Is it me or is there more and more talk about the present moment lately? It seems like the new panacea… the cure for all of life’s problems. Glamorous people on magazine covers seem to be telling us, from their designer yoga mat, “Just be in the present moment, and things will be perfect!”
You get the idea. The present moment has some mysterious power, one that you always seem to be missing out on. The truth is… I don’t know what people even mean by that phrase half the time. But, I do know enough to nod my head when I hear it. Who wants to come off as the only one not invited to the “Now” party? Except – a lot of times – the party is just plain dull, or painful, disappointing or even tragic. So tell me… What’s so great about the present moment?
I’ve spent the past few decades investigating this question pretty closely. Here’s my 2 cents: The present moment is not the goal of mindfulness practice. It’s simply the door in. Sure, in the present moment, we can become more aware of what’s happening, whether it’s a beautiful sunset or a bite of food. But, the main point is not to intensify or savor experience. It is that mindfulness allows us some degree of influence over how we respond to what’s happening… in real time.
And, this turns out to be a HUGE skill that shows its power most when the moment is different from how we would choose it to be. If we’re honest, most of our moments are spent this way. How often do things work out the way you want them to? Anybody can enjoy pleasantness. That’s the easy part of life. It’s the whipped cream. The beautiful moments generally don’t require all that much skill. They tend to take care of themselves. But, the challenging moments require attention, resilience, clear vision and some degree of compassion… for other people, yes, but more importantly, for ourselves.
Mindfulness develops all of these qualities, by knowing our experience directly as it is happening, accepting it for what it is, and most importantly, learning about ourselves, and the world around us, and how all of these things interrelate. We do this by seeing clearly what is possible, what is beneficial, what pushes our buttons. We do it by learning to breathe through tense moments and not make things worse – internally or externally. We do this by seeing directly that resistance and clinging to outcomes is causing a lot more pain and strain than just doing our best and letting go.
The next time you find yourself in this kind of situation you might silently ask yourself the following question, “What am I not accepting right now in, this moment”? It would be good to not expect an answer and just breathe with the question a few times. Maybe even for a few minutes, if that’s possible. And then, see if something shifts. This is a deep learning. One that goes bone deep, and deeper the longer we practice mindfulness.
I don’t expect you to take my word for it, or anybody else’s, but I invite you to test the hypothesis. The one that states that life can be more rewarding, and happier- by being engaged with your moment to moment experience, even when that experience is unpleasant. We do this by cultivating intimacy with reality. There might be something deceptively profound about that, something that might grow in you bit by bit each time you come back to this inbreath.
There are no guarantees how things will unfold, but unfold they will. One way or the other. Unfold, you will! Being mindful in the present moment allows us to see precisely how we are making ourselves miserable…how we are strengthening negative attitudes, thoughts and behaviors that end up causing bad outcomes, now and in the future.
A spiritual type might call this Karma. I call it common sense. When we see things clearly enough in real time, we begin to see openings that were previously hidden from our view. It provides us with a chance to take a new pathway, that is not available to us when we are not in the present moment. And that opening, is the door to change. It is the door to transformation. Indeed, it is a door to a whole new life, if we are sincere enough. And that, is immeasurably powerful… much more so than a beautiful sunset. But hey, that’s pretty good too!
This essay originally appeared as a recorded talk on the Ten Percent Happier meditation app.
Reprinted by permission.