On Being Present
It occurred to me early this morning (I can only assume this happened because we watched Kung Fu Panda last night and Master Oogway’s words had an impact) that being present is difficult because the present is a tiny moment in time compared to the past or the future. I have been meditating somewhat consistently for 18 months or so now and the basic difficulty of staying present on the breath has certainly shown me this but it has never been made concrete in my rational mind.
Meditation, especially breath meditation where you focus attention on the breath, is designed to move focus to the present moment where air flows into your body through the nose and out again in the same manner. It is one of those things in life that sounds incredibly easy but is actually impossibly hard, at least in my experience. My tendency is to make it to about breath number two before something intrudes on my focus whether it’s a bad choice from the past, an anxious need from the future or an item on the always present TODO list that lurks like some evil spirit in the shadows of my mind.
One of the reasons this is so hard even in good circumstances is that the Past is a vast treasure trove of fears and delights, times when things went well and poorly, events that seem much more interesting to think about than the ennui of breath in, breath out. The Future is an equally vast cornucopia of possibilities, many of them terrible if the average social media timeline is to be believed, possibilities that spring to mind easily and often to interrupt the focus of the present moment. Add to this the anxiety and cognitive load of the TODO list which I am prone to and the result is a situation where being truly present can seem impossible. The human mind seems especially talented at focusing on the past (depression) or the future (anxiety). The present in contrast is a pinhead of space where this moment you are present in is so fleeting as to be imaginary, gone before it can even be recognized.
Yet the present is the key to practically everything. It is the way to happiness, to progress, and to health. When I watch Wobbles closely, her joie de vivre comes from her total immersion in the present. All children are like this. They run and leap and laugh and cry based on this moment. I believe much of the anxiety of the youth (and perhaps the world) of today can be tied directly to social media usage which is designed to turn our attention to either the past through reminders of what our life used to be five minutes or five years ago or to the future when hopefully we will be having a great dinner in Italy like our friends Karen and Bob and their two perfect children. Unless carefully managed, social media removes us from the present and places us into some other period over which we have almost no control.
The present on the other hand is within our control. What we choose to do with now is where all beauty and happiness lies. It is a great paradox that so many people obsess about the past as one long list of bad choices but obsess about the future as a time when we can get things right, ignoring the more likely outcome that they will continue to make the same choices then and get the same results. Being present is the way out of that trap.
The Stoics were masters at the present, putting forth a philosophy designed to recognize this situation that teaches us not to revel or dwell on our past or worry about the future because they are out of our control. Instead, we must focus only on what we can do in the current moment which results in peace of mind. It is also interesting to me, though probably the topic of another essay, that creation and experience and appreciation of art happens in the present moment. Writing, music, drawing, painting, it’s all done here and now. In fact, the book Drawing On The Right Side of the Brain is a book that specifically teaches you how to leave the judgmental and controlling left side of the brain and fall into the flow of the present that the right side of the brain is so in tune with.
Another interesting way to look at this is that the past and the future don’t actually exist, only the present moment as Master Oogway noted. The past is gone, a litany of present moments spent and cast aside. The future is unstable, a stream of present moments affected by randomness and contingency that we have less control over than we imagine. The only way to achieve a different past or future is to do things differently in the present. Whether that’s saving money or losing weight or learning Spanish, the way to achieve anything is by doing something in the present moment other than dreaming about the future or wallowing in the past. These present moments then compound over time to produce a savings account of memory and learning that redefine our past and change the opportunities for our future. The present is the only way to true happiness.