What’s so special about what is happening right now? Why is there such an emphasis on being “in the moment” throughout Zen philosophy? What the ancient teachers have realized and passed down to us is that the present moment goes vastly underappreciated in most people’s minds. It’s easy to spend most of life thinking about things that either happened in the past or that might happen in the future or just going off on whatever trajectory the brain happens to roam in. The directions that the mind goes are dictated by many factors, many of which we aren’t able to understand because they come from the unconscious part the brain.
Feelings and emotions only complicate presence because the mind can easily become consumed in trying to find an answer to something that it identifies as a problem that needs to be solved. The feeling brings up memories of the past that it then tries to find a hypothetical solution to in order to protect you or to make you more secure and functional in your future. The only place that the mind isn’t is in the present moment. For many, the present moment is nothing more than where the past and future happen to intersect, and not worth exploring. After all, there are all these problems that we think happened in the past that we think need to be solved by thoughts about the future. Where are we going to find the time to focus on being present?
The present moment is, in fact, far more extraordinary than most people realize. After all, this it is the only time that is actually real. The past and the future are both extremely limited abstractions created by our unconscious brains. When you think about what you did this morning, do you really know what happened? You may have a bunch of random memories about things like what you ate and how long you showered and how you felt getting out of bed, but these memories don’t constitute reality. Only the present moment is ever real. Everything else is just a thought based off of a very incomplete perception of the events that have occurred.
Presence is hard work. Ask any monk who has spent decades in a monastery or any yogi who has done the same in a cave in the Himalayas. One has to have a pretty powerful incentive to commit themselves to a practice that they will be doing for the rest of their lives (and many lifetimes to come). For many people, this commitment to presence as a discipline starts with one or more undeniable epiphanies that forever change their perspectives on everything. These moments of enlightenment tend to share very similar qualities no matter who describes them. There is an emphasis on feeling connected to the entire universe. There is a feeling of deep love that transcends anything they previously knew to be possible. This is accompanied by heightened sensory awareness and a temporary dissolution of ego. Some describe it as having had a direct experience of being one with God.
I’ve personally been blessed with experiences like this on many occasions. These moments had such a direct impact on me that they helped to carry me through years of intense trauma from my spinal cord injury. As I suffered more than any human should have to, I couldn’t help but to come back to the realization that no matter how hard it got, nothing ever separated me from the entire universe except for me and my expectations that life should somehow be different than it was.
The practice of presence is a practice of living life on terms that you decide, as opposed to terms that seem to be decided for you. It’s about owning your inner power. You have the privilege and ability to create what you perceive in the world. By practicing presence, you begin to notice amazing things happening. Your relationships improve because the people you are in relationship with feel that there is more of you there with them to relate to. You stop blaming other people or events for anything because you realize that you were the one creating the experience you were having the entire time. You begin to emanate with your own light, like a projector that comes from your soul.
Presence is practiced through developing an awareness of the breath and body. The breath and body are always in the present moment no matter where our minds go. By simply beginning to notice the sensation of breath entering and leaving your body, you tap into a sense of spaciousness inside you. With practice, the thoughts and feelings that normally consume your mind show up less, and when they do show up, there is space that you’ve created for them to be there because you have been focusing on your breath. This is not to say that you can’t focus on other things, as well. In fact, by focusing on your breath, your ability to focus on what it is that you need to do in the present moment becomes accentuated because your mind is not as distracted. You are connected to your whole self, your body, your mind and your soul. From here, you can choose which thoughts serve the direction you wish to be going in. And you can delete the rest.