Does the statement “Now is all there is” make any sense? Didn’t yesterday actually happen? Is tomorrow never coming? Surely, yesterday and tomorrow are real. If we didn’t believe they were real, we wouldn’t bother learning from the past. We wouldn’t plan anything for tomorrow.
So why do we hear so much about living in the present moment? Why, as Eckhart Tolle says, should we “Always say ‘yes’ to the present moment…”? And why did I say, “Now Is All There Is” in my video “Three Ideas for Centering Your Life” on this site?
Our “Monkey Mind” World
One reason is thatour hectic lifestyle seems to leave no space for present moment awareness. During the day, we shuttle children to dance lessons and soccer practice. In the evening we jump from television to Facebook to cell phone. And that’s after our time on the job.
This all gives us a good case of “monkey-mind” — the loss of mental focus caused by jumping from one thing to the next and then to the next. We have so many moments that the next moment is upon us before we have time to be aware of the one we are in—the present moment.
Getting Our Minds to “Now”
The Buddha said, “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” Along the same lines, Jesus said, “Take no thought for tomorrow.”
We want to live in the wisdom of these teachings, but it is one thing to want awareness in the present moment and another to have it. All the while we try to focus on what is happening now, our thinking goes to something that happened yesterday—or two minutes ago—or something that needs to be done tomorrow.
So, how can we settle our minds down?
Meditation is probably the surest way to break our monkey mind habits and achieve some present moment awareness. Fortunately for those of us who want to learn meditation, there are lots of classes, audio CDs and books available to help us. I am a beginner at meditation and strongly recommend you try it if you haven’t.
I will leave guidance in meditation to those more capable than me and ask you to step back from discussing “practice” and try to understand “now” from another direction.
Thinking About How We Think
Let’s think about how we think. Just what is going on in our heads when we think of the past or the future? Consider the gift of memory. Memory allows us to recall much of what has happened in our lives. We can also recall many things we have read and many of our past thoughts. We can seemingly bring the past into the present. What’s more, we can reconsider past actions and make better choices in the future.
We also have the gift of being future minded. We can take information from the past and use it to imagine things for the future. That’s how we learn to build shelter and to cultivate food. We learn to save money for tomorrow. Eventually we learn to write novels, make automobiles and create democratic governments. We have cared about the past and thought about the future, and in the process brought many positive changes to our lives.
Since remembering the past and imagining the future seem so helpful, why so many reminders to focus on the present?
A Mental Boo-boo
We often make an innocent but big mistake in our remembering and planning. We are used to our brains being pretty smart. We have learned enough from past mistakes to avoid making most of them again, and we have discovered that planning ahead has a big payoff. The trouble is that when we remember the past, our minds assume we are actually accessing the past—that we are working with material realities. But we have no direct access to the past. We are accessing whatever is in our heads at the moment. Even if our memory is good, it will not contain all the information about what happened. And when we recall it, emotions we are having right now, added to a bunch of emotions we had at the time of the experience, will alter our very partial mental information.
For example, if I am a salesman and lost an account several years ago when a customer changed to another vendor, I might recall that the customer claimed he was getting equivalent service at a lower price. Certain that this was impossible, I could harbor anger at this customer for being so stupid! When I recall the details later, I again become angry. My anger reinforces my original judgment and I am even more certain of this customer’s ignorance. But what if, unknown to me, a new system of service allowed the competitor to do just what my customer claimed? What if some special arrangement made a lower price possible?
We have all had experiences that we have come to understand in a certain way. When we remember the experience our mind selectively re-imagines the event in a way that supports our chosen version—probably with some added emotional support as bulwarks to our “rightness.”
So sometimes our memory yields results that are not so hot. We might remember the past as much rosier than it really was and give too little value to the present. Or we might obsess about our past mistakes, frequently recalling unhappy results, and forgetting the good that also happened.
Of course this does not make thinking of the past useless. But when I try to remember the past, I need to remind myself that I don’t have the real thing at my mental fingertips. I have gotten into the habit of assuming this thing in my head is the past itself when it is not. My past has no existence for me except in the present moment—in my present thoughts.
The same warning applies to how we think of the future. When we plan for the future we tend to think of it is a very concrete thing. We think of an appointment tomorrow at a specific place, at a specific time. We plan a work project in specific steps. We plan a vacation in all its detail. Sure, we realize we don’t “know” the future, but we have rather specific expectations because we have planned for future eventsbefore.
But the future never turns out quite the way we expected, does it? Sometime the other person is not at the appointment. Or the boss changes the project. Or the airline flight gets delayed and makes a mess of things. On the other hand, our worried projections of what will go wrong often turn out to be false, and we find that our worries were baseless. So let’s remember that when we think of tomorrow, we are not touching the real tomorrow. We are touching our thoughts for tomorrow. The real future will have to wait until it becomes the new present.
Let’s Get a Clear Head About Something
Maybe we can avoid the trap of thinking too literally about the past and the future by planting this idea firmly in our heads: “You can’t choose to live in the present moment—you are already there.” This is reality. All your living and all your thinking take place right now. You can’t do your thinking or your living anywhere else. The more aware you are of this, the more likely you are to treat your memories of the past and your considerations of the future as what they are: thoughts made out of information that is in your mind—wonderful, beautiful and often useful creations of your mind—but no more.
If we get that clear in our heads, not only will we see the past and the future more realistically, our minds will have more space to see the miracle of life in the present moment, the only place we actually live.Share: by