We have all heard phrases such as “be in the moment”, “there is only now”, “it’s a matter of being rather than doing” and “reality is an illusion” and so on. You have likely also heard or read about getting beyond the idea of duality or that reality is an illusion yet for all we hear and read about such things being in the now is very difficult. The difficulty lays not in the effort itself, it is getting past the barrier we have created within ourselves.
The illusion is pervasive and seems all encompassing to us. We can spend our whole lives searching for the elusive now. We can consider it, think about it and continue try to find our way in between the moments our minds define for us, but it is not there. All of these are for not and while such effort are not a waste of time they will likely be fruitless because we cannot find the now by any of these means. The only way to do so is to discard thinking about or hunting for it, we must even let go of our desire to find it.
Just about everything that we want, need, desire and think about, at whatever level, are the result of our physicality. They arise either out of the needs of our body or are manifested by the mind we create. No matter how well we are raised they cannot be avoided altogether, not even by those born with an extra measure of non-rational awareness (that which is not rooted in our minds) (1). They are what make it so challenging to be in the moment.
What people refer to as “the now” is elusive simply because we tend to live in our minds. To us our mind is who and what we are, even though we are not our mind. Yet our minds are utterly incapable of being in the now. No matter how hard you try you cannot avoid this. It cannot be in the now because our minds react to experiences, and because of that fact it deals in events sequentially. To it between every two moments is another moment, just as if you keep taking ½ of something there is always a fraction left over no matter how many ½’s you take and no matter how small the number.
You cannot find now with your mind, to walk there you must, in a manner of speaking, set it aside. In actuality we do not set our mind aside for we cannot be rid of it either. Nor can it be turned off completely. This means that the mind will be present even if we are experiencing the now. This is not a paradox because essentially what we train our mind to do is allow awareness without getting in the way. It is our thoughts that prevent us from doing this.
Our physicality has a way of getting our minds to view things as discrete in both time and space. It delimits “this from that”. Hence, when we try to get our minds to turn off, to cease this activity it continues to try to do so. Anyone who has meditated knows the strange sensations they feel in their body as they shift from regular conscious awareness to a “blank” meditative state. Those strange sensations are the result of our minds trying to define our physical form. When we withdraw our attention from our body it cannot “feel” itself hence it manifests thoughts about where “it is” and these thoughts give us these strange sensations. Those who meditate frequently can get past this stage. And this is but one of the activities our minds engage in that can make meditating a challenge and this extends to our being in the now.
Another is our beliefs about “self”, which are also a by-product of the way our minds work. We can have any manner of beliefs that affect how we perceive things and how our mind acts. For instance, the though “I need to shut down my mind” is a block. The reason is as we try to shut down the mind it continually checks to see if it is shut down and because it keeps checking it never does. This blocks or keeps our mind from allowing what is. Any thought about what one is trying to do will result in one of these types of “thinking loops”. The fact is we know how to be rather than always do, our minds do know how to “step aside” and all we have to do is let it happen.
Our minds will not simply step aside with a casual thought unless we have trained it this way. Certainly we can and should work on limiting our attention in meditation, but finding the now requires we extend ourselves and work on a being in a more meditative state during everyday living. This is referred to as mindfulness, which is why so many speak of and about the importance of it. The reason is this: most of us spend our time a long way from now. That is we are continually reacting and considering experiences based on past events or thinking about outcomes in the future. We rarely give our whole selves to what we are doing. As anyone who is good at something will tell you, you must surrender yourself to what you are doing so that only it exists. When we do this, wonderful things happen. We build a better widget, solve a tough problem, play an instrument to perfection and run our best times and so on.
Yes, it is a challenge to quiet our mind as the endless chatter is difficult to stop. I have discussed what we can do to change this in numerous compositions. One of the ways to reduce the chatter is to pay attention to what it is we are thinking as the below passage suggests:
“When we have unresolved thoughts on our minds focusing on anything is a challenge. This is even more pertinent when one is going to perform energy work. To do effective energy work one must be able to concentrate and eliminate the irrelevant. In energy work what you do is recognize that you may have legitimate "human aims" and you put them aside with the understanding that you will get to them in due course and then proceed ruthlessly to limit your attention to the matter at hand. Only by doing this a number of times can one eliminate all other concerns. All thoughts must be focused solely on what you are trying to accomplish, you must ensure that you have considered only what is relevant and that you have missed nothing in your consideration.”(2)
“In reality, dealing with so many thoughts and feelings might seem almost impossible. It is not, though it is a challenge, mostly because we must shift our focus. My example illustrates that when we try to clear our thoughts by seeing the trees (individual thoughts and feelings) and not the forest (root beliefs and concepts) we can get stuck in an almost infinite loop of connected thoughts.” (2)
The reality is there are no easy short term fixes because the problems are in our minds and they tend to be systemic (the word systemic refers to something that is spread throughout, system-wide). Further, part of our “system of thoughts” includes desires and wants based on our experiences. We are generally unwilling to surrender these in order to attain greater clarity, assuming we are aware of them. This is why a spiritual path is indeed the road less travelled.
The answer lies in slowly peeling away the layers like that of an onion. Meditation plays a big role and combined with mindfulness and paying attention to our thoughts yields the best results. One of the benefits of mindfulness is that we can practise it when we do anything. One can even practise it when they are doing something by paying attention to only what we are doing and discarding all other considerations. We do this when we are actively doing something by learning to focus and giving it our undivided attention.
The biggest benefit of being mindful of what is going on around us is that, along with thinking less, it reduces our tendency to judge what we perceive. It is our judgments and analysis of things that keeps us separate and locked into the illusion our mind creates. For as long as we do such things our search for now is more like a dog chasing its tail.
I mentioned that our mind has to “step aside” to allow us to experience now and why. A good example of this occurs with classical déjà vu. A great many experiences are attributed to déjà vu that are the result of clairvoyance of one type or another and not the result of “seeing again”, which is what the term means.
Déjà vu literally occur when our minds for whatever reason actually steps aside and what happens is we see the now fully and completely. It is typically for a very short period of time, the briefest instant or second or two at most. When this occurs we are between moments, at least from our minds perspective and so it does not join us. It remains disengaged from our conscious awareness; however, it doesn’t take long for it to reengage. When it does come back “online” it perceives what we did, only from its perspective it is the first time. However, we have two memories of the event and our mind tries to explain the first one, which it didn’t experience, by thinking that we must have experienced it before somehow.
The déjà vu experience of “now” occurs because our minds are not present, though we did not consciously turn it off. We can also experience now or get closer to it consciously through both meditation and mindfulness. Both acts support the same goal, that of being more in the present moment than the past or the future. Buddha considered mindfulness as being of great importance for anyone on the enlightened path and it is one of the seven factors of enlightenment. These seven factors are (3):
- Joy or rapture
- Relaxation and tranquility
The idea of mindfulness is that one is practicing being more aware of what is perceived by being calmly aware. Mindfulness is a practice whereby we reduce our tendency to do this; though as some Zen teachers correctly assert, one must also be careful to not think when being mindful. This is because if we are thinking then we are, of course, engaging our minds.
We overlook most of what is going on because our minds keep us dancing between the past and the imagined future. What we want to be consciously aware of, when being mindful, are such things as our bodily functions like breathing, sensations such as smell, tastes, sounds and sights, thoughts and feelings and even our consciousness. To observe without interpreting, analysing or even labelling.
We should all practice mindfulness as much as possible. It does not take away from anything we are trying to accomplish for being mindful is not a state where one is not using their mind; in a very real way it is one that trains the mind. The more mindful we are the less our mind is focused on its needs and wants and so by practicing it we get closer to now.
A simple way to start practicing mindfulness is to sit still and breathe. As you do so notice the sensations in your body, the way your body moves when you inhale and exhale. Be aware of the muscles that move, how you feel as you breathe in and out and the cycle of inhaling. That cycle being the inhale, the short pause, followed by exhaling then the exhale followed by another short pause before you inhale again. Give your breathing your full attention to so all that exists is your breathing.
Another way is to walk mindfully so that you start to notice the thoughts that go into each movement of your legs, arms and body as you step. Notice how the mind engages to determine where to place your foot and then the feel of your foot as it approaches and meets the ground. Notice the feel of the ground under your foot and the shift of your body that allows you to continue to move forward and so on.
I use mindfulness when I practice my drums, for example. I try to notice the feel of the stick in my hand and how my hands, wrists and arms move when I strike the drum. I notice the bounce of the stick on the drum head and how that affects the stroke I am trying to make. I notice the momentum of the stick in my hand and that of the various parts of my body involved in the motion. When I am learning something new I do it slowly so that I can feel what I am doing rather than think about it. When I am doing it “right” it feels right and when I am not the opposite is true and I can keep working on it until it does feel right. Only then do I increase the speed, though when I do I try to remain mindful so that I notice when I am “in the groove” versus when I lose the feel I had when doing it slowly.
It is easiest to start being mindful with activities where one normally does not need to apply or engage in judgments, such as breathing and walking. It is harder to be mindful when one is engaged in an activity that tends to bring out our needs, wants and judgments and so forth such as being mindful when observing people. When we are proficient enough at it we should try being minfdul in more challenging activities as we learn a lot about ourselves this way. So, you need not refrain from doing them when you start, just don't expect great results until your "mindfulness" skills are more developed. This helps us when we are dealing with situations where we are reacting strongly. If we are mindful we will notice our reaction and can consider our reactions before doing so. This is not something we tend to find hard to do.
“It is important to notice where our attention goes as we can learn a great deal about ourselves by noticing what catches it. In many cases, it is an assessment of the situation so that we can determine if there are any threats to us. We do not need to spend every moment trying to notice what it is that we notice. Where noticing what we are attentive to is of the greatest value to us is when we are interacting with people, including ourselves, or find ourselves in new situations for these have the greatest impact on us.”(4)
Our minds operate on many levels, almost like a program running within another program which is running under yet another one and so on, and all of them are entwined. Disentangling the layers from each other is virtually impossible and isn’t necessarily of any practical use to us save to recognize the reality of it. Mindfulness, meditation and other such acts can help us to get around the blocks these layers our webs of thoughts create.
Getting to the now requires a shift in how we think and how we act. It won’t happen if we do not start to change how we live our lives. Constantly going from one experience to the next consumes our attention and keeps us from being in the moment. Life is not a race, it is an adventure. If we are forever reacting to the past or trying to get to some future we have imagined will make us feel better or which we, or rather our mind wants, we never pause to appreciate the moments. By living this way we miss out on the joy of simply being and life is far too short to spend our time racing from one experience to the next without taking time to just “smell the roses”.
© 2013 Allan Beveridge
Last updated November 3, 2016
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