Three Ways to Be Present

Living for Now versus Living in the Now

In one sense we are always in the present. Everything we experience is an experience in this moment.

Our memories of the past are experiences in the present. So are our thoughts about the future.

When people talk about not being present, they are usually referring to the attention not being in the present moment. When our attention is caught up in our thoughts about the past or the future, and we are no longer so aware of what is happening now.

Unfortunately, most of us spend too much of our time thinking about past and future events. We savor past delights, rejoice in past achievements, ponder whether or not we did the right thing, grieve over past losses and disappointments, get angry about the way things turned out. Or we anticipate future delights, plan our best course of action, worry about what might go wrong, fear not being in control of a situation, anguish over how others might respond.

Most of this thinking is unnecessary; a waste of time and energy. Moreover, it makes the mind tense, which is the very opposite of what all this thinking is trying to achieve—an easier, more peaceful state of mind.

This is why the wise ones have repeatedly urged us to be more in the present; to be here, now.

But what does it mean to be present? There are three principal ways in which people use the term.

1. Living for today. Not worrying about what happened yesterday; nor about what might come tomorrow.

This attitude definitely has its value. It may help us take life as it comes, and not get so caught up in unnecessary fears and concerns. It allows us to enjoy more of what life has to offer.

But it does not necessarily lead to a fuller awareness of the present moment. One may still be as caught up in thoughts as before, even if they be thoughts of today rather than yesterday or tomorrow.

2. Awareness of present experience. This is the starting point for a number meditation practices.

Whereas most of our thoughts are about the past or the future, our sensory experience is always "now". Thus many spiritual teachers advocate placing the attention on bodily sensations—points of contact with the physical world, the heartbeat, or the breath. The actual feelings in the body are in the present moment.

Then when the mind wanders off into some thought about the past or future—as it surely will—gently return the attention to physical sensations, and so back to the present.

3. Being at ease with everything. This often comes as the result of the long-term practice of meditation.

There is no longer the need to keep the attention to sensory experience. One is present to whatever is—including the arising and passing of thoughts about the past or future.

Some call this the witness mode. There is deep ease, and profound relief. There is an inner equanimity in each moment.

It simply is as it is.

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