“Be Here Now” is something of a spiritual mantra. Made famous by Ram Dass with his eponymously titled work of spiritual wisdom, “BHN” has been a part of contemporary spirituality ever since then, and arguably reached its zenith with Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now.
Whether you’re rooted in mindfulness, New Age spirituality, a well-known religious tradition, or pragmatism, the phrase BHN or its variants are repeated often as an essential principle of peace and happiness.
But what does it really mean to BHN? Radical ideas often get diluted the wider they are transmitted. The same is true of BHN, which has been made more accessible over time.
The true power of BHN lies in a more radical understanding of its three parts.
Meaning #1: Be In the Present Moment
The phrase is most commonly understood to mean that you should be focused on the present. This means you are not ruminating about the past or worrying about the future.
It’s quite common for meditation teachers (myself included) to tell you how your mind is rarely in the present moment. Your mind is almost always thinking about the past or the future. As you reflect on the past, you retrace your steps or reexamine some event that transpired, wrestling with the unresolved feelings it produces in you. As you look to the future, your thoughts are tinged with worry or excitement because your mind says that the future will be worse or better than this moment.
“Be Here Now” typically means that if you place your attention on the present moment, you will experience a greater sense of peace.
Unfortunately, this version can easily be reduced to a kind of “go with the flow” platitude; it carries with it a dreamy sense of floating from one moment to the next. This version comes up when people embrace being “chill” or “zen” (without really having a connection with Zen Buddhism), without a care in the world.
So the first layer of meaning for BHN is that your mind is focused on the present moment. This is the “H” of BHN — to have your attention or awareness on what is transpiring in the present, not the past or the future.
Meaning #2: Be Present to the Present Moment
But being focused on the present moment does not automatically translate to the kind of peace BHN conveys.
You can just as easily be in the present moment in a state of anger, resistance, or fear, as you can be with it in a state of peace. You can berate the present moment, and not be happy about it. Meditation practitioners know this well — you can very well find the present moment quite boring or find your mind judging what’s happening right now. If you understand BHN as a maxim of focused attention on the present moment, it isn’t necessarily a perfect portal to happiness.
In fact, this applies to a lot of people who think they’re in the now when they’re just reacting to it. This first meaning requires you to be with your feelings, as they arise, and let them rise and fall, without running with them. You can be present to them by feeling those emotions arise, watching the thoughts percolate, and witnessing all of it without getting caught up in the storyline.
Moreover, being focused on the present moment does not mean you deny any relationship to time, as if you had no past and no future, but just flowed in the chilly-zen way from moment to moment, as if you were a surfer riding the waves of life.
That’s because you can absolutely think about the past and the future in the present moment. In fact, you are always in the present moment, because that’s the only moment there is. Your mind is simply focusing on the mental images that are arising right now in the mind rather than on the data arriving through the senses at the same time.
Am I saying that you’re still in the “now” if you’re thinking about what you’ll have for lunch or what you might watch on Netflix this evening? If you’re planning a trip, are you no longer in the now? If you’re thinking fondly of a dear friend and the memories of your relationship, are you no longer in the present?
The short answer is yes.
The more skillful question is: What is your relationship to what is arising in the present moment?
If you’re planning a trip, with all of the future-oriented aspects like dates for your flight and hotel room, what is your relationship to the decisions you are making right now about that future event? Are you anxious and worried that the trip might not go well, or are you enjoying the process in that very moment of planning? Are you planning the trip to get away from present circumstances or simply because you know that going on a certain kind of trip often entails coordinating the details in advance?
Similarly, are you remembering now, in the present moment, your friend and enjoying those memories? Or are you thinking about the past something you did that you worry was a mistake and feeling anxious about the memories? Or are you trying to push the memories away?
It is your level of acceptance or resistance to your mental activity and emotional reactions to the past or future that measures whether you’re present to the present moment.
In fact, this is mainstream mindfulness in a nutshell. Mindfulness, in this form, is a wonderful tool. If humanity could learn simply to be with their thoughts and emotions, however intense or deep they might be, and not react to them by numbing, escaping, or creating drama, we’d live in an immensely more peaceful world.
In sum, the second meaning of BHN is to learn to be with what is arising without any resistance to it. This is the “Be” of BHN — to watch with balanced detachment and without getting caught up in what you’re experiencing.
Meaning #3: Be Present to the Present You Cannot See
That’s one final meaning that captures the real magic of BHN. We’ve understood the “here” as the present moment, and “be” without resistance to that present moment. So we must shift our understanding of what the “now” really is.
We begin by asking ourselves: am I acting seeing the “now” or am I watching a version of the past? What if what we think is arising in the present, as the present, isn’t actually the present?
Virtually everything you are perceiving as the now is a perception based on your past. You’re perceiving based on prior experience, previously learned concepts, etc. In fact, you’re producing the now as a version of your past.
You encounter a person. How do you know they’re a person? Your mind is already constructed out of language and concepts that shape your perception. The person you see is perhaps someone you’ve interacted with on countless occasions. But perhaps you haven’t seen them in hours, weeks or even years. How much has transpired since you last saw them? How many thoughts, emotions, and experiences have they had? The person you’re seeing is a fragment from your memory.
Even if you are in complete acceptance of the here and the now, what you are in acceptance of is a version of the now manifested through your mind’s perception based on the past. You are seeing with old eyes.
Moreover, that perception is limited. You can be in acceptance of the here and the now, but you are only perceiving a limited portion of what is here and now. This too is a product of your mind’s patterns of perceptions, which tend to focus on some data and omit other aspects of the world.
So your vision of the present is both distorted in the sense that its really a replication o the past and partial in that there’s always more you could be seeing. And even if you could see “more”, it might be “new” the first time you see, but the next time you see it, you will be seeing it through the eyes of the prior experience.
You will always see a partial version of the past appearing as the now.
Isn’t that a wild conundrum? Guess what? There’s no easy way out of this!
You basically have to look at the world and say, Everything I think I see and think I know isn’t the full picture. What else is there to see here? What thoughts of mine are missing something because they’re based on what I know and I’ve already seen, and therefore can’t see now because I have no framework or language or concept for it?
What this means is that the “now” is never fully and completely accessible to you. But that’s not a reason to despair. On the contrary, it’s the possibility and promise of the unknown, of the unseen, that should give rise instead to wonder and excitement. Not the wonder and excitement of trying to escape the present moment that you find so dull or irritating or lacking, but the mystery that can arise because you actually don’t know all there is to see. The mystery is right in front of your eyes, at this very moment.
How do you start to access this version of the “now”? First, it means giving up the very claim to know and see the world fully. It means adopting a sense of humility at what you do perceive, because you recognize that your mind can only capture a small part of reality. Second, it means moving from that humility to holding your perceptions quite gingerly and without great attachment, because they are so partial. You can hold your concepts of what you see — and what you think of now as the truth — very lightly, because you may need to revise them, or jettison them altogether.
Here’s an example that might disturb your sense of the “now” because of what you think is possible for human perception: In 2014, I started to see cascading showers of Light. I was staring at the floor of a hotel room, and this thought passed through my mind in a split second: “It’s raining.” But I was staring at the floor, and what my mind initially took as the kind of misty droplets you might see when you first emerge from the shower or a sauna were instead very fasting moving streaks of Light. I’ve never stopped seeing that Light. It’s one of the most wondrous experiences of my life: I started to see a part of the “now” my mind before had never permitted me to see.
So the “now” is never fully graspable. There is always more to perceive.
Another way to practice is to slow down. During a 9-day silent meditation retreat, I began to slow down considerably around day 6 or 7. I mean really slow down. I’m talking about taking a bite of food in slow motion and walking in slow motion. Because my mind had slowed down after so much silent meditation, as I slowed my movement my mind could start to take in data that it used to filter out. I began to hear sounds I could never perceive, and take in colors and see details my eyes usually filtered out. In a way, I realized how much more I was capable of seeing, but the data was so immense, I could only process it by slowing down to allow my senses to capture it. Even then, I was still only capturing a part of reality.
Its power lies in the fact that it is impossible to be fully present to all that is “now.”
But it’s not meant to signal failure. To the contrary, it’s an invitation to explore what you think is there and what more might be there that you can’t see. It’s an invitation to loosen your grip on your concepts and perceptions — and any judgments, resistance, and other emotions attached to them — because they are past concepts that filter the now so you can only see a small portion of it.
In that way, the wonder and mystery of the world can never cease, can never be complete: That is the bliss of relating to the present as a picture you can never fully see, but with the willingness to see more, and see differently whatever you are perceiving. That is how BHN creates a portal to a life of peace and happiness.