Return to the Present Moment
An excerpt from How Love Wins: The Power of Mindful Kindness
I used to think of time as a series of stages: I came out of the past, moved into the present, and got ready to enter the future. But over time, I came to realize that there is only one stage—this present moment.
My past, which comprises everything that I have done or that has happened to me, is what makes me who I am now, and in that sense it is a part of the present moment. Similarly, everything I expect, anticipate, hope for, or dread about the future is also part of who I am now, and so it is also part of the present moment.
Think of the present moment like gravity. We are always in it. There is no place on earth where it does not apply. Whether we stay home or travel to the North Pole, gravity exists. In this same way, everywhere we go we are in the present moment. Awake in the middle of the night or meditating in the morning, we are in the present moment. When the future arrives, we will be in that present moment. The only time we can think about the past or the future is in the present moment. Thus, for all practical purposes, the present is everything—it is all there is.
In this present moment we might be carrying out a kind habit or an unkind habit. With a kind habit, we might be mindful—with our thoughts, emotions, and sensations. With an unkind habit, we might be mind wandering—low-keyed, agitated, or miserable. In every moment we make a choice about mindfulness. And in many, many moments, we make a choice about our habits.
If everything occurs in the present moment, the present moment is all there is, so literally our entire lives exist in the present moment—and only the present moment.
So ask yourself: “If this moment is my entire life, how do I want it to be?” Will you spend it ruminating on the past or worrying about the future? Or will you give your complete attention to what is happening right now? Will you live each of those moments that make up your life mindfully or not? Will you live your life with kindness or not? In fact, there is only one time for practicing kindfulness: Now. After all, you can only direct your attention to mindfulness and kindness in the present moment.
When we remember that the present moment is our entire life, we are more likely to treat those moments mindfully and be grateful for the quiet joy that results. Even if the present seems mundane, thinking about the present moment as encompassing our entire life can profoundly change how we approach things. I experienced this while talking with my wife. Finding myself in disagreement with something she said, I was about to interrupt her to offer a rebuttal. But then I reflected upon how our entire relationship existed in this present moment, and asked myself the question: “What do I want our relationship to be?” Of course, I wanted it to be a relationship of respectful listening, not arguing and interrupting. After she finished making her point, I realized that my comment would have been inappropriate and was best left unsaid. I am fortunate that the incident taught me (again) to keep my mouth shut instead of interrupting my wife.
Sometimes the present moment may appear benign or lackluster, but really there is always much more going on. For example, indulging in a glass of wine may be a pleasant way to end the day for some, but for a recovering alcoholic even one sip might set off intense feelings of despair and harsh self-reproach. So be mindful about the consequences of something as simple as offering a friend a glass of wine. What if you keep offering wine to a friend, having ignored or forgotten that your friend is trying to stop drinking? When we interact with others, are we feeding their problems or supporting them in their efforts to do better? With a careless comment that seems like nothing, you can trigger a friend’s unkind drinking habit.
Returning to Balance
Every time you step into a new moment with mind wandering and unkindness, it is an opportunity to return to mindfulness. You can also think of this as returning to balance. A student of Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of the martial art Aikido, told me that Ueshiba’s goal was not to always keep his balance, but rather to learn to come back to balance quickly.
In fact, scientists analyzing human movement have determined that people don’t actually keep their balance as they walk, but go through a cycle of falling forward and rebalancing with every step. Buddhists have even incorporated this idea into a practice of slow-walking meditation, in which practitioners slowly extend one foot after the other, focusing their attention on the movement and sensation of rebalancing from foot to foot.
Similarly our mind frequently has moments of falling forward or mind wandering. The challenge is to return to mindfulness quickly, in the present moment, just like you return to balance on your feet. Like a baby learning to walk, practice makes perfect. By practicing everyday habits of mindfulness—while driving, cleaning toilets, eating, showering, and brushing your teeth—you will find yourself able to maintain your balance for longer and longer periods of time and to re-balance yourself to mindfulness more easily when you falter. Moreover, the deep contentment that comes from moments of mindfulness reminds you to reach out with kindfulness, for example, to children who have no one to care for them, and teach them kindfulness and personal responsibility.
Try a slow-walking meditation with sensing-mindfulness. When you step forward, first feel the heel coming in contact with the ground, next the bottom of the foot, then the front of the foot, and finally feel the front of your foot propelling you forward. Write about or reflect upon what happens with both your mental and physical balance.