The Power of Now
Featuring Shannon Duncan
by Sydney L. Murray
...its about realizing there are no problems.
Only situations to be dealt with in the now, or to be left
alone and accepted as part of the isness of the
present moment until they change or can be dealt with.
Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
Every spiritual tradition speaks to the power in being wherever
you are, right now, in this present moment. How to remain
present in the midst of daily life is often the challenge
of our spiritual lives. Shannon Duncan has written a powerful
book and developed a simple system to help us be just where
we are. I had a chance to talk to him about the power of the
present moment. and his new book, Present Moment Awaress. Sydney L. Murray:
Can you tell us a little bit about your history?
Shannon Duncan: I've always been a seeker, I've always
been very inquisitive, very creative. I enjoy creating something
that to the world and others is beneficial. I love seeing
other people smile, that's a big motivation for me. I grew
up in the Midwest. I hate to be negative, but it was a very
narrow-minded community. A lot of bigotry, a lot of gossip.
From a very young age I was aware that I just didn't want
any part of that. I started questioning what is. I questioned
the drama that was around me. From a very young age I realized
that I was leading a kind of double life. I could choose to
be absorbed by all the things that everyone around me thought
were so important, but then there was that part of me that
always seemed like it was beyond that. You know, that's a
profound realization for someone just eight years old. I can't
say what cause brought about that effect. I've pondered that
endlessly myself. But, I am thankful that it did. So I've
always been a seeker. I've always tried to break down any
drama around me to its most basic components. What's real
about this moment? What's good about this moment? Of course,
I get wrapped up in things like everyone else, but, largely,
I just try to stay present. I try to enjoy whatever is going
on and make the most of it.
SLM: What is present
SD: Present awareness is a flow. It's allowing it to flow,
instead of restricting it, and trying to make what is (everything
that's happening around you) into something else. I have a
good friend who is a Kung Fu teacher. He teaches Tai Chi.
He's teaching me this technique called push hands.
It's all about flowing. It's a good metaphor for life because
once you reach the point where you become stiff and rigid,
you get pushed off balance. And it's exactly the same as we
go through life. When we become stiff and rigid, when we resist
or push back against everything that's happening, we lose
our balance and we suffer. It was so illuminating for me to
tie something physical together with something very spiritual.
That's the best description I can give as to what present
awareness is. It's just learning to allow things to flow.
All the exercises teach us to be present when we're not.
SLM: Why is being present
SD: Being present can be difficult because we grow so
used to maintaining a certain way of life. In my book I call
it our drama. We're very attached to it. We're used to being
almost completely guided by how we feel, by our emotions.
From the time we're born we're genetically disposed to possess
certain personality traits, but beyond that it's all experience.
Our experiences early in life, our experiences up to where
we are now, create neural connections. So your perception
creates an emotional response. If you're not present, your
emotional response dictates how you behave. That's how we
get stuck in our drama. That's how we get stuck in situations
where we attract the same people into our lives, and we have
the same problems, and feel the same way about ourselves.
Developing present moment awareness is an exercise of will.
There's all this thinking up front. That's the animal part
of us that's developed through evolution to keep us aliveto
learn what's kept us alive in the past so that we don't make
the same mistakes again. That's why dogs leave trails in a
yard. Instead of just walking anywhere, they tend to take
the same paths because they're predisposed to do that. We
walk the same path over and over again because we survived
it. Being present is seeing those urges come into place and
exerting our will to make a choice. We can't help our previous
experiences. We can't help the neural connections that have
been made, but we can stay present, and by doing this we're
giving our mind a different experience. Now that we've survived
in a different way, we have new neural connections that don't
invoke such a roller coaster ride of emotions. So staying
present is really remaining aware of whatever's happening
inside. It's not getting rid of all those thoughts and emotions.
But, it is giving ourselves corrective experiences, so that
we don't have all of the emotional turmoil that we've had
SLM: So just being aware
of it is the beginning of the process of changing it?
SD: Yes, and that was really the idea behind my book.
To plant seeds. It's Have you considered
this? or Have you looked at that? I've found
that it's more effective to present it as a possibility rather
than a rigid fact. When you're not throwing something in people's
faces, they don't get defensive. They at least consider it
within the context of their lives and it doesn't invoke emotions
that push them away from the idea. And, as such, it's an opportunity
SLM: Can you give us
an example of how this practice has changed your life?
SD: One of the early examples of becoming aware that I
was in a pattern was when I was very young. Where I grew up
in Northern Oklahoma, racial jokes were very common. Being
young and being around it it was normal. I never stopped to
question it, or to think that things should be any other way.
I never really tied the jokes to people. In my junior high
school there was one guy named Stacy who was a black man.
I was telling a racial joke one day. I gave the punch line,
looked up and saw him looking in my direction. The look on
his face shattered my drama. It made me realize that although
these things inspired laughter in some, they also had the
power to deeply hurt. It really made me start questioning
everything about my life. Everything that I considered to
be normal, wasn't. You know, how else could it be? Why is
it that we look at things the way we do? I began to see how
illusionary all of it was. How it's all really just based
Another example is that I grew up
in a household that was very angry and frustrated. Yelling
and screaming was the norm. You grow up being told how F!#%@#$
stupid you are and it sets in as kind of a reality. But later
in my relationships I noticed those same traits and characteristics
coming out of me. I would just have moments where I was so
angry and frustrated that that's how I would react. All of
a sudden I realized I was acting the way I was treated, even
though I hated that and tried to disassociate myself from
it. And yet here it was coming out of me. How was that happening?
That awareness really set me on a path of understanding how
my experiences really were ingrained in me whether I wanted
them to be or not. I learned to stay present with it and so
I don't have those issues with anger anymore. It started off,
I would catch myself after the fact. Then I would
catch myself as it was setting on. Then I would see more and
more subtle symptoms of it beginning. Once I became aware
of one piece, the pieces before it would become obvious to
me. You know, working with where you are allows you to see
where it's coming from, and, as such, I could catch it way
before it got out of control. I would just stay present with
it. Now it's not even something that comes up anymore.
I think that the absolute key for personal growth is learning
tolerance for our own emotions, of being able to sit with
them so that they become our advisors and not our rulers.
If you have an emotional response, take note. Maybe there's
something very real that you need to deal with. But unless
you're hiking on a trail and there's a mountain lion bearing
down on you, you don't usually need to take immediate action
based upon those emotions or feelings. That's really the maze
or cycle that we get caught up in in our lives. It's really
just the barriers that our emotions put up. If you can learn
to tolerate those, you can pass through the barriers and see
what else there is. Then you get to experience a different
life. The only way out is through.
SLM: How do we transform
our core negative beliefs? Can you describe what a negative
core belief is?
SD: The first part is accepting them. Realizing that these
traits are a part of who we are. They are built into your
neural network as a part of your physical being. It's how
your brain is automatically going to react within any given
situation. Through presence however, you can overcome that
because you're retraining your mind to have a different experience.
In essence, negative core beliefs are our self-image. They
reflect how we feel about ourselves at the deepest level.
Often we don't even realize that we feel this way. It's so
much a part of the very fabric of our being that we don't
even think to question it. We don't question why this person
can be successful while we are not. It's moving away from
the notion of being inspired, and just looking at what is
real. One of my favorite quotes from the book is Aside
from the laws of physics, we're only limited by our motives.
What you do, and what I do is only different based on what
we believe is possible. I went from owning a computer security
business to writing this book. What I've realized is that
whatever I find interesting, I can sit down and learn. I think
that everyone can do that. There's nothing special about me.
I'm human like everyone else. It's your beliefs. If you're
willing to face the uncomfortable emotions that come up when
you encounter something new, or if you're willing to walk
away from the goody-goody emotions that draw you
into some obsessive form of thinking, stay on that middle
path that Buddha talked about, and you can pretty much walk
Part of what I was hoping to do with this book is create a
kind of bridge. Many of us (and I've been guilty of this at
times as well) take what's called a spiritual leap. We read
new concepts. We hear people speak. It makes us feel so good
that we absorb ourselves with these ideas. We spend so much
time thinking about it that we never actually get there. It's
like the difference between thinking about eating fresh strawberries
and actually doing it. To do this, it takes some effort. It's
not like you have to be somewhere else, but you have to open
yourself to the experience. We get so absorbed in the ideas
and the good feelings that come with them, that if someone
comes along and questions them then we get frustrated and
angry because all of a sudden we have to defend these good
ideas. We're precariously balanced in these things that we
take on and make a part of ourselves. Whereas, when we start
deconstructing ourselves, and being present in the moment
to see what is, it's a different kind of good feeling. It's
not an infatuation, or an obsession, or something to be clung
to. It's just a calm, relaxed center. It's allowing life to
just flow. When you start clinching up and resisting because
what is doesn't reflect how you feel things are supposed to
be, that's when you suffer. That's when you're disappointed
SLM: What experiences
in your life contributed to this book and practice?
SD: Just life in general. It's just a genuine curiosity
about what's real. I keep stumbling across things that I make
myself feel good with and then I realize that they're insubstantial
and fleeting. It's what Buddha called impermanence. Everything
is flowing and constantly changing. All that we really get
is experience. We have our senses to experience each moment.
Everything else is created in our minds. All memory, all anticipation,
expectation, fear, worry, it's all created in our minds. All
we really have is this moment. Once I realized that I could
question, and that things are always how we think they've
been, I've just gone deeper and deeper into paying attention
to how much that's really true. When you start stripping away
the illusions, everything comes back to awareness of each
moment. Generally speaking, it's all that really exists. We
live much of our lives as if we were watching television,
because when we're watching we become so absorbed that we
tune everything else out. It controls our thoughts, our emotions,
and what we're doing at that time. In a lot of cases, we're
missing out on what we really have. The moment is all that
we get. Everything else is an illusion.
SLM: We as Americans
are usually taught not to engage in our emotions. Why do you
think that is?
SD: I believe it's passed down from generation to generation.
We are this way because we grew this way. Ever since we started
a system of what is more or less, better or worse, we started
having to cling to those ideas in order to get a sense of
value. Those who had more of something tended to be looked
up to by those who had less. And those who had more tended
to look down upon those who had less. We started this whole
system of valuing ourselves based upon what we have, what
we do, and what we accomplish. This system has
been handed down from generation to generation and it only
seems to have been intensified. Being raised in an environment
like that, our sense of self becomes very damaged. We lose
that connection with who we are, with our sense of value.
We lose sight of the fact that just being alive is a blessing.
We take life for granted. We feel like what I am is
never good enough, and what I have is never enough.
It starts when we are young and becomes a model for us. It's
how we were taught. And so the notion we have, the self image,
is that we can never have enough because there's always something
more to have. Whatever that more is, we constantly tend to
determine our sense of value based on what we possess. We're
all guilty of this and we start feeling a sense of shame when
we feel like we're being judged by others. Our eternal state
is so set, and we're so absorbed in how others mirror us that
we can't help but feel badly. It's through staying present
in the moment that we can realize that these feelings are
not real. It is through developing discipline and awareness
that we can realize what that cycle is and rise above it.
We are no longer being ruled by our emotions, but seeing them
for what they are. SLM: Our theme for January is optimism. What does Optimism
mean to you?
SD: Well, I think that beyond the control that our thinking
creates within our lives, we have the ability to exert our
will. The will is more intense. It's beyond our methods of
day-to-day thinking which trigger all of our emotions. So,
to set your will, your intent to be positive, to be optimistic
and to look for the good in life, those things will become
more and more apparent to you. Even though you're having a
hard time or feeling blue, setting your intent to be optimistic
can be a powerful force in your life. For instance, when you're
going out and dating, and you're sure that people won't like
you then that's what you're going to see. And unless someone
comes up an smacks you on the head and says Hey, I like
you! you won't be shaken loose of your misery. Whereas,
if you say to yourself that you're a likable person, and that
eventually you'll meet someone that likes you for you, you're
going to open yourself up to that opportunity. So a positive,
optimistic state of mind, has a very powerful influence on
how you live and experience your life. All you get out of
life is how you perceive it. What most people miss is that
each individual can determine this for themselves. You can
accent by exerting your will.
The key to personal growth, aside from tolerance of our own
emotions, is to set your intent to grow, to be honest, and
to know what's real from what is not. Be willing to be REALLY
honest with yourself about things that make you uncomfortable
and why. Also be willing to be honest with yourself about
your positive traits and characteristics as well. We really
need to remember that we all have value as living, breathing
beings, and nobody can take that away.
Shannon Duncan developed the concepts for Present Moment Awareness
and the PMA System over the course of many years. His work
is a distillation of personal research and experience in psychology,
philosophy, spirituality and meditation. His book, Present
Moment Awareness: Start Enjoying Your LifeRight Here,
Right Now, is now available. To find out more, call 886/438-7626
or visit www.pmasystem.com.