The Myth of Being More Present
It’s rare that a week goes by without me hearing somebody talk about “being more present”. The media, also, is awash with this sentiment — look what a google search for “how to be more present” turned up:
“8 Easy Tricks to Be More Present | HuffPost”
“How to Be Here Now: 3 Exercises To Be More Present | HuffPost”
“Simple Ways to Be More Present in Our Everyday Lives | Psychology Today”
“12 Simple Ways to Be Present | Productive Flourishing”
“12 Ideas For Being More Present In Your Life | The Blissful Mind”
“10 Tips to Start Living in the Present | Becoming Minimalist”
… just the first results of many thousands, and no doubt the top results have been read millions of times. Everybody wants to attain this magical state of presence. But all of this advice is based on a misunderstanding — because we are only ever completely and totally present.
The past and the future exist only as mental impressions that are the experienced in the present moment. You can never leave the present — but you can get so engrossed in these impressions that you take them to be real, as if you really were living in the past or future, temporarily. It’s a very useful illusion for an organism that needs to self-reflect and plan ahead, one that has surely contributed much to our evolutionary success. But the illusion is often so convincing that we have tricked ourselves into forgetting our unchangeable total presence. It is also far more pervasive than we often realise — there are few moments of our day that are not spent subtly anticipating, planning, or flashing through past moments. The legendary Alan Watts expressed it thus:
“We are living in a culture entirely hypnotised by the illusion of time, in which the so-called present moment is felt as nothing but an infinitesimal hairline between an all-powerfully causative past and an absorbingly important future. We have no present. Our consciousness is almost completely preoccupied with memory and expectation. We do not realise that there never was, is, nor will be any other experience than present experience. We are therefore out of touch with reality. We confuse the world as talked about, described, and measured with the world which actually is.”
Instead of trying to “be more present”, then, we simply need to recognise that we are always 100% present, even when thinking about the past or future. Doing so opens the door to living our lives fully engaged and aware of the only time we can ever make a difference: now.
This is a simple fact to accept and understand intellectually. The problem is that such an understanding is only surface-level: it will not change our behaviour, and we will continue to dwell on past and future as if they really exist. To really understand, in a way that makes a difference, you have to observe your experience very closely and watch how every thought related to past or future arises and passes away in the present moment. This is the key to increasing present-state awareness, as opposed to “being more present”.
Being aware of a thought arising gives you the power of choice: whether or not to engage with it, to follow it down the rabbit hole of illusion and distraction. Given that you might also observe (as I have) that a very high percentage of your thoughts are essentially neurotic, banefully repetitive and ultimately not useful or conducive to happiness, it is often a better choice to not pursue the thought and return your awareness to the actual situation you are living, right now. For those with anxiety (“overthinking the future”) or depression (“overthinking the past”), this can be an incredible relief. The additional insight that one gains from this is that it becomes quite clear that there is no thinker of thoughts. There are just thoughts which come and go, a flickering in the much larger field of your awareness.
In terms of a specific practice to heighten your awareness of thoughts arising, the most effective technique I can personally recommend is “noting meditation”, an incredibly simple technique by which you can observe thoughts arise in an uninvolved and non-attached manner. It is a form of vipassana (insight) meditation from Burma. Here is a short description by the Australian Buddhist monk Ven. Pannyavaro:
The Technique of Mental Noting
A useful device to support meditative attention is naming or labelling the various objects during the observation of your own body and mind. Used judiciously, it is a very useful tool to assist in focusing and sustaining the attention.
The noting is done by repeatedly making a mental note of whatever arises in your body/mind experience. For example, ‘hearing, hearing’, ‘thinking, thinking’, ‘touching, touching’, etc. And when focused on the abdominal movement [due to breathing], note ‘rising, rising’ and ‘falling, falling’. This is a powerful aid to help establish the attention, especially at the beginning of the practice, when it is necessary to systematically note as much as possible to stabilise the attention. Otherwise, you are likely to get lost in unnoticed wanderings with long periods of inattention.
The noting practice can be combined with the practice of orientating to the six Sense-Doors [vision, hearing, taste, smell, touch, and thinking], by the naming of the physical and mental objects as they arise. It needs to be pointed out here that during mental noting, you must not analyse, interfere or identify with what is being observed (e.g. just note ‘thinking, thinking’ rather than ‘I am thinking, it is me that is thinking’). The exact words used in noting aren’t important — it’s just naming or labelling the experience to support the attention. In order that the noting does not become mechanical, keep in mind that the noting is just a tool to assist the mind in connecting with the direct experience which is always unique and fresh.
Now is a good time to try applying the meditation technique as explained above — for 2 minutes only!
Instruction: Turn off your computer monitor, sit quietly with eyes closed and begin to note the rising and falling of the abdomen or any other mental and physical phenomena arising at one of the six sense-doors.
Try it! Whatever happens, just note it. One really neat mechanism built into this meditation technique is that you can note things which usually sabotage your sitting, like “desire to get up”, “boredom”, or “tiredness”. When you do so, they usually subside fairly quickly and lose their power.
If you find yourself lost in thought, simply note “thinking”. When this happens, don’t be dismayed or disappointed — if anything, be happy that you caught yourself thinking; that your awareness is growing. You will soon find that the shift from being lost in thought to returning to other sensations — touch, sounds, sights, smells — is as dramatic as the shift from dreaming to waking. And in waking, you will see that the present is all there is.