Here is an excerpt from my book, Nothing Personal:
“Be here now” is a classic spiritual instruction, which essentially means to be in the present moment. It points towards something that is already true, towards something that is unavoidable.
It’s like me telling you to sit the way you’re sitting. You’re already doing it. You’re already being here now. No one has ever successfully left the now. If I told you to be somewhere else now or to be here some other time, you can’t do it. It’s too late to be somewhere else than here. When you just stop and look, you see how ridiculous it is that you could be anywhere else than here or that you have to do anything to be present in the now. Then, why do we even talk about it?
We talk about it because there are two kinds of nows: There’s the real now, the now that is happening, and what you could call a fake now, a made-up now, one that doesn’t really exist. Instead of experiencing the real now, we’re often experiencing our fantasies about the now. We experience something that’s not really happening. It’s like we go to sleep and have a little dream in the now, an experience of a non-existent now. Anytime thought is occurring, you’re experiencing something that’s not really happening. Even if I talk about something wonderful, like Liberation, what happens is you go inside and have a fantasy about Liberation, which is not what’s happening right now. It’s a made-up now.
We narrow our attention onto an idea about something that’s not here in an attempt to make it be here. We think that if we fantasize enough about something, it will happen; as if, for instance, fantasizing about a spouse or roommate picking up after him or herself will actually make that happen. We live in an internal, magical world, like the world of a young child, where we believe our wishes have the power to change reality.
Our capacity to fantasize is like having a machine that prints counterfeit money. We’ve all been desperately printing off counterfeit realities, and they don’t do us any good. Our fantasies never work, we can never buy anything with this fake money—it’s got Mickey Mouse on it instead of George Washington. It doesn’t do us any good.
Even when the instructions “Be here now” are given, the mind can turn it into something to do. It then creates a fantasy of what being here now would be like, and we experience that fantasy. That’s what happens when we try to be here now.
At other times, we either forget to generate a fantasy or we’re just so exhausted from the effort to maintain our fantasies, dreams, illusions, preferences, and ideas that for a moment we collapse from that effort and land in the real now.
Rather than turning this instruction into something you have to do—you have to stop fantasizing—the invitation is to experience whatever you’re experiencing now, even if what you’re experiencing is a fantasy. The point is not to shift what you’re experiencing now but to actually experience it. If what you’re experiencing now is the veil of illusion being ripped aside, exposing the real now in all of its glory—great. And if what you’re experiencing now is a thick veil of fantasy, conceptualization, and desire—separation from the real now—great. Then, that’s your experience. The invitation is to really experience that because that’s the experience you’re having, so it’s the only one you can have. The alternative is just not available right now.
When we’re desperately trying to experience the reality of these unreal things, there’s never any satisfaction, only dissatisfaction. Trying to make your fantasies real is never satisfying. Paradoxically, when we fully experience the inherent dissatisfaction of our hopes and fantasies, that is satisfying. It’s so satisfying to be real, even if that means being real about the fact that you’re lost in an unreal thought. Satisfaction lies in what is happening. By being willing to show up for whatever experience you’re having, you begin to experience the real now. Only when you show up for the emptiness of your dreams do you get to experience the fullness of what is happening in that moment—the sound of the birds, the light in the room . . .
When you begin to include more in your awareness than the content of your thoughts and fantasies, you realize the fullness of now. Now is ridiculously full; it contains everything, including your fantasies. It’s not only there in your fantasy; it’s also here in reality. The now has no limits, both in terms of space and time. It includes everything that is. Now already is everything that was and everything that ever will be. So, what do you want to give your attention to—an empty fantasy or this bursting reality?
This isn’t meant to suggest that you should try to change the fact that you have dreams and fantasies and hopes. This ability to imagine other possibilities is a great gift. Practically speaking, it’s very useful to be able to generate an image of something that’s not present. For example, if someone says to you, “Meet me at my house at noon,” this ability to imagine gets you to the right place on time. However, the value of this ability is limited.
In addition, this capacity to experience a fake now also serves us by allowing us to experience the fullness of the real now through contrast with the emptiness of a fake now. If there weren’t this capacity to live in illusion, then it would be meaningless to talk about living in reality. There is no way to distinguish the experience of reality unless you also can experience unreality. This is the reason we create illusion: It eventually makes us connoisseurs of reality.