What does it really mean to be present? This is the kind of topic I thought I’d talk about today. It’s something I wanted to delve into deeper because it’s so very important. Currently, it’s just a belief, but it seems that in many spiritual systems, being present is considered the fundamental aspect that overrides everything else for spiritual progress and practice. Unless you’re present, you don’t have much of a shot.
I know there are many people out there trying to become present, whether through various practices or systems they’ve encountered, such as reading Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now.” However, there’s a lot of confusion surrounding this concept, and I believe it requires further explanation.
Fundamentally, you can’t be anywhere but present. Your body, what’s going on around you, everything is in the now. You can’t take actions in the past or the future. By that, I mean you can’t do something that is truly in the future. You can only act in the present moment. Everything is fundamentally now.
So, what really happens is that our minds, out of habit, constantly think about the past and future. You may have heard the phrase “being lost in thought.” We become lost in the past and future, and as a result, we’re totally distracted and not fully paying attention to the present moment. It’s as if we’re pulling back from our experience of the now and dwelling more in our minds—in our heads—and usually, that involves thinking about the past and future. In fact, all thought is about the past and future.
One way to truly become present is to realize that you can’t really not be in the now. It’s more about surrendering to the present moment and letting go of the past and future, at least for a period of time. That’s why people often mention this during meditation. They’ll say that for a specific duration, whether it’s five minutes, ten minutes, or half an hour, nothing is so important that it cannot wait until after the practice. There’s no reason to dwell on the past because it has nothing to do with the present moment. So, in this frame of mind, where nothing is so important that it can’t be put off, you can set aside thoughts about the past and future and simply reside in the now.
This provides a clue to becoming present because it’s not about what you do. I’ve found that when people try to be present, they often aren’t present. It’s not about what you do; it’s about what you cease to do. You need to stop thinking about the past and future and come to a point of stillness and silence. By allowing your natural function to take over, you naturally exist in the present moment.
As we get older, we become more and more entangled in our thoughts. You may not remember, but our natural state, way back, was to not be constantly thinking. Our natural state was to be completely rooted in the present because that’s all there was. We were fully immersed in the now and experienced it. However, as we age, we tend to get more caught up in our heads.
We were taught that it seems everyone else believes that the future in the past is very important, and as a result, we tend to pay more attention to the past and future. It’s almost like returning to the initial innocence of just being in the present moment. I also mentioned another kind of technique that sometimes helps some people, which I guess comes from Zen. They say, “You know when you eat, you eat, and when you sleep, you sleep.” Now, Wen Hao Zhen Master said that one of his students asked, “Doesn’t everybody do that?” And he replied, “No, when people eat, they have a thousand thoughts, and when they sleep, they have innumerable dreams. They don’t simply eat and sleep.” This concept can be applied to literally everything. It’s more about fully experiencing the present moment. Think about when you’re driving, for example. I know that sometimes anxiety or road rage can arise when driving, and much of that is because we become so focused and attached to the future—where we’re going and what we’ll be doing—that we perceive the present as boring and insignificant. We’d rather skip it and get to our destination. This preoccupation with the future and our location causes anxiety and irritation when things slow us down. To counteract this, you might want to try just driving when you’re driving. You know the location and the directions, and you’ll eventually get there. But for that time period, just drive. It’s a different attitude and state of mind because you’re not constantly dwelling on thoughts. It’s more about letting go and just residing in the moment. I’m just going to drive. I’m just going to fully surrender to the action I’m doing right now. When I adopt this mindset, I find that driving itself becomes rather pleasant. Remember when you first got your driver’s license? Driving was so awesome. It didn’t matter where you were going, as long as you were behind the wheel and driving. Everything was awesome. And even though we may have lost that initial excitement, it can become that way again. It’s just a matter of fully embracing the act of driving and finding joy in it again. The same goes for other activities. When you’re doing dishes, just wash the dishes. When you’re reading, just read. Keep in the back of your mind that whatever you’re doing, you’re fully present in that moment. It may take some practice for some people, but it helps foster this sense of abiding in the now, of letting go and residing in the present. It’s very important to be able to do that. I’ve also mentioned other practices where fully and deeply experiencing the present moment is crucial. So, if you’re sitting in a more meditative fashion, being present, you could feel…
The hands, the fingers… You know, the hands feel the body, inhabit the body, and become conscious of the body. Feel it entirely. Feel the air coming in, feel the lungs expand, feel the diaphragm move. Instead of trying (bad word on my part, sorry, Eric) to feel, it’s more of a curiosity to be aware of as much as you can be aware of. Just allow however much or little awareness you can have, but with the curiosity of exploring if you can be aware of more. I find that this tends to stimulate the ability to feel more, to notice more. As you become more anchored in this total, deep experience of the present moment, the mind slows down and stops. All thought resides in the past and future. It’s all about the past and future. So, as soon as you’re fully present, the mind stops. I find that the mind doesn’t really function in this constant, incessant thought when you’re present. Now, I’m not saying that you can’t be present while thinking. For example, if you’re planning to bake a cake or cook a meal and you need ingredients, you can plan in the present moment to go get them. It’s not that all thoughts are bad. But, in general, you don’t have to think that much. There are very few times when thought is truly necessary. Most people are constantly thinking about 90% of the time when they only really need to think about 10 or 20% of the time. It’s a huge difference on the other end of the spectrum. But those moments of awe, of beauty, maybe danger or being in the zone in sports, we all experience times when thoughts stop and we’re fully present. Instead of it happening accidentally, we can actively facilitate being present by ceasing to get distracted by the past and future. We can try to fully feel what’s going on and just focus on whatever we’re doing in the moment. Instead of getting anxious or worried about where we’re going, we can concentrate on what we already know. That will greatly help in being present. However, it’s fundamentally impossible not to be present. It’s a constant activity of the mind. That’s the trick, the revolutions of the mind. If we can just do what we’re doing, I find that the mind isn’t as necessary. It slows us down. Instead of the mind spinning like mad on the hamster wheel, thinking about all the great things that will happen once we reach our destination, not really paying attention to what we’re doing, that’s the problem. The issue is that we’re getting distracted. If we can stop being distracted, it may slow the mind down. But you know, there’s an energy there that needs to be directed somewhere, so to speak. And that energy is deeply experiencing the present. Instead of the energy being dispersed to the past and future, we’re actually focusing it on the present to deeply experience it. We can see how vibrant the colors are, how unique everything is. When we’re not really focusing, everything becomes very common and washed out. But if we truly look at things—the shapes of trees, for example—everything is unique. There’s no repetition, despite what the mind keeps saying. This is the same as everything else. Nothing is the same. Nothing is the same. Just look at snowflakes, fingerprints, and other things that can’t come to mind right now. Snowflakes and fingerprints, in particular, we know there are never two identical ones. But this applies to everybody, every plant, every creature. Nothing is the same. Everything is different. And if we’re totally present, we see these wonderful differences. Things come alive. We’re more engaged. We’re more connected with everything because we’re no longer superficially categorizing things as the same and discounting them. We’re actually looking at them and saying, “Wow, you’re different. That’s kind of cool.” We’re reveling in the diversity of everything. I guess I rambled a bit, but if it helps, great. And if it doesn’t, I don’t mind.