Living in the present moment — it’s the practice at the heart of all mindfulness teachings, and the essence of well-being. But what is it, this thing we call being present? I’m not sure we all share the same answers for what it means, or if it even matters that we do. What does matter, however, is that we know what being present means for ourselves, in a visceral, practical, and non-conceptual way. And perhaps too, that we have a sense of why we even want to be in the present moment, why it’s something we want to set as an intention for our lives.
I believe there’s something inherent in all human beings, something that longs to not feel separate from everyone and everything else, not feel separate from life. At a deep level, we want to heal our fundamental aloneness. When we’re fully present, we feel connected to life and everything in it. We are part of the moment, inside it. So too, there exists a drive within us to directly experience life, freshly, to know our experience more intimately than we can through any idea, concept, memoryor fantasy. We crave the flow experience, to be fully absorbed into an activity, when the doer merges into the doing and the separation between doer and doing evaporates, when all notions of time disappear. We have a longing to lose our separate self so that we can be inside life, of life, part of life. We want, ultimately, to return home to a state we seem to remember at a psychic level, a state of oneness before the me who’s in charge of managing life was formed.
On a more immediate level, we want to be in the present moment because its alternative, the experience of not being present, of being distracted and somewhere else while life is happening, feels unsatisfying. Not being present leaves us feeling empty, unfulfilled, and unreal—like ghosts in our own lives, like we’d gone missing for the whole adventure that is our life. Profound regret appears for so many when they realize that they’ve missed out on their life, that while they were physically present they were never really here, never fully paying attention to the experience at hand. Not being present is like winning a ticket to the most amazing adventure ever created and choosing not to attend. We want to be present so that we can be in life, in the game while this amazing opportunity is here.
Being in the present moment, at its core, includes a few fundamental practices. Most it all, it involves experiencing what’s happening in our senses right now. It’s feeling what our body is feeling, inside and out, seeing what we’re seeing, smelling what we’re smelling, tasting what we’re tasting, and hearing what we’re hearing, as it’s happening now. It means living this moment as a direct sensorial experience, experiencing the feelings and sensations through our body and not our mind’s interpretation of them. Being present means not being engaged in thinking about our past, not projecting our thoughts onto the future, and not engaging in our thoughts about what’s happening right now. It means paying attention to this moment as it’s arising through our senses, without judgment or commentary.
While being present means not being engaged in thinking, it’s important to mention that being present does not require the absence of thought. Being in the present moment doesn’t mean the mind stops producing thoughts, and thoughts in and of themselves are not a problem for presence. Thoughts happen, they keep coming no matter how present we are. Sometimes the thoughts quiet down and more spaces appear between them, sometimes no space appears. It’s not something we can control. To be present with thoughts involves being aware of the fact that thoughts are appearing, but (and here’s the big but) without identifying with those thoughts. In other words, noticing the presence of thoughts without getting involved in their stories or content, without going down the rabbit hole into which they beckon. Being in the present moment means directly experiencing what’s arising in the body, in the senses, which also includes paying attention to what’s happening in the mind.
Simultaneously, living in the present moment involves experiencing whatever’s happening right now without an agenda for where this now needs to lead us. Being present, fully, is turning our attention to right now without trying to build this moment into a potential future, an outcome we think will be good.
Many of us (myself included) struggle with this subtler and less discussed aspect of presence. Deep within us, perhaps from conditioning, perhaps wired into our DNA, perhaps both, there exists a drive to make something with our moments, to move our now-s in a positive direction that will create what we want. As we’re living this moment, a part of us (not always conscious) is relating to now as a stepping stone in the larger path that is our life. We live in a linear frame, with the present moment inextricably linked to an imagined future. This linear frame emits a subtle, sometimes imperceptible energy, but nonetheless, its energy keeps us at a slight distance from life; we’re still doing something with life, making something out of it that will benefit us, moving the separate I forward. With our now perpetually linked to a future then, we cannot trust that it’s safe to truly let go and surrender entirely into this moment, as its own destination.
To be fully in the present moment is to show up for this moment without demanding or expecting that it become or lead to anything else. So too, it’s to be here without using this moment to promote any particular identity, demonstrate that we are or aren’t something we imagine. To be fully present is to relate to each now as a kind of vertical eternity, each moment complete and whole, a hologram of everything; it is to release the idea of now as a point in a linear and finite line from a past to a future, with now serving as an usher between those two points. To live with profound presence is to trust that life will be enough and we will be enough if we simply show up for it one moment at a time. It’s to believe that like a necklace of pearls, life can be well-lived as a series of present moments strung together. The shift into this sort of presence is about letting go of the idea that we are the directors of our life, that we need to use life to achieve a particular agenda, that life is here to move us along or us to move it along.
Living fully present is surrendering to this now, completely, and believing that we do not need to use this moment to achieve a destination of our own strategizing. But rather, that we can simply show up for life one moment at a time, and trust that just showing up, on its own, will be enough to lead us where we need to go, which ultimately and paradoxically is back to now.
When we pay attention to our senses without judgment, interpretation, or agenda, and refrain from engaging in thinking, we start to experience, at a gut, heart and mind level, that simply taking care of our now-s, one now at a time, showing up for this moment again and again, is in fact the most skillful and successful means for taking care of our then-s, and ending up in a future that we want. It’s actually a lot easier and less effortful than we’re conditioned to believe. Counter to everything we’re taught, the best way to create a joyful life, a good life, is to pay attention to this moment and then the next and then the next. . . We can only learn this truth through practice, but attending to now is all we ever really need to do.
Practices for Being Present
- Take a few minutes each day to drop out of your mind and into your body. Feel the experience of right now as it’s happening in your senses. Experience what it feels like to be alive in this moment in your body. Like a photograph syncing up with its frame, allow your attention to sync into frame with your body. Sense the felt experience of returning your attention to your own physical being. Feel the sense of relief, calm, joy, or whatever arises as you bring your body your full attention, presence, and intimate company. Feel the “Aaah yes, I’m here with you, I’m home.”
- As you go through your day, notice the subtle drive to live the present moment as a means to an end, to be doing something with the moment. See if you can drop that agenda, let go of where this moment should go or what this moment should do energy. Practice surrendering into now, without any thought or plan for a future. Play with living in this moment as if there really is nowhere else to get to, no next, no future. Give yourself permission throughout the day to require only one thing from yourself, that you show up for this now. Approach it as an experiment, field work for knowing whether taking care of your present moment, and only your present moment, can be enough, and can in fact generate a good life.