“Be Here Now” Revisited
How a Healthy Spirituality Needs to Embrace Feelings
During my college years in the 1970s, I was awed by the book Be Here Now(link is external), a counterculture bible written by former Harvard psychologist and spiritual teacher Ram Dass. Selling over two million copies, it was one of the first guides for Westerners interested in embodying Eastern spirituality, and influenced luminaries such as Steve Jobs and Wayne Dyer.
As the title suggests, the essence of Be Here Now is that we’re missing out on life if we’re living in our heads rather than connecting with the immediacy of being alive. Spiritual practices are necessary to bring us back to the vivid present moment. But do these spiritual teachings actually help us connect with something deeper or encourage us to avoid the human dimension of our lives?
Having received my doctoral degree in transpersonal psychology(link is external) many years ago, I’ve been interested in the interface of spiritual practice and sound psychology. My interest in this article is to explore a psychologically sound view of being in the present moment as it relates to dealing with our feelings.
Let me be clear: I’m a big fan of living in the present moment. As Rabbi Hillel famously said, “If not now, when?” Yet as a psychotherapist for thirty-five years, I’ve observed that many people pursue spirituality in a way that disconnects them from themselves and the present moment. In short, they use spirituality to avoid feelings that are arising in the moment. In my book, Dancing with Fire(link is external), I explain how spiritual teachings can entice us to avoid and suppress the fire of our emotions rather than dance artfully with them:
“How can we deal with passionate emotions in ways that deepen love and further spiritual development? Can we welcome life’s challenge to mindfully dance with the fire of love rather than try to extinguish it or be burned by it?”
A term often used to describe emotional avoidance by spiritually-inclined people is spiritual bypassing(link is external). Coined by psychologist John Welwood(link is external), this term reflects a tendency to use spiritual practice as a way to deny or minimize unpleasant feelings. Meditation or spiritual practice can be an attempt to leap into a world free of suffering and discomfort. Yet, being alive means experiencing a full range of human emotions, sometimes unpleasant or difficult ones.
If we use spiritual practice to minimize or circumvent human feelings, we may have achieved nothing more than armoring ourselves with a subtle defensive mechanism. Encountering fear or hurt, we might draw upon our spiritual belief that these pesky feelings shouldn’t distract us from our spiritual path. Rather than actually be a spiritually awake person, which means being awake to the full range of our human experience, we might cling to a self-image of being a spiritual person — a lofty being who can’t be inconvenienced by “lowly” emotions. We might cling to a belief that it is our thoughts that create all human emotions — reducing spiritual growth to merely tweaking our thought process rather than courageously acknowledging whatever feelings happen to arise in the moment–and being gently present with them.
Focusing(link is external) is an approach developed through research by Dr. Eugene Gendlin(link is external) at the University of Chicago in the 1960s. His research team discovered that whatever the methodology of the therapist, those clients who were progressing in psychotherapy were bringing attention inside their bodies— attending to the moment-to-moment flow of their inner experiencing. In essence, these naturally gifted clients were Focusing. He developed a methodology so that others might learn this natural way of attending to inner experience.
Focusing is a practice of being mindful of our felt experience. It offers a parallel to the popular practice of mindfulness — bringing awareness to feelings as they exist in our body. What is called the “Focusing Attitude”(link is external) is similar to the Buddhist practice of loving–kindness toward ourselves— greeting whatever we happen to be experiencing in the moment with a gentle, friendly presence.
Weaving together Focusing with mindfulness positions us to be-here-now in a way that makes room for our human experience. We develop a friendly relationship with our feelings without clinging to them or being overwhelmed by them. A gentle awareness toward our human emotions opens up a middle path between overly identifying with feelings (blindly merging with them) and pushing them away. Rather than fit ourselves into some spiritualized model of how we are suppose to be, feel, or act, we learn what it actually means to be-here-now. We make the liberating discovery that there’s no one in particular who we need to be and nowhere we need to go as we make ample room for our humanity—resting more and more comfortably with where we are right now.