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FROM RETREAT #4: Daylight and the Fourth Time

About halfway through the retreat – after the fireworks of NYE were distant memories and I’d got used to the regular routine of my day – something happened to present time.

I would get up at 5 o’clock each morning and meditate till 7 and have a nice, nourishing breakfast, sitting on the little sofa by the windows overlooking the sea and watch the sun start to come up over Seaford Head. There was no to-do list, no phone calls to make, no emails to check. I was gradually able to just sit and drink my tea, feel my breath come in and out, be aware of my body and the presence of the two dogs, dozing on the carpet, see the daylight fill out all the buildings, cranes and boats in the harbour.

Time opened up but I realised that it wasn’t the “present” but something deeper, less skittish and less anxiety-ridden.

The ‘present is the greatest present’ – but I’ve always found the present a bit stressful

Meditation texts are constantly telling us to open up to the present. That the ‘present is the greatest present’ – but I’ve always found the present a bit stressful. The problem with the present is it seems so fragile. Always about to topple into the past, gasping in from the future.

The ticking of the clock is inherently worrisome – marking as it does the failure to achieve, the scuttling away of potential, the evaporation of existence. And yet when you really stop and unplug and switch off all markers of time: then something primordial opens up and there is an experience of yourself that is outside of time.

There’s an interesting concept in Tibetan Buddhist of the fourth time – not past, not future, not present – but just ‘here’. It’s not particularly grand or mystical. It’s mostly very ordinary – but it feels quite, quite other than the hectic, panicky, breathless anxiety of most clock-based doing.

Chögyam Trunga talks about the root of suffering being the ‘speediness of our minds’ – always spinning and twisting after something to stop the pain and agitation of being alive. Do, do, do. Plan, plan, plan. Worry, worry, worry. There’s a compulsive quality to all that activity that heaves the sense of time up into the realm of the hysterical.

It’s a dimension that is very stable, very spacious and very alert

Sitting in the wintery dawn light, feeling the warm tea in my belly, I had a sense of the pleasure of this fourth time. It’s a dimension that is very stable, very spacious and very alert: and I was interested to notice that I almost felt guilty relaxing into it. Being out of time felt… almost sinful!

And that was the key to me understanding what was going on in all that speediness.

The speed feels compulsive because it is. It’s the compulsive part of OCD, of an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Our obsession is that there’s something the matter with us. Based on that obsessive idea we then commit to the compulsion: if I can only do the right things in the right order and at the right time then I will be ‘fixed’ and everything would be ok.

If we give up and relax back into the fourth time, then it feels like we have given up. There is the fringe of anxiety that we have somehow left ourselves exposed by not committing to our compulsive busyness. It does feel sinful. We are conditioned to keep trying and stopping the compulsive thinking seems heretical. But the truth is there’s nothing wrong with us in the first place. The obsessive thought is incorrect. And thus, the OCD of thinking, thinking, thinking is not making us any better, it’s making us unimaginably worse.

I remember hearing a talk by one of my early Theravadan teachers, Ajahn Sumedho, who said that most of us would just walk straight past enlightenment if it happened to us. It’s too ordinary, too simple for our compulsive minds to take seriously. And sitting in the dawn, I glimpsed this. Resting in the 4th time is unspectacular. No mystic lights, just daylight. But so nourishing, so peaceful.

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Find out more about The Mindsprings School. A series of courses created by Alistair to help you live a happier life.

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