During my college years in the 1970s, I was awed by the book Be Here Now, a counterculture bible. It was written by former Harvard psychologist and spiritual teacher Ram Dass. It sold over two million copies and was one of the first guides for Westerners interested in embodying Eastern spiritual teachings. It has influenced luminaries such as Steve Jobs, Wayne Dyer, and Michael Crichton.
As the title implies, the essence of Be Here Now is that we’re missing out on life if we’re attached to living in our minds rather than connecting with the immediacy of being alive. Spiritual practices help bring us back again and again to the luminous present moment. Since then, many books have been written about living in the present moment.
Having received my doctoral degree in transpersonal psychology 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 being here now. As Rabbi Hillel famously put it, “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 from the present moment. In short, they use spirituality to avoid feelings that are arising in the moment. My book, Dancing with Fire, explores the human tendency to avoid the fire of our emotions — or get burned by over-identifying with feelings rather than dancing artfully with them.
A term often used to describe this is spiritual bypassing. Coined by psychologist John Welwood, this term reflects a tendency to use spiritual practice as a way to avoid, 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 or religion to minimize or circumvent human feelings, we’ve merely armored ourselves with a subtle defensive mechanism. Encountering fear or hurt, we might refer to our spiritual belief that these pesky feelings shouldn’t distract us from our spiritual path. We might cling to a self-image of being a spiritual person — an awake person who can’t be inconvenienced by “lowly” emotions. We might cling to a belief that it is our thoughts that create all human emotions — embarking on a dead-end path of tweaking our thought process instead of simple acknowledging whatever feelings happen to arise in the moment.
Focusing as a Path Toward Embracing Feelings
Focusing is an approach developed through research by Dr. Eugene Gendlin 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 — being aware of feelings as they exist in our body. What is called the “Focusing Attitude” 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 have a relationship with our feelings without clinging to them or being overwhelmed by them. A gentle awareness toward our human emotions allows us to find a middle path between merging with feelings and pushing them away. We learn to be here now in a way that includes our humanity rather than fit ourselves into some spiritualized model of how we are suppose to feel and act.