Living in the present

 

The present moment is highly overrated. From an evolutionary perspective, the past and the future are where it’s at. Any aardvark, antelope, cat, or cockroach can effortlessly reside in the present moment. Only human beings can engage deeply with the past and consciously co-create the future. By doing so, by looking outward with aims of bettering our world, big or small, we also walk a path that leads to inner fulfillment.
– from by Evolutionary Spirituality: Coming Home to Reality by Michael Dowd

I agree completely. And yet, there is a common misunderstanding here.

The “present” doesn’t exclude past and future. It is just a reminder to notice thought as thought.

When I notice thought as thought, I recognize past, future and present as a mental overlay, as images and stories. They can be very useful, and even profoundly meaningful and enriching, but the three times – as they appear to me – all happen within my own world of images.

One way to notice that is through exploring the sense fields. I can notice what happens in each sense field, including the mental field overlay. When I close my eyes, my body, the room, this log cabin, the town, the whole world, exists to me only in my own world of images. I move my arm, and in my world of images, the image of my arm moves. I open my eyes, and my own overlay of images is still there, on top of all other sense fields.

I can explore what happens when I don’t notice this, when attention is completely absorbed in images and overlays. When that happens, I tend to take my own world of images as real and substantial. I take my own interpretations as real and true. And since the world always shows up differently, I get myself into trouble that way. My images won’t align with the world, so if I take my own images as true, I am at odds with the world in different ways. The world does not meet my shoulds.

And I can explore what happens when I do recognize my own overlay of images as images only. Then, they become useful tools, some more useful than others in any one situation. They help me function and orient in the world, and they add immense richness to the world.

I can explore the same through stability practice, for instance bringing attention to the sensations of my breath at the tip of my nose. Here too, though is more easily recognized as thought. And the same goes for open awareness or “just sitting” practice.

When I recognize past, future and present as existing only in my own overlay of images, there is also a recognition that all already happens here now. Sensations, sight, sounds, smell, taste, and images of past, future and present, all happen in immediacy.

That is the real meaning of “be present”.

So why use the pointer “be present”? I am not sure. It may be helpful in some cases, but it is equally likely to be a source of misunderstanding. If attention is absorbed on the inside of stories, then “present” can easily be understood as exclusive of past and future. While all three really just happen within our own overlay of images, in immediacy as every other content of experience.

And when the images of me (as this human self) and I (as the doer or observer) also are recognized as happening within content of experience, there may be a release of identification out of these, and what is (that which all content of experience happens within and as) may notice itself. Reality awakens out of the me and I.

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I couldn’t agree more. And yet, there is also a myth or misunderstanding here.

It is the myth of the “present” excluding past and future.

It couldn’t be farther from the truth. By noticing that all experience already is happening here now, we more easily notice thoughts as thoughts – whether they are about the past, future or present. And there is a sanity in noticing thoughts as thoughts. We recognize them as tools only, sometimes useful and sometimes less so. When we don’t notice them as thoughts, when we take them as substantial and reflecting reality itself, weird things happen.

And that is what is really meant by “be present”: Notice that everything – sensations, sights, sounds, smell, taste, thoughts – already happens in immediacy, and notice thoughts as thoughts.

Whether they are about the past, future or present, and whether they seem useful or fascinating to us or not, they are still thoughts, a mental field overlay.

Thoughts will still happen, of course, and we want them to. They are essential for helping us orient and function in the world, and they add an immense richness to the world. They can even be fueled, engaged with and acted on in the world, and yet noticed as simply thoughts.

That’s all. It is simple.

It something that perhaps can most easily be noticed through exploring the sense fields. Then at times throughout the day. And over time, more frequently throughout the day. It is a habit, as anything else.

Taking it a little further, we can even notice the images of me (as this human self) and I (as a doer or observer) as images as well, as content of experience as anything else. Identification may release out of these images. And what is – that which all experience happens within and as – may notice itself. And that too can become a habit.

So is the pointer “be present” really useful? I don’t know. It may be, in the very beginning. But there is also a good chance of misunderstanding there.

Other pointers seem more helpful to me: Training stable attention by bringing attention to the breath, which is also a training in releasing attention from being mindlessly absorbed in stories. Familiarity with shikantaza or choiceless awareness, which also is a training in releasing attention out of content of stories, and recognizing images as images and stories as stories. And maybe the most helpful, exploring the sense fields and noticing the mental field overlay as a mental field overlay.

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Some basic things about the pointers on “living in the present”:

– just need to notice, cannot not be in the present
– also, notice thoughts about past, future, present – their play, usefulness etc.
– and can notice engagement with these thoughts, fueling of them, taking them further, acting on them
– “being present” and thoughts about past, future, present – already co-exist, just need to notice
– also, notice difference between attention lost in thought and thoughts recognized as thoughts (even when fueled, and/or acted on)

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The present moment is highly overrated. From an evolutionary perspective, the past and the future are where it’s at. Any aardvark, antelope, cat, or cockroach can effortlessly reside in the present moment. Only human beings can engage deeply with the past and consciously co-create the future. By doing so, by looking outward with aims of bettering our world, big or small, we also walk a path that leads to inner fulfillment.
– from by Evolutionary Spirituality: Coming Home to Reality by Michael Dowd

I couldn’t agree more. And yet, there is also a misunderstanding here.

All pointers to the present are really just saying: Notice you are already present. Nothing else is possible. It is all – sensations, sight, sound, smell, taste, thoughts – happening here now. Even images and thoughts about past, future and present happens in immediacy. All that is needed is noticing.

And in that noticing, there is the natural and effortless play of images and thoughts about past, future and present. It happens on its own. And it is not only essential for our functioning in the world, but also a source of great richness.

We can set aside times to notice it is all happening here now, for instance through exploring the sense fields. We can bring that into daily life, noticing in ordinary situations throughout the day.

And we can explore the natural shifts between

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It is funny how we can completely agree and disagree with something at the same time.

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When it comes to misguided pointers, “be present” is right there at the top of my list.

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