Back to the Present

The thirteenth-century Christian mystic Meister Ekhart described how in moments of inner quiet
There exists only the present instant . . . a Now which always and without end is itself new. . . . There is no yesterday nor any tomorrow, but only Now, as it was a thousand years ago and as it will be a thousand years hence.

In some senses, of course, we are always in the present. Our past we know from memories, but those memories are experienced in the present. Similarly, our future is something we imagine in the present. Whatever we may be thinking and doing we are doing it "now." Even when we are totally wrapped up in thoughts about the past or the future, the thoughts themselves are happening "now."

When we say we are not in the present we really mean that our attention is not in the "now." It is looking back to the past or forward to the future. To return to the present is to return our attention to the here and now.

The mind that is attending to the present is a mind that is free from distracting self-talk about what has or has not happened or what might or might not happen..

And it is not just our internal dialogue about past or future that holds our attention away from the present. Self-talk about the present can be equally distracting.

Two Zen monks were paying a visit to some ancient hot springs. It was a clear night, the moon was full, the water was a perfect temperature. Gazing up at the sky one monk marvelled at the fact that for centuries people had visited this spot and enjoyed its beauty, many on full-moon nights just like this. The joy the two were now experiencing was not theirs alone, it was a joy shared across time. And so he sat, meditating on the timeless quality of their joy.

After a while the second monk responded: "Even better to enjoy it."

The Peace of Now

A mind in the present moment is free to experience "what is." This does not imply that he or she no longer takes any notice of the past, nor considers the future. There is still much to learn from the past, and there are still many ways we can influence the future and so improve the quality of our lives and the lives of others. The difference is that, once liberated from its state of trance, the mind no longer finds itself lost in fruitless concerns for these other times.

In the present there is no longer any need to derive our identity from our interactions with the world. How others see us does not alter our existence. This level of being needs no qualification or recognition. Nor can it be threatened. It will always be there whatever may happen.

Knowing our inner essence to be invulnerable, the mind is not caught up in concern. And a mind free from concern is a mind at peace.


Being able to experience reality as it is, undistorted by our hopes and fears, is often referred to as "enlightenment." The word "light" in this term is usually thought of in the sense of illumination. A mind that is enlightened is said to be an "illumined" mind. It is a mind that has "seen the light," or sees things in a new light.

There is, however, another sense of the word "enlighten" that is equally appropriate. That is "a lightening of the load."

The heaviest burdens in this life are not our physical burdens but our mental ones. We are weighed down by our concern for the past, and our worries about the future. This is the load we bear, the weariness that comes from our timefulness.

To en-lighten the mind is to relieve it of this load. An enlightened mind is a mind no longer weighed down by attachments; it is a mind that is free. Being free, it is a mind that is no longer so serious about things - it takes things more lightly. Could this be why enlightened people laugh and smile more than the rest of us do?

A Shift in Perception

From either perspective - that of illumination or that of lightening the load - the essence of enlightenment is a shift in perception. It is a shift from seeing the world through the eyes of concern, with all their embellishment, suppression, and interpretation, to seeing without judgment; seeing what is rather than what ought to be or might be.

In principle, we can make this shift of perception at any time we choose. Whenever we are caught up in trying to make the future the way we want it to be, we have the opportunity to look at things differently. Rather than wondering, "How can I get such-and-such so that I can be happy?" we could ask, "Even if I were to get what I want, would I then be at peace?" And, "If I do not get what I want, can I still be at peace?"

If there is a willingness to look at things differently the answers to these questions are nearly always "No" and "Yes." Then, having let go of our anxiety about the future, our attention is again free to return to the here and now.

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