Dialogue and being in the present moment

The Power of Now is the title of the bestselling book by Eckhart Tolle in which he shows a way of being present that can be healing both spiritually and psychologically. But of course no matter how hard we practice in meditation or understand ourselves through psychotherapy the present moment can often prove to be elusive and sometimes unsettling.

With another person we can feel under pressure or as the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion described it ‘under fire’. In dialogue with another we may find ourselves in a position where we do not know what is going on, even if we know what we expected to happen by presuming things would follow a familiar course. Is it then possible to remain open to the present moment with another person when one is under pressure and feeling unsettled?

Inevitably – and I think this happens in ordinary interactions as well as at times in the consulting room or in spiritual direction – there may be a defensive move backwards into old opinions and earlier ways of thinking. After all as Bion wrote, ‘what does it mean if I don’t know?’ Old fears and old experiences may recur under the pressure to know what is going on, these can include a return to infancy when everything was mysterious and uncertain and we relied on and were dependent on others to know and reassure us. As adults this regression leads to anxiety and sometimes panic.

In spiritual life when we are open to encountering the Divine, I think it’s fair to say that it’s all unknown – I’m talking here about contemplation and away from the familiar ritual of liturgy or Bible reading. (Although it can sometimes happen that re reading/re hearing familiar words one can be jolted into a new awareness.) The only way to contemplate is to be present and open, and by definition in a state of not knowing or of ignorance.

It is true that sometimes in meditation we think a thought that feels authentic rather than a distraction and from that can often gain insight. Being in the present moment as we meditate or in dialogue with God is really about listening and waiting; it is not so much about being passive but I think being awake.

Being present – being in the moment is an insight from all religions and cultures. The practice of Zen is above all about completeness within each moment. For the past is seen as behind, the future lies ahead – all we can know is the present. Psychoanalytic psychotherapy is a way of opening up the past which gives us the realisation of how past patterns influence the present. The aim is then of unburdening ourselves or at least understanding why we have developed the way we have. When not so cluttered with the past or anxiously worrying about the future we can be present in the moment.

One aspect of Bion’s work was about the creative relationship – or the potential – between certainty and ignorance. Recognising that this might be an uncomfortable dynamic he understood why so often we give in to the familiar comfort of what we think we know.

I think this is often what happens in spiritual practice and indeed when we try to understand ourselves. In some family work there is the phrase used to describe a situation: ‘denial of awareness’, in other words some family members refusing to see what is actually going on in front of them. I think that can happen in any group or organisation including churches and can happen in dialogue with each other and within our own psyches.