In this final installment, we look at the weird deal humans have– powers to consider past, present, and future, but also tendencies to worry about past, present, and future. The birth of human consciousness. Two hundred thousand years ago two sites (of 715) on the human FOXP2 gene mutated to give us grammar and symbolic communication–powers of deep understanding, enlightened intimacy, and imagination. “I,” “you,” “we,” and imagination in the past, present, and future describe the heart of modern human consciousness and all it entails—an accelerating evolutionary tsunami changing the planet and reaching metaphorically and literally to the stars. The FOXP2 mutations were somewhat unfortunate for us “emotionally” because emotions are designed to anticipate the future. This isn’t anxiety provoking for most mammals who are aware of futures for the next five minutes, but can be a real problem for our futures which stretch to the end of time. Just as hunger tells us it’s time to stock up when we’re not really starving to death, fear usually tells us something scary might happen. Most animals actually have to see/smell/hear/feel a real threat about to happen now to be scared of it, but not you and me! We can be scared of stuff we anticipate, or remember, or just make up! This is the curse of anxiety. Some curses can be managed and integrated into blessings. When humans achieved the capacities to live simultaneously in the past, present, and future, they also received the capacities to worry about the past, present, and future, and to empathically resonate with others’ worrying. This wrecked our natural mammalian nature of not stressing if there’s no current problem. The relaxed satisfaction of a grizzly bear satiated in a blueberry field, the mindless contentment of a field mouse snug in her burrow, or the timeless oneness with nature the deer feels standing motionless in the deep forest were all compromised by human memory of painful past episodes, or anticipation of what bad events might happen. Everyone has become lost in superheated recollections of past threats and offenses. Everyone occasionally focuses on and amplifies current threats and offenses. Worst of all, everyone has lost sleep and been utterly distracted anticipating future threats and offenses. Such obsessions block instinctual unity with nature unless we become deep enough to remain present and open in the current moment, while maintaining contact with the past and future. Integrated states where the present moment is enhanced by past/future memory and fantasy are also human birthrights (making it completely worthwhile to give up naive mammalian innocence), but usually require life-long self-development. Key to this process is living so fully in the present moment that we harmonize with the worried ancestral voices calling urgently about past, present, and future threats–especially future threats since emotions are always priming us to deal with what’s next. Worrying about something in the future is called, “anticipatory anxiety.” Anticipatory anxiety diminishes consciousness—it is the great enemy of development, the fly in the evolutionary ointment, the Everest to climb on the journey to enlightenment. The remedy for anticipatory anxiety is presence. The Monk and the Tiger One of my favorite Buddhist stories involves a Zen Monk walking through a verdant forest and suddenly encountering a tiger, bent down low to the ground, ready to spring. Frightened for his life, the Monk takes off with the tiger in pursuit. Seeing a precipice ahead, the Monk—preferring a fall to being mauled—leaps out into the chasm. In the nick of time, he grabs a branch of a tree clinging to the side of the mountain. As he hangs against the jungle cliff, our monk looks down and sees a pack of ravening wolves howling and slavering from the bottom of the steep incline. Raising his eyes, he sees the tiger on the cliff’s edge growling horrifically. Catching a delicate fragrance from a tiny fissure in the rock face, he sees a lone strawberry plant with a beautiful strawberry on it growing in a little pocket of soil. He reaches out and plucks the strawberry, puts it in his mouth, and slowly eats it, delighted and absorbed in sweet taste, texture, and unity with nature. Presence. I love this monk. I want to embrace each moment just like he does hanging on that cliff. Contemplative practice, receiving influence from those who love us, reaching for the highest good—they all guide us to presence. I encourage daily practices that foster all forms of presence. Absorption in the present moment, surrender to radiant love, and unity with pure consciousness are three of my favorites. Try presence right now if you’d like:
- Take a deep breath and relax your body.
- Feel your feet, legs, pelvis, torso, belly, chest, throat, arms, hands, face, and head with acceptance.
- Be aware of all your senses–sounds, clothes on your skin, wind in your hair, sun on your back, tightness or looseness in your body…all experience–with acceptance and compassion.
- Relax into this state of global awareness and calm acceptance, and maintain it for two minutes. As you finish, move into your day with the intent to continually adjust towards global awareness and calm acceptance. This is one way of cultivating presence.