, planning for the future or memories of the past, we are present in the intensity of each moment. In this way we are more fully alive. Awareness of breath can help one stay awake to each moment. Watching the breath come and go, rise and fall, one is always in the now. Meditation practices can also help to free us from the mind’s incessant chatter, to stay attuned to the living moment, where the fragrance of the rose is present in its beauty and wonder, the sweetness of the strawberry always tasted for the very first time.
This practice carries the simplicity of what is, as in the Zen moment of satori, in which the empty mind is a clear mirror for what is always around us—the spider spinning its web, the cries of wild geese. Here is an experience luminous and evanescent, a dewdrop world.
In my own experience I have come to discover that what is born from this living moment is a quality of awareness very different to the demands and rigidity of rational consciousness. Sitting at the feet of my teacher I experienced how each moment is not just a sensory awareness of the physical world around us, but also a meeting place of the inner and outer worlds, where what the Sufis call “the world of mystery” infuses the physical world of the senses. It is this meeting that makes each moment fully alive, numinous in unexpected ways. It is here that dreams are born, and love comes into the world. It is here that we are aware how everything we can see and touch is sacred.
Only in the moment is the eternal dimension of the soul present, and also love can only be experienced in the moment. As Rumi says, “Step out of the circle of time and into the circle of love.” Love belongs outside of time, which is why it is always forever. The true nature of service can also only be lived when one is fully attentive to the needs of the moment. Only in the moment can one fully participate in life. It is here, in the moment that the stories of the future can be written, or as my teacher said, “we all work for the future…but only the moment of now matters.”
The moment does not deny the past, nor dismiss the future. Each moment contains both, but in a way that is not fixed, that does not imprison us. Only in the present moment can one watch the patterns that time has woven, and is waiting to weave, like the seasons, or the flow of a river. In the timeless moment there are many seeds for a future waiting to happen, just as there are stories from the past. Sometimes the present is experienced by an empty mind, sometimes it is rich in possibilities. The past carries memories of the soul which we need, just as the future draws us towards as yet unlived dreams. In each moment there are many possibilities, what I have called threads of love, that we can follow. Sadly, most people are too blinkered by their patterns of thought and conditioning to catch these threads, to be fully alive to their possibilities. But those who live on this threshold of consciousness can sense that there are other stories to live. At this time in our shared destiny it is increasingly important to be awake to these possibilities, to follow these almost hidden pathways.
In the following piece I try to describe this hidden pathway and the quality of awareness that is needed to be able to follow it. And why is it so important …
A HIDDEN PATHWAY
The seasons pass like leaves turning from bud to green to golden to brown. Here on the coast Summer is the time for fog, sometimes sunshine breaking through by mid-morning. The fawns are still young, speckled, tentative with their mothers, while the quails stand guard over their babies. These simple things make sense, like hearing the egrets call to each other in the pre-dawn hours. Beyond our little town it seems the world grows darker, war and climate change and the shadows of social media, discord no longer just arguments between neighbors, but deep divisiveness. My sense that it was not always like this is not just the nostalgia of an old man, but the growing fractures of a broken world. The result of our brutality against nature, and the shadows of racial and social injustice.
Getting older I am no longer driven through the days, but rather watch the rise and fall of the tides and the way the world changes. I do feel that there is a way through these darkening days, a way that belongs to love and our deepest human nature. But I also sense that few will follow it, as it is almost invisible, like an unmarked path through a meadow of wild flowers. There is a gate, but it is broken and overgrown, almost part of the hedgerow. It is not found on Twitter or TikTok, but belongs to old stories. Sometimes, in the dawn or evening light, in the moment of half-light, you may see it clearly, but the noise and clamor of the day obscure it.
It leads us out of the miasma of the present time, away from these growing patterns of discord. It speaks the language of the soul—a language of our dreams and sense of belonging. It is like a poem in a world of prose, a color at the edge of a rainbow. It does not solve the problems of the present time, reduce carbon emissions or end fossil fuels. Dreams are not like this. Rather it connects us to another story, one that belongs to a distant future and a forgotten past.
One needs to understand that it was not always like this, not always a time of conquest and commerce. There was a time when the colors sang in the air and we knew where we belonged. And our hearts carry this memory, even if our minds have long forgotten, even if our memories have no place for another way to be. Hopefully a few people—it always only takes a few—will find this pathway, will go through the broken gate and walk the wildflower meadow. Then they will begin to remember, to reconnect to this deeper wisdom of the Earth and their own souls. They will begin to glimpse a future that is not broken, and a way to walk into this future.
Now is not the time for plans or strategies, even though in our present mindset this is all that we know. We cannot afford to be fixed on any ideology, any dreams of a green future, or myth of sustainable growth. Sadly these “solutions” come from the same mindset that has created this “problem.” We do not dare realize that no solution will save us, will fix the broken world we have created. When an era comes to an end, when a civilization dies, when its way of life is simply unstainable, it is not a problem to be solved. Rather we need to relearn a quality of attention, a way of listening, of sensing. We need to relearn another language.
This way of thinking is more fluid than our rational consciousness, more holistic than linear, a way of remembering as much as of knowing. There was a time in the very beginning, when we spoke the same language as the world around us—the birds and the animals, even the rivers and winds. When we were a part of “the great conversation,” and were attentive to a fully animate world in which we belonged. When we had a kinship with the spirits of the trees and our dreams were interwoven with the land. We may have clear-cut many of the ancient forests, poisoned the meadows where birds and wildflowers flourished, but the patterns of kinship remain in our DNA, our ancestral memories. We never really became separate from the earth under our feet, whatever we may have been taught. And so this way of thinking and being is still present, like the pathway we need to rediscover.
Maybe in the future parents or schools will teach us this language, this primal knowing. You cannot learn it via a smartphone app, or a YouTube video. I learned it in the years I spent sitting at the feet of my teacher, a space where the worlds came together, the secrets of the heart and the dramas of everyday life. It is also found in the ancient tradition of Sufi teaching stories, where inner mysteries are conveyed through simple and often humorous situations. These stories try to shift our consciousness away from the patterns that imprison us, as in the well-known story of Mulla Nasruddin frantically searching for something in the street. When the local townspeople offered to help, they asked him what he was looking for:
“I’ve lost my key” replied Mulla.
After some search someone had the urge to ask the place where, exactly, the key was lost.
“I lost the key in the house,” replied the Mulla
“Then why are you searching for it in the street?” was the obvious question asked to him.
“Because there is more light here,” replied the Mulla.
This story tells the simple spiritual truth that the key to any deeper realization is not found in the outer world, however easy it is to look there. Centuries later this story also poignantly points to our present attempt to try to “find the key” to an accelerating climate crisis in the clear light of rational consciousness, when it is waiting to be found in a less visible interior space. We have known about the science of carbon emissions and rising temperatures for decades, but this has not changed our self-destructive way of life, which has its roots in colonization and exploitation, and a foundational desacralization of the Earth.
Stories can point us beyond our present patterns, and language can help to articulate the landscape we need to explore. For many Indigenous Peoples their language and place are intimately connected, often conveying a detailed knowledge of the flora, fauna, sacred sites, and songlines of the area. In my own journey I have been drawn to describe a space where the inner and outer worlds meet, a shoreline where dreams come into our lives, where synchronicities happen. I also rediscovered this language in nature, walking the trails near to my home, in the trees and birds, flowers and animals, and how they all spoke to me. If nature is the first book of revelation, here were the stories in this book, like the foxglove flowers opening purple and white, or the bobcat crossing the trail in front of me. They convey the living oneness all around; how we are all part of a more-than-human world that speaks in so many voices, always articulating the same ever-changing mystery we call life.
In my writing I have tried to include this language, a hidden text that attempts to unravel the dream of the present time, what belongs to the deeper story of this moment, and what is just the surface noise of our civilization. It is not easy to catch this thread when there are so many distractions, so much is clamoring for our attention. To hold a space where one can be attuned, hear and understand what life is trying to tell us, is increasingly demanding.
But there is a vital need for this hidden thread to be held in our hearts and minds, so that this other story does not get lost, completely forgotten. With all of our present knowledge we do not know where we are going. Even in the outer world, with the environmental tipping points we may be triggering, we do not have any detailed understanding of the changes taking place, of how the landscape of our world is shifting. We can see the dangers of increasing fires and floods, but these are just signs of vaster upheavals as the temperature rises and the patterns of biodiversity are stretched and broken. Rational thinking has isolated us more than we realize, even as the natural world tries to warn us, to remind us that nothing is separate. Science is not going to save us, and our computers cannot model the future that is approaching. I am reminded of the Moken, the sea people in East Asia who responded to the coming tsunami by remembering the old stories, and when the water first receded took their boats out to deeper water and survived, unlike the fishermen who were not attentive to the waves and stayed close to the land and lost their lives.
The Moken were fully attentive to the moment, responding from their ancestral memories as well as the moment-by-moment movement of the waves. This is a quality of awareness we need as our world becomes increasingly uncertain.
There is a pathway that can take us through these darkening years, hidden and yet visible. There is a quality of consciousness that is waiting to be lived to help us see where we are going, a language we need to learn or remember so that we can read the signs. Today an unseasonal rain came, and soon the grass will turn again from golden to green. I wonder how it will be for my grandchildren’s grandchildren. Will we have helped them to find their way back to the living land, or will they be walking through a wasteland even more desolate than our present toxic environment?
© 2022 The Golden Sufi Center, www.goldensufi.org