Mindfulness is about spending more time in the present moment. It is a concept that sounds simple and perhaps not very interesting, but in practice, the present moment turns out to be an elusive thing. It does not include the present day, hour, or minute. It is only right now. It is this moment, this experience, this feeling, this action. It is only THIS… right here and right now.
Why focus on THIS? First of all, the present moment is where we actually live our lives. THIS is where everything happens. To place our attention elsewhere is to miss out on life itself. Second, the present moment is usually pretty okay. This may not seem true, but consider how much of our moment-to-moment suffering is based on paying attention to the past or future rather than THIS. If you are involved in a car accident, the event itself lasts only a few seconds. The moments that follow, where you exchange insurance and contact information with the other driver, might be completely fine, even mundane, if it weren’t for your preoccupation and judgments about what just happened (the past) and your worries about what comes next (the future). If we can resist the urge to be elsewhere, if we can stop our minds from polluting the present moment, we often find that THIS is not nearly as a bad as we thought.
Unfortunately, THIS can be tricky to focus on. Here’s why…
Imagine sitting on the bank of a stream and trying to watch only a small patch of water directly in front of you. The water within this area is always moving and changing. Your eyes, which prefer to focus on specific things, have trouble staying on task. They want to watch the random leaf, twig, bug, or ripple. They want to follow it and see where it goes or what it does next. As soon as your eyes start tracking something, your attention wanders and you lose your focus.
Focusing on the present moment is much the same. The present moment is ever-changing, as the future becomes the present and recedes into the past. Meanwhile, our minds are quick to latch onto things and drag our attention away from THIS. We can’t help it, at least not at first. The mind sees THIS and starts working. It compares the present experience to our past, looking for patterns and similarities. It also extrapolates forward to create plans, expectations, fantasies, and worries for the future. Being truly focused on THIS means denying all of these mental impulses. It can be exceptionally hard to do, even if you really want to.
During the most intense moments of our lives, like the car accident, we generally cannot help but be present. We get irrevocably drawn into THIS. It requires no effort. However, most of our moments are not intense, as I suggested earlier. Most moments are rather mundane or ordinary. We might even call them boring. Even people who seem to have extraordinary, adventurous, or traumatic lives spend most of their time in ordinary moments. They sleep. They eat. They wait in lines or sit in traffic. They sit on the toilet. For most of us, the present moment is benign most of the time. These observations lead me to two conclusions: (1) being mindful is hard for just about everybody, and (2) just about everybody has access to a benign reality most of the time. I’m not saying that life isn’t scary and hard for lots of people. It is. I’m simply pointing out that our natural preoccupation with the past and future can obscure present moments that might otherwise feel okay.
Fortunately, we can train ourselves to focus more effectively on THIS. We can learn to set aside the unnecessary suffering that our minds create by obsessing over the past and future, and we can learn to exist more fully in the often-benign reality of the present moment. To move closer to this goal, we must practice. That’s it. That’s the trick to mindfulness. Sure, we can also read books, watch videos, listen to podcasts, and go to therapy; and all of these things will likely help. But there is no substitute for the practice of paying more attention to THIS, right here and right now.
As we progress, we will face challenges. The mind will rebel against THIS, because lounging around in THIS doesn’t feel safe to the mind. It wants to create safety by ruminating on the past and anticipating the future, but as I have said before, these efforts can also contaminate our reality and prevent us from experiencing THIS. Yes, we can and should learn from the past, but we can’t live there. And yes, we can and should have some plans and aspirations for the future, but we can’t live there either. And yet, most of us spend most of our time in those unreal places. We live in the sometimes dark and sometimes fanciful corners of our own minds, and we miss THIS. That doesn’t sound like safety to me.
Perhaps pursuing safety is part of the problem. Perhaps safety is not a reasonable or productive life goal. Instead of dedicating so many of our moments to figuring out how to avoid risk and danger, perhaps we should dedicate ourselves to exposing and understanding a different truth, that THIS is mostly okay most of the time. Imagine what it would be like, not being consumed with doubts, fears, insecurities, and judgments about the past and future. Imagine being free to experience life as it happens with the whole of your attention, and imagine doing so with openness, acceptance, trust, and vulnerability.
Some amount of learning and planning will always be important, of course. Pondering the past and future are unique and highly valuable human talents, but they should be used intentionally and not by default. That analytical part of our minds, no matter how amazing, is still only a tool, and a tool should never replace THIS as the center of our experiences. In other words, don’t get lost in your thoughts and forget to live. Regardless of whether your thoughts are a blessing or a curse, they are no substitute for lived moments. In the immortal words of Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Once again, I am not suggesting that life is easy or safe. It isn’t. Life can be soul-crushingly hard, and life is definitely not safe. But one of the most powerful and meaningful skills we can learn is to face THIS, even when it’s difficult, with our whole awareness and attention. To me, that’s living. To me, that’s a worthy and attainable life goal. We will never be able to do it perfectly, and that’s okay. The goal is simply to have the skill, to have the option of THIS, and not be forever stuck in ruminations and anxieties.