Caravanserai Magazine Archive

Published 1988-2000 semi-annually on behalf of the Sufi Movement International by the Sufi Movement in Canada.


1990 Volume 5. Karamnavaz van Bylandt. "The Present"

The subject of this talk is ’the present’ this day which is hedged between yesterday and tomorrow. We can't change yesterday and what tomorrow shall bring, we don't know. But today we have in our hands, we can do something with it. Before us lie possibilities, opportunities, a choice of action. We can make or mar today. It is really a solemn thought when we come to think of it. George Fox felt it when he said "Ye have no time but the present, therefore prize your time for your souls' sake!"

Our Murshid admonishes us in the Gayan, "Every moment of your life is more valuable than anything else in the world." It has the sound of an urgent appeal. Why so urgent? Because today is passing, tomorrow it is gone. This sense of the impermanence of the present has been felt and expressed all through the ages.

In their terse, lapidary way, the old Romans said carpe diem, pluck the day. During the troubled days of the renaissance in Florence, when dagger and poison often menaced life, the poet Poliziani said, "Chi vuol esser lieto sia, di doman non c'e certezza." Let him who wants to be cheerful know, there is no certainty about tomorrow. It may sound cynical, but there is wisdom underneath.

What are we going to do with today? Are we going to let it come over us as it comes, submit ourselves to get ruffled and annoyed, or are we going to meet the outer world, the people around us in a positive way? In a positive way—that means looking things in the face and seeing what we can do about it. What we can do about it, what we can give out. In other words, are we going to think, to speak and to act in a way productive of harmonious results? We all know the saying, "What 14 one sows, one reaps," but we have the tendency to apply this saying to others rather than to ourselves.

We are fortunate in that, as mureeds, we have been given practices, which we might consider as the frame of our day. Are we not invited at the beginning of the day to purify ourselves, breathing in the power out of divine space which fortifies and revivifies us and enables our soul to expand? It is the very thing to help us to stand positively against the disturbing influences which are always present in the world around us.

Recently I happened to come across a beautiful text from a Sanskrit scripture which I should like to read to you as it stresses in a marvellous way the importance of being conscious of today. It is called The Salutation of the Dawn...

Look well to this day for it is life:
the very life of life.
In its brief course lie all the verities of your existence:
the bliss of growth,
the glory of action,
the splendour of beauty.
For yesterday is but a dream
and tomorrow only a vision,
but today well lived
Makes every yesterday a dream of happiness
and every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well therefore to this day!
Such is the salutation of the dawn!

When we try to make the most of today, one of the effects will be that, more than before, we shall find our-selves to live in the present. What is the present? We can consider it in two ways, in the first place from the point of view of time, and in the second place from that of space.

Seen as time, it is that mysterious zero-point which glides away between our fingers. While we are here together, every moment is disappearing into the past. "Time, I have never seen thee, but I have heard thy steps," says Murshid in the Gayan.

The Sufi poets have often reminded their hearers that they should live in the present: "O my beloved, fill the cup that clears today of past regrets and future fears," sings Omar Khayyam. Murshid has commented on these verses (in Sufi Teachings, vol. VIII of the Collected Works). "Make the best of this moment," says Murshid. "It is now that you can clearly see eternity— if you live in this moment. But if you keep the world of the past and of the future before you, you do not live in eternity, but in a limited world...In other words," concludes Murshid, "live neither in the past nor in the future, but in eternity."

We may well ponder these words a moment together, and ask ourselves how much of our time we spend living uselessly in the past or pointlessly in the future. I say uselessly and pointlessly, for of course there is such a thing as remembering with a purpose and preparing the future by trying to visualize it.

So we are to live neither in the past nor in the future, but in eternity. One would have expected Murshid to say, 'in the present,' 'now,' but by saying 'in eternity,' Murshid has given us a precious clue. Could 'now' be eternity? What is 'now'? Now is this fleeting moment between past and future which passes too quickly to hold it. We can look at the past, we can try to pierce the hidden future, but the present escapes our grip. Still we feel that the present is a very real thing, it has a reality different from the past and it is somehow more substantial than the future. Could that be so because it is the only moment during which we can live in eternity?

To live in eternity. From the context, it is clear that it does not mean living forever, for an infinite length of time. Sometimes Murshid uses the term everlasting to express that idea, in contradiction to eternal. To live in eternity is living out of time, it is a different quality, one might say it is living in a different dimension.

How do we live in eternity? To answer that question it is perhaps best to ask ourselves if we ever had experiences of living out of time. I think we all have moments when 'time was not'. The experiences may vary, but they shall undoubtedly prove to have this in common, that in every case we were completely absorbed in what we did or saw or heard. It may have been before a splendid sunset, a landscape, or just a flower, or listening to music which, as the saying goes, 'transported' us, taking us into another world, or it may have been some artistic occupation or scientific pursuit, or deep thought, which made us forget time, forget ourselves and made us live concentrated in something else. Our practices— meditation—may lead us to that experience.
One speaks of 'entering into a subject,' or 'losing oneself in the contemplation of beauty'—expressions which point the way of how to get out of time and into eternity.

We may not all be artists, or scientists intent on discovering the secrets of nature, but there is one thing we all can do, and that is to try to live more in the present, to live consciously in the present, which really means doing what we do, with full attention and concentration. For instance: Nazar! Thankfulness! But also taste, enjoy your food! Eat it consciously.

In this way we make of our daily life, of our daily task our concentration—just doing the thing before us and not to rush ahead to live in the future! This means in the first place never to hurry. Hurry is a deadly foe to concentration, a destruction to rhythm. "He who believeth, hurrieth not," says the prophet Isaiah (Is. 28:16). When we put aside hurry and return to an even rhythm, the quality of our work improves, we seem to be able to enter more profoundly into a subject; somehow time seems to widen.

In the Gayan there is a strange sentence which touches upon the mysteries of time. It goes, "It is our perception of time which passes, not time itself, for time is God and God is eternal."

It is our perception of time which passes, and the way it passes varies very much. We all know how time may drag and how time can fly. Conventional time, measured by the rotation of the earth round the sun, is the same for all of us, but, as science has found, there is also something like a biological time for each individual. For instance, the time wounds take to heal differs according to the individual. Health, and especially the age of a person, are factors which determine this biological time. The same wound heals three or four times faster in a child than in the case of an aged person. Also the perception of time varies greatly according to age. The day of a child is much longer than that of an adult or an old person. I am sure we all can recall how vast was the expanse of a day spent in the country when we were young, and how at the end of the school term seemingly endless summer holidays opened before us. An explanation of this phenomenon might be that the child lives more in the present, his mind is more open and therefore his days are full of moments of eternity.

We may do well to remember in this context the words Jesus said to his disciples: "Except ye be converted and becomes as little children, ye shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven." (Matt. 18) Or, in the version of Saint Luke, "Whosoever shall not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child, shall in no wise enter therein." The Kingdom is a state of consciousness into which we may enter, if we become simple and receptive as little children. Simplicity and receptivity are the condition requisite to enable us to change our consciousness so that we may receive the Kingdom into it. We have to think again with the eyes, with the immediate perception of a little child.

It is not outside our power to become as little children, nor is it outside our power to change our perception of time. We have seen that, when we are collected in our thought, the time seems to widen.

Living in eternity is experiencing an expansion of consciousness escaping out of normal perception of time into a spiritual world, where the value of time is different. St. Peter says in hi; second Epistle General ((II 3:8), "Beno1 ignorant of this one thing, that one day with the Lord is as a thousand year: and a thousand years as one day." Ian reminded here of a saying of Murshid that one day of meditation is more that a year of study, and one hour in the presence of the Murshid still more.

Earlier in this talk I said we could consider the present from the point o view of time, as indeed we have don't so far, but we can also look at the present from the point of view of space—the present. What is present before us, or rather what surrounds us?

What surrounds us? In the first place, the material universe which stretches out on all sides, in all directions, into infinity. But we are also surrounded by a mental world. Our space is filled with all kinds of vibrations, good and bad, vibrations of love and hate, of serenity and fear. We get a small illustration of this, when we tune in our radio on one station after another.

We are also surrounded by invisible beings. In the prayer Saum, we say, "Lord God of the East and of the West...and of the seen and unseen beings." Do we not feel sometimes the presence of our dear departed? Do we not feel that our revered Murshid is still there and sometimes near us? For many Roman Catholics, the saints are felt as living presences who respond to their appeals. Are guardian angels just a sweet invention, or living realities?

Of all that surrounds us, we perceive only very little, an infinitesimal part, and our individual perceptions vary greatly. Some people have more acute senses than others, people's awareness, their interests differ. Where one person will just see a few houses, a painter will be struck by the beauty of a particular combination of line and colour. The same impressions we receive, are relayed to our individual brains, where they are translated and made intelligible to our individual minds and hearts. We vary in background, past experience, knowledge, education, and so on, so it is logical that our perceptions of the present vary greatly.

Why bring this out? In order to make clear that our present, that what we perceive of reality, is that which each of us, for himself, is conscious of, at a given moment.

Can we see more of reality than we do? Can we see deeper into reality? Can we be conscious only of a number of ever-changing phenomena or is it possible to penetrate behind the surface, behind the screen and know what produces the phenomena? Can we change our consciousness? Widen our consciousness?

We can indeed, with an effort of will, detach our consciousness from our material surroundings and live in our thoughts, in the mental world. And we may, by means of prayer and meditation, try to enter the spiritual world. We shall find that by leaving the surface, so to speak, by entering interior space, our consciousness already embraces a larger horizon—widens, in other words.

We have seen that while we can measure time on earth by hours and days and years, we cannot measure the present, the interior time—you remember, one day with the Lord is as a thousand years. Well, it is the same with space. When we enter interior space, the values of distance change. Two people on earth may be separated by many miles, by seas or continents, but they may be close together in thought—we all have heard and perhaps exercised telepathy—and earthly distance does not prevent two people from being close together in love, or one in spirit, as the saying goes.

In the Bible we find remarkable references to interior space linked with love. It is in the Epistle to the Ephesians and goes as follows: "that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend, with all saints, what is the breadth and length and depth and height..."

Out of time, out of space, into eternity.

All through the ages, people have felt, more or less dimly, that at the back of the continually changing present— changing in time and in space—there is something more real, something not changing, something immovable, something to depend upon, something eternal. And in answer to this feeling, to this aspiration, holy men, sages, prophets, mystics, messengers from above, whose consciousness was open to the spiritual world, have come to tell us about the way to that underlying substance, under and behind the fleeing and changing present, the way to the Eternal with Whom there is no shadow of turning.

They have told us about the real presence behind the present, namely God's presence, in and behind His manifestation. They have told us about His omnipresence.

The prophet Isaiah (6:3) lifts up his voice: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory." The first Sunday of this summer school we heard quoted from the Quran, "Whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth declares the glory of God." But nowhere perhaps the omnipresence of God is brought home to us more forcibly than in those well-known words in the Acts of the Apostles, "For in Him we live and move and have our being." (17:28)

It is up to us to realize this marvellous truth, which becomes especially marvellous when we remember that God is love.

I feel I should now repeat and complete the quotation from the Epistle to the Ephesians, "that ye being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints, what is the breadth and length and depth and height and to know the love of Christ, which passes knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God."

Between past and future, the present.
Between past and future, eternity.
Between past and future, the presence of God.

We find it all in the prayer Murshid has given us, Salat. Past and future: "the first cause and the last effect, Alpha and Omega," and in between the Presence. "We adore Thy past. Thy presence deeply enlightens our being, and we look for Thy blessing in the future."


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