Living in the present moment

It is said that one of the qualities of an enlightened being is their ability to live in the present moment. It may sound simple, but few have mastered this art.

Some people think of enlightenment as something miraculous that only gurus and other evolved spiritual leaders can achieve, but enlightenment is available to each and every one of us at any given moment in time, as is the ability to live in the present — and you need not be living in seclusion in a cave or have long hair and a beard, either!


The inevitability of the present moment

Imagine you’re in rush hour and you’re stuck in your city’s worst traffic jam. The delay means you’re going to be late for a very important meeting.

You have choices (you always do). So in this instance, what do you choose? Do you choose to worry yourself into a frenzy and arrive not only late but stressed? Or do you choose to accept the reality of the moment as it is, in all its inevitability? In which case, you could then relax and take whatever action you possibly can to improve the situation. Chances are you’ll arrive calmer and more centred than you otherwise would have been.

Whenever we wish that the moment we’re in were different, something other than what it is, conflict and resistance arise in the mind and prevent us from experiencing the freedom and lightness which comes with being able to accept situations as they are. This acceptance is not a passive, laidback, “so what?” attitude; it’s a realisation that only through accepting what is can the mind be calm, clear and free of worry. Once the mind is calm, creative ideas about how to deal with whatever challenge you’re facing can arise more easily. A stressed or worried mind doesn’t easily come up with creative solutions.

Very few of us are aware or present enough to choose acceptance over non-acceptance. Often, what we do instead is react rather than respond, but the ability to respond can enable us to affect adverse situations positively rather than to be adversely affected by them. However, it takes some degree of awareness and stillness in the mind in order to be present and remain calm in any given situation. So how can we become more aware, more present?


The vacillating nature of the mind

German-born Eckhart Tolle, author of the bestseller The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, spent two years sitting on park benches “in a state of the most intense joy” after an epiphany. He emphasises the importance of being aware of the present moment as a way of not being caught up in thoughts of the past and future. In his view, the present is the gateway to a heightened sense of peace. He states that “being in the now” brings about an awareness that is beyond the mind.

Just observe your mind when it’s dwelling on the past: is it happy? A mind stuck in the past is either regretful (“I wish it hadn’t happened like that”), angry (“It shouldn’t have been that way”) or trapped in glorifying the past (“It was so wonderful”).

It’s obvious the first two states are joyless, but what about the third? Let’s take a closer look. While initially this may seem like a positive mindset, a mind that’s glorifying the past inevitably moves towards regret (“But it’s not like that now”), typically coupled with feelings of sadness.

Now observe your mind when it’s focused on some future event: what state is it in? A mind in the future tends to be anxious and concerned about whether things will turn out the way we want them to.

Very few people think, “I know my future will turn out just right and everything will be wonderful.” We tend to think we’ll be happy when something happens to us. The word “when” keeps our happiness postponed to sometime in the future: “When such-and-such happens to me, then I will be happy.”

A person without a job thinks, “When I get a job then I’ll be happy,” but a person with a job often thinks, “When I get a promotion, then I’ll be happy.” Someone who is single thinks, “I’ll be happy when I find my soulmate and get married,” but a married person may think they’ll be happy when they have children, but those with children often postpone their happiness to a time when their kids have flown the nest.

As long as we link our happiness with some future event we are throwing away our freedom and preventing ourselves from connecting with the joy of the present moment.

When we’re away from the present moment, it puts a lot of strain on our nervous system and lowers our level of prana (our subtle life force energy), often to the degree where we feel tired, run down and totally depleted. Living in the present moment increases our energy and enhances our ability to be joyful, content and peaceful.

Happiness in the future is an illusion. Happiness can only be met when we shake hands with and embrace the present moment. We have heard it time and time again. All the sages and wise people over the millenniums have said it — “Live in the Present Moment” — and these days we hear the Dalai Lama, Deepak Chopra and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar saying it. But how can we do this?

If someone tells you to live in the present moment, are you able to? No, the mind cannot be controlled by the mind alone. Our mind is like a monkey, grasping at this and that; it’s very difficult to control. Try it out right now: just look around for any object and observe it. Now close your eyes for a few moments and try not to think of that object. What came to your mind? That which you don’t want to think of, right? This is why it’s useful to have a few tools which can help bring our mind into the present moment.


Techniques to dwell in the moment

Chanting and singing: When we sing or chant, especially in a group situation, our mind becomes focused and calm and thoughts decrease. One of the most beautiful experiences I ever had was when I first went along to a satsang, where a group of people come together and sing devotional songs. I was amazed by how still my mind became and how totally present I was during that hour of singing. In between each song we’d sit with our eyes closed for a few moments, in silence, and I could sense how still everything was in my inner world. It was later explained to me that when a group of people are sitting together there are so many thoughts in that one room; each person has so many thoughts in just one minute. But when they start singing together, all the minds unite and become one — one mind. In this space of unity, all the minds automatically move into the present moment.

Doing what you love: Have you noticed how when you’re doing something you love you become so totally immersed in the present moment? During these times, thoughts of the past or the future don’t come into your mind very much, and if they do they pass away more quickly. The more we do what we love and love what we do, the more our mind becomes anchored in the moment.

Be 100 per cent: Of course, doing what we love doesn’t mean we stop taking responsibility about other things just because we don’t love doing them. It’s also about turning situations around by shifting our attitude. For example, choosing to be fully present with whatever we’re doing, even if it’s something as mundane as washing the dishes. If you’re not someone who enjoys washing dishes, the next time you wash them, give this a go: wash the dishes with one hundred per cent attention. Observe what’s happening in each and every moment. Notice the bubbles on the dishes, the swirl of the water in the sink, the way the water comes out of the tap and rinses over the utensils. Wash them as though there’s nothing more important that you could be doing in that moment and really allow yourself to be there fully.


Be aware of the rush: Often we take ourselves out of the present moment by being in a rush. Whenever we are in a rush it robs us from the joy in life and denies the happiness and freedom of the here and now. Often we don’t even know why we are in a hurry but we just can’t seem to slow down. Being in a rush almost becomes a biological phenomenon. Rushing is caused by feverishness, and feverishness arises out of deficiency. Just becoming aware of the rush inside us can slow us down and bring us back to the present moment. It’s all in the observation.

Yoga: The practice of yoga is so much more than merely practising asanas (poses). Asanas, yogic breathing and meditation are just a few of the many aspects of the yogic way of living, but what all aspects of yoga have in common is they are about taking care of the mind. We wash our bodies and clean our homes, but what do we do to take care of the wellbeing of our minds? When yoga poses are practised with awareness of the breath, the mind naturally becomes anchored in the present moment. Also, the more dedicated we are to a regular daily practice of yoga (even if it’s just 20 minutes each day), the more we find that our mind automatically resides in the present. Doing just a few minutes each day is more beneficial than a single two-hour session per week.

Sudarshan Kriya: Of all the tools for bringing the mind into the present, my personal experience is that the breath is the most effective. Can we take a breath for yesterday or a breath for tomorrow? No, our breath is always in the present moment and, because of this, whenever we take our awareness to our breath we naturally find our mind comes into the present, too. It’s simple yet very powerful. The more regularly we engage in breathing practices or breath awareness, the more naturally and frequently our mind begins to reside in the now. There are many yogic breathing techniques we can practise but the most effective one I have experienced is the Sudarshan Kriya.

For years I “tried” to meditate. I wanted to experience the benefits I’d heard of from people who do, but all I got when I sat with eyes closed was sore knees, an aching back and a bombardment of thoughts that refused to quieten. I thought I’d never experience the blissful state of thoughtlessness or be able to fully accept whatever thoughts were coming into my mind with the equanimity I’d heard so much about.

My first experience of the Sudarshan Kriya was unforgettable. I remember sitting in a school hall with about 25 other people, eyes closed. We were breathing in certain rhythms: slow, medium and fast, to a specific count. I kept losing awareness and when I became aware again I wasn’t sure of how long I’d been there (wherever “there” was). The teacher and assistants kept encouraging us to keep coming back to our breath and to “follow the rhythms”. I had no idea if mere minutes or hours had passed by the time it finished. I lay down on my back. I remember observing all the sensations in my body, how light and tingly I felt. It was as though I was suspended in mid-air.

And then I became aware of this ocean of stillness inside me. Not only was my mind incredibly still but I was floating in this huge space of peace and calm with a pervading sense of wellness unlike anything I’d ever experienced. We rested for some time and when I finally sat up and opened my eyes I felt I’d had a rest deeper than any I’d ever had before. And I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.

That evening when I went home I just wanted to be still, to enjoy the afterglow of my experience. I had no desire to watch television or talk to anyone; I just wanted to fully enjoy each moment as I was going through it. I was seeing the world though new eyes and through them everything looked so different, so peaceful, everything exactly as it should be. It was such a tangible and enjoyable experience of present-moment awareness and it had all happened so easily and effortlessly, through the breath.

Nadi Shodana: This is a simple breathing technique and short meditation that you can practice at home. Before you begin, remember that these practices, as with any yogic practices, should be done only when your stomach is empty (30 minutes after eating fruit, one to two hours after eating a light meal or three to four hours after eating a heavy meal). Otherwise, they can be practised any time of day, but preferably first thing in the morning. Allow approximately five minutes.

Sit in a comfortable position with your spine straight and head in a neutral position. Place your left hand in chin mudra (see picture) and rest it on your left leg. Now place your right hand just in front of your face with the ring finger resting lightly on your left nostril, the thumb resting lightly on your right nostril and the two middle fingers pointing towards the space between your eyebrows. Lightly press your thumb against the right nostril to close it and exhale through the left nostril. This is a cleansing preparatory breath.

Now, to begin the first round, take a slow breath in through the left nostril, close it by lightly pressing your ring finger against it and then release the right nostril and gently exhale through it. Stay here and breathe in slowly through the right nostril. Now close the right nostril, open the left and exhale. This is one round. Complete nine rounds and then sit quietly with your eyes closed.

If you already have your own meditation practice, now is a good time to begin it, as Nadi Shodana prepares the mind for meditation.

Meditation: Even just 10 minutes of meditation a day fosters a mind that is more anchored in the present. A huge variety of meditation methods are readily available to us today. One technique is to sit quietly, keeping the body still, spine straight, observing all thoughts with a non-judgmental attitude as they pass through the mind. Simply observing the thoughts dispassionately allows the mind to become calmer and stiller and to move into the present. Allow approximately 10 minutes.

Be forgetful: Our memory can either be useful or detrimental to our wellbeing. Remembering our name and not to touch a hot stove are useful, but when we get stuck in the past and cannot forget or let go it becomes burdensome to us. It’s like someone who’s driving but constantly looking in the review mirror. Looking in the review mirror from time to time is OK, but if you’re doing it all the time you become dangerous, not only to yourself but to those around you.

It’s not that we should never remember the past nor plan for the future. Making plans for our future is important, but being stuck in the past and overly consumed with planning for the future usually happens when we’re not OK with how things are in the now. The moments when we are most happy, content and peaceful are when we are enjoying the moment that we’re in. And in the words of Sogyal Rinpoche, “The only thing we really have is now.”

Finally, no amount of research and reading on this subject can provide us with an experience of this knowledge. Explaining to someone who’s never tasted chocolate icecream what it tastes like may give them some idea, but not until they’ve actually tasted it for themselves will they really know its flavour. Not until we become aware of what’s actually happening in our mind, and then experience the effect that various techniques can have on our mind, will we understand how easy and wonderful it is to be more present in our lives.

Don’t believe a word I write — experience it for yourself.



The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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