For most of us, life is spent in places and attending to tasks that may seem anything other than spiritual. Great frustration is often felt among those who are keen to follow the Lord but are not able to become monastics or work ‘full time’ in ministry. It is easy to fall for the idea that God is ‘somewhere else’ and in some other time; and if only we can change our circumstances or arrive at a future date then everything will be wonderful and we will finally be able to experience God’s presence in fullness.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Growth in the spiritual path is not about arrival at some other destination or the manipulation of circumstances to become more favourable; but a radical change of perspective so that instead of constantly seeking the Presence of the Lord in some other place or time we learn to discover the deep wonder of His presence in the here and now, amidst the pots and pans and in the tyranny of the mundane.
You see, God is always totally present in the here and now – in the world around you – just as it is. The problem is that although God is here, we are not. We are time travelling in our minds, constantly rehearsing the shame and regret of the past, or reaching forwards to a future that has not yet manifested but already terrifies us with fears and worry. With one eye looking backwards and the other eye looking forwards, we miss what is right in front of us: the full presence of Divinity, available to us yet disguised in what is right in front of our nose. God is not to be found in our imaginations, no matter how ‘religious’. You cannot find God in yesterday or even in tomorrow, but only in the place He has promised to always be fully present, right now. And if you can learn to be fully present, right now, you will have gone a long way to learning to live in the bliss that comes when we live moment by moment in the tangible presence of God.
The Practice of Returning is the spiritual art of escaping the traps that so often snare the heart in order that we should come home to the Father who waits by the heart-hearth in the present moment. It is the deliberate refusal to entertain the compulsive habit of mind to obsess about the past, its neurotic predisposition to worry about the future and its propensity for losing itself in conceptual analysis of the present. The Practice of Returning is the knack of constantly and habitually bringing mind and heart to bear on the most ‘real’ thing in the universe, that is, the presence of God that permeates this very moment and is found embedded in the world around you, just as it is.
Try this: Stop reading, close you eyes and take three slow, deep breaths. Feel the breath as it enters your lungs. Notice the sensation as it leaves your body. Be fully aware of the one thing that is happening in your world right now, your breathing.
As you do this, two things will happen. The first is that your body will start to relax and you will begin to experience an awareness of peace and a glimmer of happiness. If you continue with this practice, you will start to find an awareness of what can only be described as ‘Presence’. What has happened? Well quite simply, you have calmed your body and brought it to a place of rest which makes it much easier to see what is actually present in your here and now. But you have also calmed your mind, and started to silence the insane ‘chatter’ that drowns out both the soft voice and the gentle presence of the Holy Spirit.
On my phone, I have a bell that sounds every 30 minutes which reminds me to Return Home to this Presence. Many times I set out with the intention of being fully aware of God’s presence in every moment of my day but before long many practical things and an abundance of cares and worries have caught my attention and I have gotten lost somewhere in my brain. The bell reminds me to stop, disengage from past regrets, future worries or mere analysis and become deeply aware. And so I stop and allow my senses to reintroduce me to the wonderful creation all around me. I close my eyes and become deeply conscious of my body, the temple in which Divinity dwells. I take three deep breaths and reach out to touch the presence of the Lord; the Kingdom of God that enfolds me every moment and every hour. And I am home. As surely as Adam and Eve, when they walked with God in the garden of Eden in the cool of the day. To quote Thich Nhat Hahn, “I have arrived… I am home… In the here… In the now…”
The Practice of Returning is so simple that even a child may learn how to re-centre themselves in a few brief moments. You can teach your children to do this as they get dressed in the morning. You can practice this whenever you get into a car. Pause and return home to the Kingdom of God before you start the engine. If you have friends with you, invite them to join you so that before you go anywhere, you go home! When you pick up your cup of tea, pause, return home and then drink prayerfully and with gratitude. When you wake in the morning, your mind all abuzz with the things you must do or struggling with the dreams of the night, return home before you get out of bed. As you sit on the train during your commute, let each station you arrive at be a reminder to return home to the Kingdom of God within you. When the traffic lights turn red, don’t get stressed, but say to yourself, “This is a wonderful moment – I shall return home while I wait!” When you have had a stressful meeting at work, you may go to the restroom, shut the cubicle door and return home also.
With practice, the Habit of Returning will become an automatic action throughout the day. You will find that the amount of time you spend ‘away from home’ gets less and less and soon you will discover that although your body may change location, you never actually leave home. Your prayer life is now without ceasing, your awareness is transformed, your mind becomes stable and calm and your emotions rest in the habit energies of love, joy, peace and compassion. It’s then you begin to discover that you don’t have to wait until you die to go to heaven, but that you can experience it in the here and now; for the only thing that makes heaven, heaven, is the beautiful, glorious presence of God.