How Living in the Moment Won’t Free Our Mind
Living in the moment. It sounds so easy.
At some point or another, a well-meaning friend might give us advice along the lines that we should try to live in the moment. The implication is that we can unburden ourselves of a lot of stress and worry by not obsessing over the past, which no longer exists, or fearing the future, which also doesn’t exist. If we focus on the present moment, all will be well.
Another popular teaching is that we should learn to live with quiet acceptance, neither grasping nor pushing anything away.
Although the above sounds nice, they are only half-teachings that will not deliver us into enlightenment. Let’s investigate.
Is there Such a Thing as the Present Moment?
To start, in his book Vedantic Meditation, David Frawley rightly points out that it’s not actually possible to literally “live in the moment,” since there is no single unit of time that can be measured or captured between the relentless flow from future to past. Put differently, as long as we exist within the flow of time, there is no static moment to be found between the future and the past. Time, by definition, is a constant flow of change, which we simply conceptualize as moving from future to the past.
In light of the above, it is equally correct to state that the entire flow of time/change constitutes an eternal present. If the past and future are just change, then all change is nothing but “the present moment.” This eternal present is always changing, just like a kaleidoscope changes its patterns while still remaining a kaleidoscope. But where does this leave us?
When someone advises us to live in the present moment, we might smile and nod, but we really don’t know how to implement that teaching since the only thing that we have ever experienced is this present moment. This is why the word “now” is often referred to as “the eternal now.” In our moment-to-moment existence, we are always in the present, so how can we focus even more on the present moment?
As mentioned above, what is really being asked of us is to stop thinking so much about the past or future. We are told to let go of our thoughts, relax, and surrender to whatever is happening right now.
The idea of “letting go of our thoughts” actually means shifting our attention away from our thoughts and onto what is happening right now. In other words, living in the present moment is simply being mindful or consciously aware.
Remaining consciously aware of what is unfolding doesn’t mean shirking our responsibilities or refusing to plan for the future. It doesn’t mean our mind goes blank. If this moment requires planning for next week’s business trip, then we plan it with our full attention. Conscious observing means we notice that we are noticing, as opposed to remaining fully identified to our thoughts, which is the mark of unconsciousness. Conscious observing is not a single act that we execute once. We have to return to awareness again and again as our attention will inevitably be dragged back into our thoughts.
While this practice is essential to build strength of awareness, it will not deliver us into full enlightenment. It’s like setting off on a drive from New York to San Francisco but getting off halfway. Even if we spend all day consciously observing everything very carefully, then what?
Presence is the Answer
Instead of just trying to remain aware that we are watching, which means our mind is still pointed outward, we need to shift our attention inward and focus on our innate sense of being which animates the body and mind. This is how true spiritual awareness arises.
If we trace the present moment to its logical conclusion, the end result is that the “present moment” really refers to pure being or pure presence, aka pure Consciousness. Think about it. Past and future exist only in our minds. To experience this moment we first have to be here. So the present moment is nothing but presence.
When we understand that our real task is to ground ourselves strongly in our innate sense of being, we are able to move beyond concepts such as past, present, and future. To do this, it’s important to contemplate the teaching that our sense of presence is not a chemical firing of the brain, but the ground of existence that contains everything. As I often say, to become aware of pure Being is like becoming aware of the white paper behind the ink, or noticing the white screen behind the flowing movie images. But unlike the ink and paper or screen and images, which are separate things, space, time, and creation are not different from the underlying consciousness, just like our dreams are not different from the consciousness that creates them. Moreover, space, time, and creation do not affect the underlying Consciousness, just as images passing over a mirror don’t affect the mirror.
As soon as we take this spiritual truth to heart (first conceptually but later directly through deep meditation), we finally have a chance to truly live in the present moment. When we succeed at identifying with pure Being instead of this limited human body, we actually step outside of time. When that happens, the mystery of past, present, and future dissolves into nothing. The practice of keeping our attention on our own I-feeling is far superior to the practice of watching outside objects of perception while being aware that we are watching them. (This is how Mahāsāra Meditation is different from Mindfulness Meditation.)
Closely related to the idea of living in the moment is to not grasp or reject anything that is happening. Instead, we should simply witness life with quiet acceptance. This is the meaning of being detached, which is a state that all Self-realized beings abide in.
The problem with this teaching is that it is easily confused with being passive, having no likes and dislikes, and so forth. But if you read the biographies of enlightened beings, they were anything but passive.
Quiet acceptance or being detached has nothing to do with being passive. It is a state of awareness where there is no desire to do or not do, and there is no sense of being a person who stands to gain or lose from actions or non-actions.
The issue with quiet acceptance is that it is not something that we, as seekers, can really achieve. As long as we experience ourselves as an individual, quiet acceptance is an ideal that can never be reached. That’s because true detachment is an effect of Self-awareness and not so much a cause. As spiritual seekers, we certainly can practice being detached, which ignites the fire of yoga and mitigates our bad habits, but we must be careful not to feed the ego with an external show of detachment when in reality our mind is full of attachments.
Equally concerning is that the ideal of non-grasping can put us in harm’s way if we fail to act. For example, if we are in a dangerous or abusive relationship, the teaching to surrender or witness from afar can prevent us from seeking help.
In truth, lack of grasping or rejecting doesn’t mean we won’t exhibit likes and dislikes or never act. Swami Annamalai, who was fully enlightened, used to take a detour on his walk back to his house simply to avoid the stench of a nearby sewer. The fact that he exhibited a rational dislike and took appropriate action didn’t diminish his perfect enlightenment or his perfect detachment.
Like us, sages exhibit numerous likes and dislikes and take many actions. But unlike us, the light of clear wisdom illumines their behaviours. The main difference is that sages are not personally invested in likes or dislikes and dos and don’ts. They simply do what needs to be done or avoid doing what does not need to be done in line with the will of pure Consciousness. This includes changing things, avoiding things, planning things, and going after things. But unlike us, a truly enlightened being sees everything as a spontaneous play of Consciousness.
As for us, we should not pretend to be above grasping or aversion. Trying to quietly accept everything as it is might help us practice calm and self-control, which are good things, but it will always prove to be an exercise in frustration. It can also lead to harm since such thinking might stop us from taking a swift and necessary action.
When, through daily meditation, we are able to identify with our I-feeling instead of with our body, focusing on the present moment or striving to transcend desires and aversions both lose their meaning. When the sense of individuality is no longer there, who is left to have likes and dislikes? Instead, we smile with the recognition that pure existence is all that ever was and that everything else is but a ripple over a vast and immovable ocean of Consciousness.
So the next time someone asks you to focus more on the present moment or to practice non-grasping, the best thing you can do is to shift your attention not to what is happening, but to the pure sense of being that allows you to be here in the first place. This is how real living in the moment and quiet acceptance are gradually attained. Anything else is just the play of the ego.
Receive the Timeless Wisdom of Yoga Right in Your Inbox
Not yet in our the mailing list? Be the first to receive new blog articles, special offers, and news of my live teaching events. As a welcome gift, you’ll get a beautiful audio recording of the Guru Paduka Stotram, an ancient prayer that will melt your heart. You’ll also receive a PDF English translation of the original Sanskrit. Don’t miss listening to this special chant.