How Much of Your Life Do You Live in the Present Moment?

By David Tillman – June 2020 [1]

This is an adapted print version of a presentation I gave on “Be Present” during the MN MALES “Signs of Jonah” virtual men’s retreat in late June 2020.[2] During the retreat, we used the Biblical book of Jonah. I would encourage you to read the story of Jonah and the whale (4 chapters). Referring to Jonah’s story, we looked at four areas in our lives: “Showing Up,” “Be Present,” “Being Honest,” and “Non-Attachment.”

As Eckhart Tolle said, “The eternal present is the space within which your whole life unfolds, the one factor that remains constant. Life is now. There was never a time when your life was not now, nor will there ever be.” [3]

There are two things I would like for you to take away from reading about my presentation on being present. First, being present requires you to step outside your comfort zone and take risks.

Second, notice how you read (listen). As you read this, notice things that get in your way of being present. Are you multi-taking while you are reading? Is your mind being triggered to some related memory or something you need to do in the future? When you become aware that your mind has drifted off, notice how long it takes you to bring your attention back to being present to what you are reading. In the back of your mind, are you judging what I have wrote? Are you wanting to tell me something that will fix me, correct what I wrote, or put me in my place? Become aware to what emotions are underneath my words. Be aware of what I do not say.

Jonah was present with God when God asked him to go and proclaim to the people of Nineveh to turn from their evil ways. Nineveh was a place where the people were disconnected from God. Why would Jonah, or any of us for that matter, want to go to a place where the people are disconnected from God. Were the people of Nineveh going to kill the messenger? Kill Jonah?  It would have taken courage for Jonah to go to Nineveh. He would have had to step outside his comfort zone.

Jonah decided to disregard what God was asking him and journeyed the opposite direction. Joseph Campbell, an American mythologist talks about a “hero’s journey” or “great adventure,” which is a time of “separation, initiation, and return.” [4]

Jonah refusing God’s call is a time of “separation.”  Jonah is fleeing, or separating, from God.

We read, God uses the storm, Jonah’s shipmates, and Jonah’s time in the belly of the whale to “initiate” Jonah to be present with his thoughts, fears, anger, past decisions, and relationship with God in new and scary ways.

Joseph Campbell says, “the whale’s belly represents death. . . the hero goes inward, to be born again.” [5] What part of Jonah had to die, or did he need to let go of? To then be reborn again, or return, to a new awareness of being more present? Jonah was willing to sacrifice his ego, or his sense of self-importance, to be reborn again, to be more present with the God, others, and himself.

What part of yourself needs to die, or for you to let go of, to be more present?

With Jonah being in the belly of the whale, praying to God, and letting go of his self-importance reminds me of meditation and prayer. In my meditation, I am letting go of my self-importance in the outer world to be more present with God within me. My mind is naturally drawn to God’s love and grace. Noticing my breath, I am aware how God nourishes and sustains me one breath at a time. Within each breath is God’s love and guidance for me to be more present to how God is calling me to be in the world. During and after meditation, I feel a deeper love and connection to God, others, and myself.

Take a minute to notice your breath. Close your eyes if you can. Just be present to your next few breaths. Take a deep breath in…breathing in life. Now breathe out that which you need to let go of. Breathe in love…breathe out judgement. Breathe in connection…breathe out isolation. Breathe in gratitude to what is…breathe out your need to fix and control. Now open your eyes. Bring your attention back to continue reading this presentation article.

I have been on many hero’s journeys in my life learning how to be more present. One big hero’s journey for me started with holding my father’s hand as he was dying of Alzheimer’s at the VA Home in 2004. I was not very present with my father as he was dying. When I went to visit my father, it brought up fears and anxiety about his declining health. My visits became less often and shorter in length. On the day, my father died, as our family sat around my father’s bed, a chaplain joined us. She created sacred space, prayed with us, and invited us to share stories of my father. My fears and anxieties were replaced by a deep feeling of love and peace. That day, I heard God calling me to chaplaincy. Discerning my call led me to leave my job, attend seminary, do a hospital chaplain residency, and be ordained. To follow my call, I had to separate from my comfort zone. I had fears and anxiety that I could not write acceptable papers, be a good enough speaker, and not be truly present to hospital patients and others. My initiation was what I experienced and learned through my studies, teachers, classmates, and the hospital patients and their families that I cared for. I am glad I took the risk.

Later, as a hospice chaplain, I learned to be more present with my hospice clients during their dying process and death. I was welcomed into a sacred trust and journey with my hospice clients, their families, and caregivers. My listening went from always trying to figure out what I could do for them, to just being present to what they were saying. I began to listen more closely to the emotions underneath their words. Their words and emotions told me what they needed. I noticed with Alzheimer’s clients that their love, personality, and soul, was alive and well; even when their memories were fleeting or gone. I returned from my call to chaplaincy, my hero’s journey, by being more accepting and grateful to what was happening in the present moment. I am less critical and afraid of life and death. I saw God’s presence more clearly.

I was much more physically, emotionally, and spiritually present with my mother when she died last September. While she was on hospice, I was blessed to spend many days just being present with her. Many of my fears, judgements, and sense of self-importance, had to die on my hero’s journey so I could be more present with my mother, our family, and caregivers as she neared death and died.

I am checking in. Have you noticed how you are reading? Are you multi-tasking? Is your mind being triggered to a memory or thinking about what is next? Are you judging what I have wrote? Have you become aware of what emotions are underneath my words or things I have left out? Noticing helps us learn how to be more present as we read (listen). Try letting go of needing to fix and judge as you read (listen). I did and it has changed my relationships to others for the better.

Back to Jonah’s story. During Jonah’s physical, emotional, and spiritual near-death initiation in the belly of the whale he prays to God for help and his prayers are answered. God did not abandon Jonah.

Being spewed out of the whale, out of his initiation experience, Jonah “returns” from his Hero’s journey. Jonah now heads to Nineveh after talking to God again. Jonah had let go of his fears and self-importance to be present, with a new awareness, with what God asked him to do.

As Jonah enters the city of Nineveh, he is now being present with others, being present to live out his spiritual purpose by carrying out what God has called him to do. Jonah proclaims God’s message. The people of Nineveh listen, turn from their evil ways, and they are reconnected with God’s love and grace. Jonah should be happy.

Being present with others can be a challenge and at times a struggle. Jesus’ radical message was to “comfort the troubled and trouble the comfortable” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer). Like this, Jonah’s message to the people of Nineveh was to proclaim trouble to the comfortable. Turn from your evil ways or else.

Well what does Jonah do next? He decides to get angry at the Lord for not creating a calamity with the people in Nineveh. Jonah’s next hero’s journey starts again. Jonah separates himself from God, goes through another initiation at the edge of Nineveh dealing with the tree that gives him shade one day and dies the next. At the edge of Nineveh, Jonah is present with himself. Present with his anger at God.

In the Bible story, we do not hear about Jonah’s return after being angry at God and his initiation at the edge of Nineveh. Like Jonah…are we not constantly going through many of our own Hero’s journeys, or great adventures? Do you at times feel like you are in the belly of the whale? Or being angry sitting at the edge of town? Or no return from your hero’s journey is in sight?

How is God asking you to be present these days?

We are in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, a faltering economy, a political divide, the senseless killing of George Floyd and others, the peaceful protests, and rioting and looting. Has God gotten our attention to turn from our evil ways, our disconnection to each other, and to the world we share together? Are we being present to the oppression and suffering of people other than ourselves? To acknowledge and being present to their journey so they can claim their own spiritual power. George Floyd telling the officers, “I can’t breathe” and the officer’s reaction is not to listen. Three of the four officers appeared so afraid of the senior officer’s power and control they decided it was safer to say little and do nothing. “I can’t breathe,” like Black Lives Matter, is about being present to hearing George Floyd, to black people, who are saying to you and me: “hear us, see us, we matter, and be present with us.” I see God is calling us to be present, to listen, to see, and to acknowledge that Black Lives Matter. We are being called to step outside our comfort zone and advocate for ways to reconnect to each other through love, compassion, listening, and action. The people of Nineveh stepped out of their comfort zone. They let go of their evil ways to again be more present with God, others, and themselves with a new awareness and greater connection.

How is God calling you these days?

1 – What are you resisting, need to let go of, for you to be more present in your life?

2 – What is calling you to step outside your comfort zone and take a risk?

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© 2020 David Tillman, all rights reserved


[1] Be Present by David Tillman, edited for LifeJourney.us, originally presented at MN MALES “Signs of Jonah” virtual retreat on 6/27/2020.
[2] MN MALES (Men as Learners and Elder’s – M.A.L.E’s), https://malespiritualitymn.org/mens-rites-of-passage
[3] Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now, (New World Library, Novato, CA, 1999), pp. 48-49.
[4]  Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Cleveland and New York: World, Meridian Books, 1969), 30.
[5]  Ibid. 91-92.