What is it about “the present moment” that has so many people insist on its significance? Why sit on a cushion for hours on end, or join workshops, or even dedicate a whole website to turning towards now?
In this essay I’ll explore what the present moment is, and why it makes sense to me that we turn our attention nowwards.
What is the present?
When talked about in a context of meditation or spirituality, the present moment seems to mean something like paying attention to what is currently going on in and around us. And because it is very hard (I think impossible) to pay attention to what is really going on at the level of sensation and to think at the same time, being in the present moment is often contrasted with thinking.
Why is the present preferred over memories or thoughts?
It is, of course, often useful to remember something from the past, and to reflect on past behaviour and its results. And it can be equally useful to imagine future scenarios and to think through different scenarios of a job interview or how something you build will behave under certain future conditions. It can also be useful and pleasurable to imagine purely fantastical scenarios and write a short-story or paint a picture. Nothing of this is wrong or undesirable. But much of our dwelling in thought seems to be learned defence against feeling what it is really like for us in the present moment.
It’s easy to find people writing or talking about the problems of overthinking: disconnection, tension, illness etc.
However, through my experiences in circling, I have realised that focusing on the positive quality you aspire towards rather than the negative that you want to get away from works better in most situations. So I prefer to focus on the gifts available in the present:
When I spend time with people in intentional presence, where we help each other stay open and available (this is basically what circling is), or when I sit in meditation, I sometimes have amazing expansive experiences.
Sometimes emotions flow through me unhindered, alternating between sadness, joy, anger, and then it is quite curious how all of them are pleasurable when I stay out of trying to control or moderate them.
Sometimes I sink into the direct tactile experience of having a body, and when I sink in sufficiently deep, I find that the fabric of the experience is bliss. I am woven out of something that I can’t describe better than vibrating pleasure.
Sometimes I sink into the experience of my surroundings, and as they come more and more into focus, with less and less abstraction, and interpretation, I find a deeply profound sense of meaning in mere existence. Just being is somehow experienced as the deepest profundity, and my earlier looking for meaning in stories or directions seems utterly misguided and mistaken.
It should be said that I also have, and have had, a lot of struggles. Learning to accept more of myself, and to feel more of the present moment, it sometimes felt like everything got worse initially, when I learned to stop distracting myself from how I really felt. Life is a bumpy ride, and starting to pay attention can initially increase how much of the bumpiness you notice.
For me it was worth it to feel more of the bumpiness, because I had a sense of how life could be further down the road. I have had had some experiences on psychedelic drugs that showed me the richness of presence: That something other than the grey depressive everyday of my life was possible, and that I could have much more choice and inner freedom.
Benefits on the way
There are also clear benefits on the way nowwards. It is not about having some peak experiences after years of practice. I found fairly quickly, especially after learning to circle, that it impacted my relationships in positive ways. I learned to identify less with insistent thoughts and strong feelings, and I learned to navigate triggered situations more skillfully (though still not perfectly, it’s hard). I also learned to be faster at noticing when I got triggered and not letting it take over. I got more access to joy, and I got better at handling depressive thoughts. I got deeper friendships by learning to be more emotionally available and more open (still learning!). My everyday experience has also gotten progressively richer as I have learned to feel my body more, and my emotions more. I also learned to more clearly distinguish what is true and what is just my idea (this is sometimes talked about as ”the map is not the territory”).
We are embodied creatures, constantly sensing our surroundings. It’s quite amazing just how much is happening all the time when I pay attention.
Inverting the mind
To sum this up, I want to speak to the increase in cognitive freedom that is possible when you gain more control over your attention. Attention is the key word here. We can learn to have choice over where our attention goes (although we are fighting an uphill battle against powerful interests that want to absorb and sell our attention).
Enormous amounts of experience is unfolding in every moment, and our meaning making process handles this by selecting some of it to make salient and use for the conscious experience that we generally identify with. We can learn to have a lot of influence on this selection process and we can learn to attend to much more of some of what is happening, and less to some other things that are happening. Let me give two contrasting examples:
I used to plan most of my speech acts before speaking because I was afraid of saying something wrong. In circling this became a problem because whenever I was done planning what to say and formulating it properly, the conversation had moved on and what I wanted to say was no longer relevant. I had to learn to speak without planning and to trust that what I said would be coherent and relevant. It was hard to learn, but now most of my speech arrives without my attentive involvement and I have only a vague idea of what I am about to say. Usually I know the subject I’m going to speak about, but not the formulation. Still it is coherent and makes sense. Somewhere, thought and planning must be happening. And clearly it was always like that before as well: My inner planning of what to say was coherent and appeared out of seeming emptiness. Now that emptiness is allowed to speak directly.
Sometimes when I drive a car I get absorbed in thoughts and I don’t really notice where I am or what I am doing until suddenly I realise that I have arrived at my destination. I think this is an experience most people can relate to, whether they are driving, biking or walking. Somehow all my attention was absorbed in thinking and none of my attention was on my sense-perceptions. Still, somehow I navigated traffic situations, chose the correct path and handled all the complexity of driving, without me knowing about it, nor am I able to remember it.
I like to contrast these experiences as inversions of each other. Either I can have my attention on my sense-perceptions and feel totally alive in a rich world of meaning, or I can have my attention on my thinking process and feel smart and safe and prepared. All of it happens anyway, somewhere in the emptiness from which thoughts arrive. What I want to develop further, and help others develop, is the choice to not be absorbed in thinking, but be in contact with real life flow, meaning, and in connection with other people. Which, to be clear, is not at all to say that thinking is wrong in any way. I just want us to have the choice to sometimes not think.
The main reason I chose to name this website and my project nowwards rather than presence or something like that, is that I believe that having an orientation towards being present is more powerful than judging yourself or others on how present you are in any given moment. Let us all turn nowwards, and accept that we are not always there and that whatever is going on in the present moment is ok. It is all a journey and as long as we are oriented in the right direction, and keep moving, we are bound to arrive some day. Though, we should not forget that, as they say, the journey is the destination.