One of the most popular sayings among spiritual people is to “Be Here Now.” The phrase was first popularized by Ram Dass in a book of the same name. I remember first encountering this saying over thirty years ago. I did not understand the phrase then and I still do not understand the phrase now.
I heard Ram Dass at Dartmouth College with a group of my fellow students who were all upper-middle class to upper class kids. The phrase was meaningful to them as they said it helped them stop worrying about the future and got them to focus on the present. They said it also helped them not be so uptight and relax into the present. I was born into a working class family on Eight Mile road (made famous in the Eminem movie). When I heard the phrase “Be Here Now” all I could think about were people in my hometown who had no problem being here now. Except this meant being in immediate contact with their lower urges and desires. Their “here now” was: I want to have sex right here, right now (regardless of what that might lead to as neither of us have birth control). Or I want to steal these things right here, right now. I often still experience life that way: I have lower urges and desires bubbling up into my consciousness, and it is better for everyone if I control them instead of being here now.
My wife’s father was a Wall Street lawyer, and she says the phrase is meaningful for upper-middle class people who have more inhibitions than most working class people. She also says it is useful to help people be less concerned for the future and getting things in the future or less stuck in regrets over the past. That makes sense to me, and I can see how it would be helpful to those people. But I can also see how this saying can lead to problems for people who believe in it.
The first problem is that this saying does not address the issue of lower urges and desires. I would not have mentioned this again, but this neglect is a recurring problem in many spiritual teachers. Don Miguel Ruiz says that we are perfect as we are because we are one with the Infinite. He says no one should tell us we need to improve in any way. Deepak Chopra and other teachers say that all of our desires are given to us by God. Many teachers also say that our only problem is our fear and lack of trust. None of these teachers care about the problem of separating lower desires from more spiritual ones, and they often deny there is any such problem.
Most of these teachers come from the New Thought tradition that emphasizes our oneness with God/the Universe. They say that the Universe always responds to our desires and gives us exactly what we want. This is considerably different from earlier, ascetic spirituality that emphasized denying our bodily desires in order to become spiritual. The kind of spirituality I practice, active mysticism, is a middle ground between the two where we neither deny nor indulge our desires, but monitor them closely to make sure they fit with our spiritual paths.
The second problem with this saying is that it over-focuses attention on the present and your feelings at the moment. One example of this is Eckhart Tolle, who emphasizes being in the present moment or the power of now. He says we should “allow the present moment to be… Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. Make it your friend and ally, not your enemy. This will miraculously transform your whole life.” (The Power of Now, p. 35-6) Tolle so emphasizes being in the now and how it will “miraculously transform your whole life,” he says we have to get out of the past and the future and just be in the now as the “past and future obviously have no reality of their own.” (Power of Now, p. 50)
After I stayed at home raising my children for ten years, I intuited it was my spiritual path to get a scholarship to go to graduate school. To get this scholarship, I needed to intensively study for the Graduate Record Exam or GREs. In fact, to get a good score I would have to study eight hours a day for months. Even though I would ordinarily find it extremely boring to study such useless material, and a part of me wanted to just live in the now and enjoy the now by doing something else, I did not do that. I knew that if I did not intensely study for the GREs my future would be worse. This idea gave me energy in the now by connecting myself to the future. And because I was connected to my higher spiritual purpose and my future, I became energized when I studied and even felt joyful. This was something my mind helped do as it enlarged my present by connecting the present to the future. Tolle is right that if we are not on our spiritual path and are only concerned with ego things, we can get carried away with getting these things in the future. But if we are on our spiritual path, concern for the future can be a part of making a better present. In those type of situations, being here now is unhelpful advice.
The third problem is that this saying is part of the emphasis on feelings that is endemic in the New Age movement. Spiritual people nowadays praise going with their feelings while often denigrating their minds and ignoring their responsibilities. This emphasis on feelings is found in the common saying that “if it rings true, it is true” and the even more popular saying “follow your bliss.” Sometimes an idea rings true because it registers in some part of you deeper than your intellect. Many times though (as in the idea popular in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s that the Jews were the cause of all Germany’s problems) something rings true to people just because of their lower feelings. (This saying is further discussed here). Sometimes following your bliss is following your higher calling to where you should be. Other times, though, it leads you to follow a fantasy or wishful thinking. Or it causes you to shirk your legitimate responsibilities because they are troublesome right now.
The last problem with this saying is that it is part of the New Age’s over emphasis on contemplative mysticism. In contemplative mysticism a person becomes one with God or the Ground of Being or Buddha Mind. A person doing this is often described as getting into such a deeper state of consciousness that she loses any sense of time and exists in the eternal present. The past and future no longer exist and only the bliss of being in the now exists. Many contemporary spiritual teachers praise this kind of experience as the goal of our lives and hold up this kind of enlightenment as the highest thing for humans to do. While this kind of experience is nice for someone having it, it is pretty meaningless for society as a whole. The New Age movement is making a mistake being so enthralled with this kind of mysticism. We should be more concerned with active mysticism, where people (like Gandhi, Harriet Tubman, Joan of Arc or Martin Luther King, Jr.) received divine messages to help them help other people. These people did meaningful things in society, not just have good personal experiences. [I further discuss active mysticism here.]
My name is Joseph Waligore. I currently have a part-time job teaching philosophy and religious studies at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. More information about me can be found at my MySpace profile or my Facebook profile.
This website is one of four websites I have. At makingyourconnections.com I have a posted a significant portion of a self-help book I am currently writing. This book helps people succeed in the world by making their connections, the special people in their lives. Another website, www.followingtheflow.com is for spiritually oriented people and discusses very similar ideas from a more spiritually oriented perspective. Another one, www.josephwaligore.com is for academically or intellectually oriented people. It has my writings about spiritual philosophies such as Stoicism, Socrates, the Deists, the Enlightenment period, and the rise of modern science.
There is a Facebook group called Flowing. People interested in meeting other people who are interested in these ideas and/or participating in discussions about these ideas are invited to join the group.
Many people reach this site through keyword advertisements. It might be of interest that Joseph got the money for these ads through his daytrading profits.