“To encounter the Absolute is not yet enlightenment.”
This line from the Zen poem “The Identity of Relative and Absolute” launches us into the third step. This “Absolute” is called “Presence” in the Three Steps method. You have now encountered this essential realm, and have seen the other realms from two directions – stepping back from the old stories and stepping forward into life as it is right now. This is a static framework that you can use as a map to find yourself when you are overwhelmed or at a loss for how to respond to a particular situation. And now that you’re familiar with the terrain of the three realms you’ll realize that you’re constantly moving between them, and have been doing so your entire life. But while up to this point you’ve been driven through the realms by your hidden desires and agendas, now you can consciously move through them as appropriate to current conditions.
Now, just sitting in Presence can be marvelously refreshing, since you’re tuned in to the vibrancy of life itself. But sooner or later you find that it’s not enough to sit there in raw Presence. The alarm rings, telling you it’s time to get up and get ready for work. The baby cries, the driver behind you honks, a friend calls with an emergency, and you’re brought back into the details of your ongoing life. It’s time to take the third step.
Begin by clearly settling in Presence, deliberately using the first two steps. Then step forward into Discovery and clearly identify your current surroundings. What physical and mental objects are new? What new feelings and sensations are you experiencing? Which have disappeared? Which have changed? In what ways? Just the way a scientist carefully gathers data for an experiment, it’s essential that your observations are clear and unclouded by your beliefs and opinions.
Next, deliberately move forward into Resolution, assigning values and relationships to the objects you identified in Discovery. In this situation, what are the important points? What are the strongest factors in any decision you must make? How do they balance and influence each other?
Finally, if the picture you completed in Resolution requires some action, take it wholeheartedly. It is clearly the most appropriate action, so you can do it without equivocating.
Now that you have taken the steps forward, formed a picture of the present moment and taken action, what happens next? You naturally begin analyzing your efforts, reviewing the situation to see what you can learn from it. You also update your internal picture of the people and things with which you’re interacting, altering your view of them accordingly, and revising the roles you see them playing in your life.
What has just happened? You haven’t crossed any borders, but Resolution has become Storyland. Often the transformation from Resolution to Storyland happens so fast that the values seem to be observations rather than judgments, and the judgment can completely replace the object itself in your awareness. As a defensive mechanism this process is crucial – you see a truck bearing down as you cross the road and immediately perceive danger, causing you to jump out of the way seemingly without thinking. But in different circumstances this instant evaluation can cause problems, such as when we come to a snap judgment about a person of a different race or religion from our own. In this case our actions will be based not on the person we’re meeting, but on a set of generalizations we’ve collected about what we believe that person’s culture to be. How would our actions appear to an impartial observer? Probably like we’ve lost touch with reality, since we’re reacting not to the real person in front of us but to a picture we’re holding in our mind.
We find ourselves back in our old home, Storyland. Our old habit was to stay here, weaving and re-weaving our stories, wandering from one emotional pitfall to another, until some unexpected event brought us back to the present. But now that you’ve become familiar with the Three Steps realms you can use them – take the steps back to Presence and rest there instead of stewing in Storyland. What then? Move forward into Discovery and Resolution, take any needed actions, then return to Presence.
The Mindfulness Cycle
While the first two steps of this method are backward steps, the third takes us forward into an ongoing rhythm of living – of moment by moment mindfulness, of harmonizing with the world as it is right now. Thus, the third “step” is a continuous cycle through the realms. This is the process of the third step, starting in Storyland:
1) Take the first step – back into Orientation. Anchor yourself clearly in your surroundings. This is the most critical step in the entire method, since it breaks the cycle of story-weaving.
2) Take the second step, back into Presence. Stay here for a few moments letting the overhang of the stories clear and your sense of position and surroundings fall away.
3) Now step forward into Discovery. Clearly look at your surroundings, your mental state, how your body feels. Here you see everything as brand new, as if you’re seeing the world for the first time.
4) Take another step forward, this time into Resolution. Be fully aware as you evaluate the people and things around you. Pay attention to the relationships between them. You’ll come to conclusions and contemplate actions that are based on the situation as it is right now: a subjective viewpoint with minimal coloring from your stories. If you now see an action that needs to be taken, do it wholeheartedly.
5) Watch the results of your actions as they unfold. You’ll naturally begin digesting your conclusions and actions. But soon they’re out of date – they’re based on the world the way it was a few moments ago. Conditions have already changed, and you find that almost immediately these conclusions are transforming into new stories. Without taking any steps, you see Resolution turning into Storyland. So now it’s time to let these stories go and…
6) Renew the cycle by returning to phase 1 and taking the steps back to Presence.
In our habitual, un-mindful way of life, the time we spend in Presence is almost nonexistent. We spin around in Storyland, periodically making short trips into Discovery that are just long enough to take snapshots of how things are at the moment. Then we immediately return and weave the new elements of the scene into our ongoing stories. This often results in emotional churning, the digging up of old wounds and the re-ignition of pet peeves.
But as we practice this method, the amount of time we spend in each realm changes. We find ourselves spending more and more time in Presence, making short forays into the other realms as needed, each time dropping right back into Presence.
When you’re spending most of your time in Presence your psychological center of gravity is low so you aren’t fazed by events that might easily knock you over when you’re stuck in Storyland. This is a momentous shift: you go from spending most of your time in Storyland, endlessly reviewing your mental tape loops, to spending most of your time in Presence, settled in the clarity of this living moment, our original home.
Now we can clearly define our method of Mindfulness: the practice of making Presence our home and opening out into Discovery and Resolution to fit the moment. Mindfulness isn’t something you get, it’s something you do.
Observations of practicing the Third Step
- When you realize you’re in Storyland, that’s the sign that you’ve been there too long. Regardless of the content! Immediately step back into Orientation, even when in the midst of thinking through important matters. The salient points will still be evident, while non-essentials will dissolve away along with emotional baggage and other mental hindrances. This is the hard part, because of your emotional investment in your stories, but the more you do the process the smoother it gets.
- The stories are the building blocks of ego. When you identify with your stories instead of seeing them as transient phenomena that may or may not be useful, they solidify into the “small self”, mental blockages build up, and problems ensue. Cycling through the realms helps break up the blockages and keep the current of your life flowing smoothly.
- Mindfulness itself can be just another story. When it’s a goal you’re striving for, a target in your mind or a memory you’re trying to reproduce, it’s simply another mind-movie that is distracting you from reality as it is right now. After working with the Three Steps you can see how “mindfulness” can turn into a story that can trap you for years.
There is no marking of time in Presence, so we could say it is older than Old. And, we can now see how all our actions well up from this boundless realm. Would the phrase “Old Spring” be a fitting, poetic name for it?