“Consciousness itself does not hinder living in the present. In fact, it is only to a heightened awareness that the great door to the present opens at all,” writes Annie Dillard in her Pulitzer-winning collection of essays Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “Self-conscousness, however, does hinder the experience of the present. It is the one instrument that unplugs all the rest.”
Indeed, this interplay of pure consciousness and self-consciousness is the most challenging part of our attempt to be fully in the now. As we move about our lives in a slumber-like state, our entire life becomes mere motions in the shadows. We are nothing but travelers lost in the maze of our psyche, never in accord with whom we are or think we are. Anger, jealousy, and discontent are our frequent companions. All of us harbor some kind of vanity, and there’s an error whose degree we can’t determine. We’re something that goes on during the show’s intermission; sometimes, through certain doors, we catch a glimpse of what may be no more than a tiny fragment of pristine reality. So how do we wake up and open ourselves to the infinite beauty that surrounds us every day? Annie Dillard counsels:
We tune in and out. But moments are not lost. Time out of mind is time nevertheless, cumulative, informing the present. From even the deepest slumber you wake with a jolt — older, closer to death, and wiser, grateful for breath. You quit your seat in a darkened theatre, walk past the empty lobby, out the double glass doors, and step like Orpheus into the street. And the cumulative force of the present you’ve forgotten sets you reeling, staggering, as if you’d been struck broadside by a plank. It all floods back to you. Yes, you say, as if you’d been asleep a hundred years, this is it, this is the real weather, the lavender light fading, the full moisture in your lungs, the heat from the pavement on your lips and palms — not the dry orange dust from horses’ hooves, the salt sea, the sour Coke — but this solid air, the blood pumping up you thighs again, your fingers alive.
As we go out, breathe in, and allow our senses to roam free unhindered by discursive thinking, something changes in the way we perceive things. Everything becomes more vivid, more alive, more present. We marvel at every little detail, we are grateful for just being. Annie Dillard writes:
I am absolutely alone. … Before me extends a low hill trembling in yellow brome, and behind the hill, filling the sky, rises an enormous mountain ridge, forested, alive and awesome with brilliant blown lights. I have never seen anything so tremulous and live. … Shadows lope along the mountain’s rumpled flanks; they elongate like root tips, like lobes of spilling water, faster and faster. A warm purple pigment pools in each ruck and tuck of the rock; it deepens and spreads, boring crevasses, canyons. As the purple vaults and slides, it tricks out the unleafed forest and rumpled rock in gilt, in shape-shifting patches of glow. These gold lights veer and retract, shatter and glide in a series of dazzling splashes, shrinking, leaking, exploding. The ridge’s bosses and hummocks sprout bulging from its side; the whole mountain looms miles closer; the light warms and reddens; the bare forest folds and pleats itself like living protoplasm before my eyes, like running chart, a wildly scrawling oscillograph on the present moment. … I am more alive than all the world.
When we allow our attention to take us deeper into the now, another process starts to unfold. A feeling of something greater than us permeates our bodies and takes us beyond the narrow confines of perceived reality. We feel one with the whole. Annie Dillard writes:
The galaxy is careening in a slow, muffled widening. If a million solar systems are born every hour, then surely hundreds burst into being as I shift my weight to the other elbow. The sun’s surface is now exploding; other stars implode and vanish, heavy and black, out of sight. Meteorites are arcing to earth invisibly all day long. On the planet the winds are blowing: the polar easterlies, the westerlies, the northeast and southeast trades. Somewhere, someone under full sail is becalmed, in the horse latitudes, in the doldrums; in the northland, a trapper is maddened, crazed, by the eerie scent of the chinook, the snow-eater, a wind that can melt two feet of snow in a day. The pampero blows, and the tramontane, and the Boro, sirocco, levanter, mistral. Lick a finger: feel the now.
Complement these mesmerizing meditations from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek with Richard Louv on the spiritual necessity of nature for the young and then revisit transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau’s heartfelt contemplations of a solitary life in the woods.