What Is This Thing Called the Present?

By Paul Dunion | July 21, 2015


beautiful-live-moment-wallpaper-favim-com-5205741Living in the present or the here and now has been an extremely popular axiom from nearly every spiritual tradition. Said this way, the present is a noun, a measure of time that we are better off living in. However, since each moment is so easily eclipsed by the next, it leaves us with some real perplexity about what it means to be in the moment or in the present. Hence, there may be more mileage to treat the word present as a verb and then to explore what it means to be present. But before we proceed, it may be helpful to note that we are less likely to be present when we are leaning either into the future or the past. The past and the future have their lures, and the big reason to get out of the present is that it is the place we are most vulnerable to be hurt. Let’s look at how we are pulled toward the future and to the past. 

Fascinated With the Future

We seem to possess a much greater attraction to the future than we do to the present. There may be several reasons for our endearing affection with the future:
• We get attached to the illusion that if we are doing a lot and moving quickly as we do it, then we are leading a full life.
• We get attached to the illusion that if we are moving quickly toward the next moment, we are less likely to get hurt as a moving target.
• We get attached to the illusion that our future plans and intentions give us more control over life.
• We get attached to the illusion that living in a future orientation magically makes us immune to death.

Preoccupied With The Past

The past does not appear to hold quite the same appeal as the future. However, the past does possess a certain allure:
* When attached to reminiscing about past achievements, recognition and victories as away to support self-esteem.
* When challenged to attain sufficient closure with some important past loss.
* When we decide that aging defines the quality of our lives as having already been lived.

Being Present

If we want to be more present, then it is helpful to remain aware of our fascination with either the future or the past and decide how we might interrupt our attachment to one or the other. Once we suspend our understanding of the present as a calibration of time, we can utilize three separate lenses to further our understanding of being present as a verb.
Place — Typically, our thoughts tend to move at a rapid pace. Unless we practice something resembling breath meditation, our thoughts continue to nudge us into the next moment. However, it may be easier to slow our bodies down and even move into stillness. We can stand or sit in one place. An ancient definition of the word ‘present’ is ‘in this place’. We can begin to understand being present as “My body is here, in this place.”
Pace — Maintaining stillness or moving slowly keeps our bodies in some particular place. Years ago, while parking my vehicle at the Benedictine Monastery in Weston Vermont, I was memorized by a monk harvesting potatoes in a garden. It took my friend summoning me to join him in order to interrupt my riveted gaze. For years I held the image of the monk picking potatoes. There was something about the grace he brought to the task that made it prayer-like. Many years later, I came across an account of St. Benedict’s founding of the Order in the 6th century. One of the primary vows he asked of his monks was a devotional loyalty to the moment. I understood better what I had witnessed years earlier in the potato garden.
Attention — An old definition of the word ‘attention’ is ‘to listen closely’. When offering attention, we are taking in our experience with minimum distraction. We may be focused on the internal world of the body that ‘is here in this place’. Our inner concentration may be a review of sensations including body temperature, muscle contraction, and a range of fluttering and quivering. The other option is to be attending to the external environment. Being present then means we are in a particular place, slow moving and attending to our internal or external surroundings.

Benefits of Being Present

There are a number of favorable results when we are being present:
* We are more available to love and be loved.
* We are more receptive to being informed by what is currently taking place in either our internal worlds or the external world.
* We have a greater capacity to bring discernment to our decisions and choices.
* We have a heightened capacity to perceive danger and take appropriate action in support of safety.
* We hold a greater likelihood to act out of consideration rather than simply react.

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