The Five-Minute Buddhist Books

Recommended Host

Being In The Present

Question:

I have recently been trying to understand the concept of being present. I think I am finding slightly difficult to grasp and certainly don’t feel that it is always beneficial. However, on occasions I begin to think that it a very profound and helpful idea! Is there a danger of us losing sight of the future or not remembering and learning from the past if we stay ‘present’? Certainly the feeling or being present is great… but is it actually beneficial in terms of day to day activities…? It just seems that being in a strong state of presence can be harmful to one’s goals or purpose…. Wasn’t it Sou Yen Shaku – the first Zen teacher to come to America who said – ‘do not regret the past, look to the future’…this seems to contradict the idea of being ‘present’… Anything you have to say is much appreciated – as usual!

Answer:

This seems to be confusing to many people. You often hear the phrase “Be Here, Now,” and that’s usually a reminder to keep your mind on the present moment and focus on the now, as opposed to worrying about the past or future. We often move through our days more or less on “auto-pilot,” doing routine things without paying much attention. Do you remember putting on your socks this morning? Do you remember the first sip of coffee/tea/whatever you had today? How about the physical sensations of putting your key in the ignition and starting your car? Some of us do these things day in, day out, and give absolutely 0% conscious thought to those things.

Where is our mind when we do these routine “no-brainer” activities? Usually wandering around in the future, working out what we’ll be having for breakfast tomorrow or about that conversation with the boss later this afternoon. Or perhaps reliving the past, thinking about what you should have said to that jerk in the subway yesterday. Or maybe you’re just off in a complete fantasy, thinking about last night’s episode of LOST. The problem is that you aren’t paying any attention to the now.

It’s perfectly OK to make plans and have hopes and expectations for the future. The future is going to become the present eventually, and we all like to be prepared for that when it happens. The trick is not to get attached to those hopes and plans, and not to move through the present while on “auto-pilot.” You have no control over the past at all, and only a little control over the future. On the other hand, your present is entirely yours.

Right now you’re probably sitting in a chair reading your computer screen or a printout with these words on it. Some of you are listening to my voice on an MP3 player while you are doing something else. Are you paying any attention to the background noise in the room you are sitting in? Can you hear birds or cars or music or children playing? Are there any smells in the room? Is your chair perfectly comfortable or does a part of it painfully poke you somewhere? Were you aware or midful of these things before I mentioned them? Being in the present means really experiencing the present, as much of it as we can at any time.

When we are meditating, it’s common to get yourself to the point where you feel your attachment to everything around you (“one with everything”). That’s great if you can do it in a silent, meditative posture, but can you do it right now without stopping what you are doing? This idea of being in the present is one reason Zen monks (and probably others) work so hard. It’s just as valuable for them to be outside working in a garden or washing dishes as it is to sit in zazen. Experiencing life in the present is a big step toward realizing your oneness with everything around you.

It’s easy to do when you give it active thought, but it’s so easy to get lost in day-to-day life that it becomes a real challenge to stick with it. Try not to fly through life on autopilot.

7 comments to Being In The Present

  • steve

    Hello!
    My understanding is that everything that happens,happens in the NOW even future events will happen in the NOW.I believe that using the NOW to plan for the future is O.K. but we must return to the NOW(what is happening in this present moment)in order to live life more fully.All of life is lived in the NOW.So make your plans for the future NOW and then revert back to living your life in this present moment(the NOW).Life lived this way instead of always thinking of the past or future will greatly help you in seeking liberation from suffering!

  • Farang

    Trying to be in the moment yesterday while walking outside, this thought occurred: How does one know the difference between being mindfully aware of something (a flower, for instance) and being distracted by it so that mindfulness of the present is lost?

  • Kris

    I just wanted to say excellent post Brian, one of the best I’ve read in a while.

    Kris

  • Keith

    Excellently answered. Thanks

  • Lee

    I don’t think anyone seriously has to worry about getting stuck in the NOW. It’s always NOW whether we are working in a deliberative mind set or in a natural ‘meditative’ mind set. When one thinks of impermanence and the future death of oneself (mentally or physically) that will be NOW. Train like your hair is on fire because change is and the moment of your death will be NOW. “Time” flows relentlessly on leaving all of us in the dust.

  • Autopilot or habitual mind is actually a dead thing. It is in skimming the surface of events, simply because we feel that we already know what is there, [been there/done that], that we miss out on the richness in detail that is both ever present to us and richly satisfying. Life, if we are not careful to pay close attention to it, can quickly become tasteless and boring, even painful.

    Lin Chi, “Who is this fellow going in and out of my eyes.”

    Like a cat, the moving events in life grab our eyes and make us feel that movement and excitement are the only things going on.

    If any thing, or any part of our self for that matter, remains silent and/or still, it is easily over-looked. And yet at the same time, we are so commonly told by the wise ones that these very levels of our understandings, that we so easily discount, are often what we at our very depths truly hunger for. It is that emptiness that is never quite filled and at the same time won’t seem to go away.

    Subjectivity9/Leslie

  • Tifffany

    While I was reading this I was also playing with my son and wishing my boyfriend good luck and farewell as he was heading out the door. What I thought was a moment that I was being distracted by everything was just me being in the moment. And guess what i smell…a dirty diaper:D