Living in the present: Only the present moment is real
Only the present moment is real and available to us. The peace we desire is not in some distant future, but it is something we can realize in the present moment. (Thich Nhat Hahn, Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism)
At a small radio station where I worked nearly 20 years ago, a co-worker of mine constantly complained about his job.
“I hate it here,” he’d say. “One day, I’m going to find a different job and leave this place. The boss makes it intolerable here. There are days when I just can’t stand getting up to come here.”
None of us were particularly happy working at this station. The boss was, indeed, an intolerable little man — someone Hitler or Mao would admire for his totalitarian hold over his staff. We all longed for him to at best, find another job and another staff to torture, or at worst, finally irritate the big boss so much he’d get fired.
My co-worker would convene lunch meetings where we would all vent our feelings about our boss and our lack of love for our jobs. Some years after I left this job another former co-worker got married and at his wedding reception all the former employees of this radio station sat in a circle talking about their separate experiences with this tiny despot of a man. We were the survivors. We had made it out of the hellhole and had lived to tell about it.
The co-worker who had been our ringleader, however, still, to this day, works at that radio station — along with the little Hitler whom he had painted as his sworn enemy. His “one day” has not yet arrived. Who knows? This man may still convene hateful lunch meetings with the new round of staffers — regaling them with tales of his much-desired dream job somewhere out in his blissful “one day.”
This kind of person has not been rare in my life. I’m always meeting “one-dayers” who have their minds focused on future happiness or their congenial opposites, the “remember whens” who long for their past glory days. I have met only a few people who have learned to live in the here and now.
I cannot say that I am one of them. I waver somewhere between “one day” and “remember when.” I think that is where the majority of us live — in a liminal state — not quite brave enough to be alive in the present moment, but knowing it’s there. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of it. We notice a beautiful sunset, or a child’s laughter, or the beauty of our partner’s smile. We spend only fleeting moments in the present — because prolonged stays there tend to frighten us.
“If I live in the present, I’ll forget my past!” we fret. Or, we worry that living in the present means we will neglect the future or become a saccharine-sweet Pollyanna pretending that we are happy in every moment.
Truly being present does not mean that we forsake our past, forget about planning for the future or mouthing some empty platitudes about how wonderful life is at this moment. Often the present moment is terrible, sad, lonely, or tragic. But, the present moment is all we truly own. Our past is a memory — though the cumulative force of our experience makes us what we are today. Our future is unknown, precarious and not promised to any of us.
Only in the present moment can we find our true power as human beings. Only in the present moment can we be really alive. Only in the present moment will we find our true connection to God — the source and ground of our very being.
Living in the present: The parables of being present
Jesus understood the importance of being present. Every moment of his life was dedicated to being present with people in their pain, their suffering and their joy. He often berated his disciples for missing the point — for not being present with people. Instead they would whine about how much time Jesus spent with the people or wish to send people away when they became annoying.
Jesus expressed the importance of being present by using parables. The parable of the sower is a valuable example of being present. In Matthew 13, Jesus tells about seeds being sown — some land on rocky ground, others among thorns and still others on good soil.
Those sown on rocky ground hear the word but fall away at the first sign of persecution and trouble because they have not roots. Seeds that fall among thorns yield nothing because they get caught up in the cares of the world and forget the word. The seeds that fall on good soil will bear fruit — because they hear the word and understand.
The metaphor is unmistakable. Those who live in the future live on rocky ground — they have no roots. They are always thinking about “one day” when they will be happy, “one day” when they will have abundance, “one day” when they will have the perfect partner. Still others find themselves among the thorns of the past. They cannot see themselves clear of the cares of their inner world where their “remember whens” overwhelm their future and their present.
But, those who fall on good soil realize that the “word” is the present moment. The “word” gives them life — it speaks to their innermost being, sprouting strong roots and bearing good fruit.
What we all must realize is that we are all planted in the good soil. We only need to realize the power of the present moment to begin growing our strong roots and bearing the good fruit of a life that is vital, alive and awake! Those who find themselves in “bad” soil are not predestined to a terrible fate. All they must do is realize that they too can claim the good soil of the present moment and flourish.
In still another parable, Jesus reminds us that we need to be alert — for the spirit of God can materialize in our lives at any moment. In Matthew 24:42-44, Jesus tells us to:
… keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.
This text has always been translated as an admonishment to be alert for Jesus’ second coming that will herald the end of the world. I don’t believe that’s what Jesus was telling us. Instead, Jesus is telling us to stay alert for the movement of the spirit in our lives. If we are not awake and alert, we will miss the Lord’s coming into our lives.
God comes to us when we least expect it — in the smile of a stranger, in the kind words of our partners and friends, in the song on a radio. If we are not awake, we will miss God’s presence in our lives.
Eckhart Tolle, in his book The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, goes further with this analogy pointing out still another parable that extols us to be present so we won’t miss God’s presence:
In another parable, Jesus speaks of the five careless (unconscious) women who do not have enough oil (consciousness) to keep their lamps burning (stay present) and so miss the bridegroom (the Now) and don’t get to the wedding feast (enlightenment). These five stand in contrast to the five wise women who have enough oil (consciousness).
Again, this parable has been translated as predicting Jesus’ second coming — a future event when Jesus comes to us in his glory. What we miss is that Jesus is already present with us in all of his glory — all we need to do is wake up and acknowledge our present moment. Our joy, peace and happiness in God is not promised in some far off event like a second coming or the day we’re “caught up in the clouds” with Jesus. We can be caught up in the clouds right here and right now if we’ll only tune in to the present moment.
Few people in Jesus’ day — or even today — fully understand Jesus’ admonishment to be present at all times. The disciples questioned Jesus’ teaching style, asking why he spoke in parables. Jesus told them that the people hearing him fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy that:
Seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand (Matthew 13:13)
We fear being present because it demands from us that we see, hear and understand the world going on around us. It requires us to wake from our lazy slumber and stop sleepwalking through our lives. Is it any wonder that people didn’t flock to Jesus’ message? Being present is a rigorous demand.
Living in the present: Learning how to be present
Being present requires that we become truly aware. We must not only notice the things going on at this very moment in our lives, we must learn to relish them — to use the power of the present moment. How do we become aware?
Tolle says if you realize you are not present — then you become present. Simply acknowledging that we are not present brings us fully into the present moment. Things begin to get clearer — sounds are sharper, colors are bolder. We may only stay in this moment for a few seconds, but with practice we can begin to be present for longer and longer periods of time.
Being present is never easy. We so easily get carried away in the things going on around us. We forget to notice the present because we’re thinking about what we did yesterday or 20 years ago and what we’re going to be doing in five minutes or 20 years from now. Being present means we let go of those concerns and focus on what is happening now.
Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn suggests that we pay attention to “bells of mindfulness” that can bring us back to the present moment throughout our hectic days. When we pay attention to the “bell of mindfulness” calling us back to the present moment, Hahn says even things like driving can be spiritual practice:
… every time we see a red light, we are not very happy. The red light is a kind of enemy that prevents us from attaining our goal. But we can also see the red light as a bell of mindfulness, reminding us to return to the present moment.
So, the next time you’re stuck at a red light, Hahn recommends that you remain calm, pay attention to your breathing and smile while thinking or even saying aloud: “Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile.”
In this way our irritation, which heralds our unconscious state, gives way to the joy of the present moment where we are alive, blessed and loved. The red light then “becomes a friend, helping us remember it is only in the present moment that we can live our lives.”
Recently, I had a chance to try out this “bell of mindfulness” exercise when cars in the parking deck at my work began to stack up because the gate would not lift. No amount of waving pass cards or putting in codes would make the gate go up. One man was trying valiantly to figure out the problem and finally had to trudge into the building several times before someone came out to lift the gate and free us.
This was a prime opportunity to become irritated — this gate was preventing me from attaining my goal of going home! Instead, I considered the stuck gate as a “bell of mindfulness.” I looked around and appreciated the moment. I talked with other stuck motorists — smiled at them and made light of the situation. No one became agitated or angry. We all waited patiently to be let out.
It was a prime moment when our collective irritation at being delayed could have resulted in an ugly confrontation between ourselves and the man who finally let us out. Instead, just one person smiling and making light of an irritating situation was enough to defuse any pending anger.
This is the power of being present. When we truly are living in the present moment there is not need for anger, irritation or unhappiness. The present moment does not know such emotions or problems — it only knows the joy and ease of being fully alive. Tolle suggests that we ask ourselves, in each moment: “Is there joy, ease and lightness in what I’m doing?”
As soon as we honor the present moment, he says:
All unhappiness and struggle dissolve, and life begins to flow with joy and ease. When you act out of present-moment awareness, whatever you do becomes imbued with a sense of quality, care and love — even the most simple action.
Living in the present: Overcoming our disbelief
When I first read Tolle’s book, I was incredulous at his assertion that “all unhappiness and struggle dissolve” in the present moment. I’ve had some pretty terrible moments in my life — some incredibly unhappy ones — and to make such a statement seemed to me to be absurd.
What about those moments in my life where I’ve just learned I don’t have enough money to pay the bills? What about those moments in my life when I realize I hate my job but feel powerless to leave it? What about those moments in my life where I’ve learned my cat has terminal cancer and would be better off dead? What about those moments when my partner and I are angry with one another and are considering life without each other?
These are all present moments and they seem pretty much spilling over with unhappiness and struggle. I figured Tolle must live in some fairy tale land where all the witches are good witches and everyone lives happily ever after. He couldn’t be talking about real life — not an authentic real life, anyway — one where unhappiness and struggle are the rule and never the exception. I tossed the book aside thinking the guy must be at best insane or at worst completely in denial about the stuff that makes up everyday life.
I realized Tolle was right though when I began reading Wayne Dyer’s book There’s a Spiritual Solution to Every Problem. Dyer, too, insists that the present moment is a moment where there is peace, happiness and no struggle. His “bell of mindfulness” to call us back to the present moment when life becomes overwhelming is the phrase, “I can choose peace, rather than this.” He recommends using this phrase “when you find yourself experiencing anguish, fear, depression, turmoil, even anger.”
Again, though, the phrase smacked of denial of our basic emotions. If we’re in anguish, fear, depression, turmoil or anger, aren’t we just turning off our emotions and giving in to a denial that resembles happiness? Dyer addresses this problem better than Tolle does. He fully admits that his technique “will not immediately mend a broken leg, or undo an accident, or rid your house of termites, but you will have proven to yourself in that magical moment that you do have the power to choose peace.”
And so it is true. We can choose to live in a present moment of peace, or we can choose to be ruled by our emotions of anguish, fear, depression, turmoil and anger. Driving is always the challenge for me, and serves as my best “bell of mindfulness” to return to the present moment of peace. Recently, another driver refused to let me over to pass a slow car in front of me, instead remaining beside me — slowing us all down.
When they finally sped up and allowed me to pass, I was livid and followed close behind them honking my horn and hailing them with the international sign of friendship. My “bell of mindfulness” rang loudly. I said to myself, “I can choose peace, rather than this.” But, in that moment, I didn’t want peace. I wanted to be angry. I wanted to be outraged. I wanted the other person to know of my anger and outrage. I made my choice. I chose anger and outrage over peace.
This is a choice we make every single day. We choose to be depressed instead of happy. We choose to be angry instead of calm. We choose to be lonely instead of content with ourselves. This is when it dawned on me that Tolle and Dyer are onto something. We choose how we will think and feel.
Often we choose wrongly — taking the emotions of anger, fear and anguish over such emotions as peace and happiness. We keep saying we want peace and happiness, but we keep choosing anger and fear. Choosing peace and happiness is not a denial of our anger or fear — it is the transformation of those emotions!
Dyer says when we choose to “bring that peaceful thought to bear on the presence of whatever problem you were experiencing, you will discover an even greater truth. Your problems, all of them, can only be experienced in your mind, and when you bring peace to your mind, you put yourself in a mode of taking whatever action is appropriate.”
So, choosing peace in any situation is not a denial of the situation, or inaction in the face of reality. It is a transformation of our emotions — a conscious choice that puts us in the middle of the present moment where we can take appropriate action to deal with any situation that comes along. This is the true power of the present moment!
Living in the present: Choices, choices, choices!
To realize this present moment power, we must make choices when we realize that situations in our lives are the source of struggle or are making us unhappy — since there is no struggle or unhappiness in the present moment. Tolle believes that when we feel the need to complain about our lives we are not accepting what is — we are denying the Now.
Complaining about a current situation can serve as a “bell of mindfulness” for us — it can signal that we need to step back, slow down and return to the power of the present. When complaints begin, Tolle says we have three options: “remove yourself from the situation, change it, or accept it totally.”
Even before I read Tolle’s book, I was surprised to learn that I was already practicing this to some extent. When I became discontent in jobs, I sought new ones. Instead of convening endless lunch meetings to complain about my job or my boss or my hours or whatever else irked me, I got off my butt and found a new job. My co-worker did not. For some reason, all he truly wanted to do was complain. His “here” was never really good enough. He didn’t really want to change — he had too many excuses not to — he merely wanted to complain.
We all know people like this — maybe we are those people sometimes. But, if you’re complaining about something and you’re not making one of these three choices — leave it, change it or accept it — then you’re denying the present moment.
If you can’t remove yourself from the situation, then you must seek to change it. Sometimes this will require direct action on our part. Sometimes all direct action means is changing our attitude toward the situation. Try to empathize with the people in your situation. Try to see their perspective. Change the way you think about a co-worker or friend or enemy. In this way the situation itself changes. If you throw out your negative feelings about a situation and concentrate your attention on being present, situations can seem to magically change all on their own without much effort on our part.
The reality of some situations, however, is that we cannot leave or change it. In those cases, Tolle insists we must “accept your here and now totally by dropping all inner resistance.” I exercised this piece of advice during my job searches. I knew that, in the interim, I could not remove myself from a job I hated. Instead, I transformed my inner resistance. I accepted that I had to be there until a new job came through. It’s not so much “making the best of it,” as it is seeing the situation with new eyes.
I found my boss was not the tyrant I thought he was but more an insecure man caught in a job that was really too much for him to handle. I began to help him as much as possible — without being too up front about it. I began to have a sense of compassion for him. I still was working to leave the job, but just a simple change in my own perspective made the job much more enjoyable until I could find a better situation.
Tolle gives a great example of how to make this idea work in your life. If you’re faced with a situation where you think you should be doing something but you’re not, then get up and do it now. “Alternatively, completely accept your inactivity, laziness, or passivity at this moment, if that is your choice. Go into it fully. Enjoy it. Be lazy or inactive as you can. If you go into it fully and consciously, you soon will come out of it. Or maybe you won’t. Either way, there is no inner conflict, no resistance, no negativity.”
Tolle’s point is that whatever you do you should do it totally. “Enjoy the flow of energy, the high energy of that moment.” Don’t give in to the guilty feeling that you’re “wasting time” or that you “should be doing something.” Feel the present moment fully and all your “oughts” and “shoulds” will take care of themselves.
Living in the present: Called to be present
Now that you have a taste of what the present moment can be like, don’t look back. Don’t get stuck in your past — and don’t get stuck on your future. Thich Nhat Hahn warns that even hope can become an obstacle to living in the here and now. Hope is certainly important because it makes “the present moment less difficult to bear” — but it becomes an obstacle if it keeps us from being present.
Jesus is constantly calling us into the present moment. He warns us not to dwell on the past when he says:
No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God (Luke 9:62)
Alternately, we are warned not to “be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself” (Matthew 5:34).
Our past is our past. It is where we come from, but it is not where we live. Our future has not yet arrived, and truly, none of us are promised a future. All we are promised is what we have right now. This present moment is the only moment that is real.
You, sitting at your computer, reading these words — this is the present moment. Don’t dwell on the past or wonder about what you’ll be doing in five minutes or five years. Be here now, totally. Practice right now, so that when the present moment shifts at the end of this article, you’ll be ready to be in that moment totally.
Take the time to examine your life — the situations that irk you, that you wish you could change or leave. Think of my friend still working in the same job after 20 years of bitter complaining. Maybe he’s made peace with his job and the boss. Maybe he’s learned to accept it totally, surrendering to his present moment and fully enjoying his life. That is my hope for my former co-worker, and it is my hope for you — that you will live in the “Eternal Now” that provides peace that passes all understanding.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.