Last updated on February 20th, 2013 at 07:20 am
To simply be in the present moment is mindfulness. As a central theme of the Buddhist tradition, its practice dates back over two millennia, but has since spread into various other spiritual and non-spiritual forms.
What is the present moment? Simply put, it’s neither the past, such as thinking about the events of last weekend, nor the future, such as clinging to desires. It’s the opposite of temporal life. Like workers on an assembly line, we see objects continuously coming at us. Upon their arrival, we deal with them. Once finished, we put them back on the line. In the factory of time, the objects being fed to us are life events. Unlike a real factory, these objects are unknown. We often look into the crystal ball, trying to predict the possibilities. This often leads to worry or craving. We attend to the object, usually in a passive “get it over with” frame of mind. If we rush through it and make a mistake, we often think about the past, sometimes resulting in regret. Working under a clock, we’re timed to be efficient, so we strive to build widget after widget, without experiencing the process of widget-making itself. To experience the present moment is to exclusively work on the widget, as if there were no clock, no deadline, and no factory.
Theorizing about the present moment, however, is of little use. The present moment is not quantifiable. Those who practice mindfulness seek the present moment experientially. It is a practice, not a philosophy. Meditation is the best way to concentrate the mind on the present, though the moment can be captured in other ways through engaged cultural activities and lifestyles that are related to mindfulness. What is helpful is having an understanding of the methodology of mindfulness to use in practice.
Stopping is something we don’t do nearly enough. It’s the first and most important step to being mindful because it helps us break the trance of automation that comes from mindless occupation. Instead of telling ourselves “don’t just sit there, do something!” Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, a founder of the “engaged Buddhism” movement, recommends we tell ourselves the exact opposite: “Don’t just do something, sit there!” Bells of mindfulness are cues that can help us stop and return to the present moment. Audible reminders such as the ringing of the telephone or non-audible reminders like walking through a doorway can be prompts for our practice. Bells of mindfulness can be anything we choose.
Once stopped, we can then be aware that our experience with time truly is subjective. When we’re having a great time, we say time flew by; when we’re not, it dragged. This subjectivity of time can be used to our advantage. Rather than succumbing to our sped- up sense of time passing, we can instead use our perception of time to change our experience with it. In a university psychology class, the difference between sensation and perception is first explored by the question, if a tree falls in the forest and no one’s there to hear it, does it make a sound? While the falling tree does create a change in air pressure that can make a sound, because no one is there to hear it, there actually is no sound. The ear is a sense organ that takes in physical changes, but it’s our brain that psychologically interprets those air pressure changes into sound. Similarly, when we’re talking to someone with a low voice, we won’t hear (perceive) them if we don’t pay full attention, though the sound waves are coming through (sense).
Mindfulness practice helps us change our perception of time by stretching individual moments in much the same way elite athletes slow down time while “in the zone.” We can choose any action to dwell on, such as drinking a cup of tea. Aware of the tea in the cup, I breathe in. Smiling to the tea, I breathe out. Grasping the cup and making it the sole object of our attention, we can look into the cup, feeling it, and smelling it to appreciate its many elements: warmth, sunshine, water, soil, minerals, taste and tea leaf farmer’s labour. By truly focusing on it, we can appreciate it for everything it is, not just seeing it as a tea bag and water to passively consume. We drink a cup of tea to drink a cup of tea. By engaging the process in this way, we do it with intent and remain in the present moment.
To start practicing mindfulness have a look at An invitation to mindfulness practice.
To find a mindfulness practice community visit mindfulness communities.