“The present is what takes us into the center of ourselves, asking us ‘Where have you been all this time’ Sr. Joan Chittister “The Gift of Years”
I am listening to an audio book while driving from Tacoma, WA to the Oregon border to climb Mt. St. Helens. Halfway through the first disk I realize I don’t have the slightest idea of what is going on in the book, so I rewind and replay. Then, it happens again, through most of the third disk, as I get lost in my thoughts of the climb— “do I have enough food and water, did I throw in insect repellent?”
Before I have even arrived, my thoughts have placed me half-way up the mountain, running out of water, begging food from my friends, and medevac’d out for dehydration and delirium.
Then, I suddenly “come-to” and I am back in the audio book, wondering what they are talking about. I become “present” to the story at the moment I realize I am not.
Learning to “be present” is not a new concept. They have been popularized by authors such as Eckhart Tolle, mindfulness authors Thich Nhat Hahn, and others—but it is an ancient wisdom teaching dating back to Chinese dynasty’s and Hebrew literature.
Living in the present moment is a hallmark of effective addiction recovery literature, for at the heart of addiction is the absolute inability to remain focused in the present moment. A person in full throttled addiction spends both their waking and dreaming hours in shame and regrets, wishing for a better past— or in anxiety and fear, anticipating a future of gloom and despair.
The classic recovery phrase “One Day at a time” has saved many an addict from relapse. Often, a person new in recovery is encouraged to break their day down into even smaller segments, sometimes to the minute. In this way, the immense burdens of the difficult past and the uncertain future are displaced by the immediate present, a present that asks only for a simple response.
When overwhelmed with the prospect of digging out of a personal crisis I spent years in the making, I would call my friend and mentor to relate a litany of my troubles. After patient listening, he would simply direct my attention to a simple task to perform—something to read, pause to pray, or see who I can help.
These simple suggestions never seemed to line up with what I thought the real problem was, but inevitably the “real” problem dissolved and I would find a place of contentment and serenity.
He was teaching me to live in the present moment.
Present tense thinking dramatically changes our sense of time: A traumatic split second event such as a car crash is perceived in slow motion, precisely because you are fully immersed in the moment. Similarly, a vivid dream is thinking and imaging that is laser focused on the present. Roald Dahl wrote in BFG about how our sense of time changes between our waking hours and our dreaming hours. “Dreaming is quick on the outside, but slow on the inside”.
When I am immersed in an activity that fully engages me, everything else fades in the background. I lose track of time and can stay with it for hours. In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s best seller “Flow”, he says “Only the ability to derive moment-by-moment enjoyment from everything we do can overcome the obstacles to fulfillment.” He talks of the flow experience as an outcome of a person who is immersed in a single activity without distractions. For example, a rock climber explains “You are so involved in what you are doing that you aren’t thinking of yourself as separate from the immediate activity.”
In crisis problem solving, we are taught to slow down our thinking to the very immediate present. One task at a time, then the next and then the next – corresponding to the way moments move from one to the other. In this way you can move through the crisis and not freeze from the enormity of the situation.
We tend to believe we consciously receiving what is happening in each moment – that we hear, see feel, and understand what is happening right now. The truth is, our mind is very much a “Monkey Mind” with thoughts jumping like dozens of monkeys from tree to tree, never sitting still for more than a few seconds until it decides to jump to the next tree.
Our thoughts have three landing zones to choose from: The past, The future, or the present. Typically, they land in either the past, usually dealing with regrets—or the future, dealing with anxiety.
This strong pull to be anywhere but in this present moment is the source of my discontent. It is a discontent fabricated out of the unreal thoughts I think most of my day. They are not real in the sense that they are not happening in this moment—this moment of seeing, feeling, hearing, and fully experiencing what is happening now, directly in front of me this instant.
Another way to illustrate the struggle to stay in the moment is in what happens to me when I spend time in prayer and meditation. After a time of reading and prayer, I will set my timer for 20 min. to sit in silence.
Within seconds, I am thinking about something as mundane as getting my oil changed, or trimming my nails—in this time I set aside to commune with the Lord of the Universe!
I may find myself during this time of meditation slipping into reliving a difficult conversation I had earlier, and how I should have handled it better.
So, for 20 minutes I train myself to be present by continually bringing myself back from imagining a future or dwelling on something from the past, and sit squarely with the moment I am in—the chair I am sitting in, the sound of the window fan, the gurgling of the water fountain outside my window, and especially the sense of love surrounding me as I enjoy just being present with my God.
It is only in the present moment, where peace, serenity, gratitude, and compassion can be received. And it is also only in the present moment that one can give to another the greatest gift, the gift of one’s undivided attention. It is in fact, only in this present moment that I connect with anything or anyone, including God.
There simply is no relationship building outside of the present. And so, whether in prayer and meditation (my relationship with God) or in the practice of self-examine and daily inventory (relationship with myself) or in listening and responding to whoever I am in contact with today (my relationship with others), to be in relationship I must place myself in the moment, with full concentration and participation.
We all know what it is like to share something with someone who does not seem to be “present” – who nods as if listening, but their eyes give them away. Or, I may be the one pretending to listen to someone relate an experience while thinking a dozen thoughts, and as a result not enter into their life with them.
Thich Nhat Hahn has a tool for coming back to the present from our wanderings backward to the past or forward to the future. He calls it “Bells of Mindfulness”. My friend and mentor had the same idea that he calls “God Stops”. These are regular moments throughout our day that we let remind us to pause, come back to the present moment in front of us, and respond as the moment requires.
The moment could be at each red light -allowing a red light to be transformed from an irritant to an opportunity to reconnect with God and ourselves. It could be a phone call—a time to re-direct ourselves by quietly whispering to ourselves “Your will, not mine be done”. In this way, I can train myself to live my life in the present, the only place God and my fellows can be found.
Some years ago, I flew across the country to visit a loved one who was gravely ill. When I entered her hospital room, she looked up at me and forced a little smile. Her face was pale. Although she was getting medication intravenously, her furrowed brow said she was in pain. I felt utterly helpless to do anything.
After a brief moment, I pulled up a chair and sat next to her, and began gently rubbing her forearm, speaking softly to her about her family and mine. Slowly, the furrows in her brow left, and her face relaxed.
Presence was bringing relief where narcotics could not reach.
The greatest gift we can give another human during their time of suffering, whether physical or emotional, is our presence. To be with someone is to not be anywhere else when you are with them. To be somewhere else is not to be with them. This does not come automatically with me. I must practice.
If I were to say what is one of the most significant changes in the quality of my life over the years, it would be learning to recognize when I am not in the present moment, and how to return to it. It is there that I experience God, and it is only there that I can truly be with you.
The present moment is there, waiting for each of us to enter in. It is there that we find what we are looking for – connection to the wondrous reality of life.
This week, try to sit alone for five minutes each day. Light a candle, and watch it flicker for five minutes – when your thoughts stray, come back to the candle. Or, choose a short word that is meaningful to you, and repeat it gently in those five minutes until your fully present.
Choose a “Mindfulness Bell” or a “God Stop” this week that reminds you to enter again into that presence where the hidden ground of reality— God, is found.