Possessing Presence of Mind in the Present Moment

Living mindfully in the moment involves acceptance of what is.

Posted Dec 31, 2018

The present is now and it's the only moment within which we all truly live. This seems pretty obvious when written and read, but is more difficult to implement. Despite that, it's something I continue to work on every day.

For me, focusing on being in the moment is critical because it's the only way to really live life truly. I'd like to say it's something I recognized as a lifestyle choice, but I got to this place because my memory issues from a car crash forced me to. When you have memory difficulties, the past takes on a very different and often troubling meaning. 

Without relying on memory, everything you have is now. What's in the past is gone and whatever future might have been may never be. What is, is now. One of the most important benefits of my brain injury, and there have been a few (although I'm not glad it happened), is forcing me to live in the present.

The past is something I try not to dwell on because that reinforces a different potential future me that will never exist. I've learned that future things may never come to be and what I have is now. Putting this into practice means focusing on the people around you and the things you're doing. Extracting the best of what's happening by being engaged. But doing this means accepting new limitations and letting go of past expectations. This is very hard to do.

My Mom always talked about making lemonade when life hands you lemons. This comes down to acceptance and productive actions which she put into practice in her own life, especially after her stroke. We all saw this in her actions, but after she died we found a journal in which my Mom wrote about her feelings and thoughts about her stroke and her life. She said that for years she fought against her stroke until she finally realized that it was part of who she was now and that she was just fighting herself. This acceptance brought her a certain presence of mind. It did not, though, mean she didn't keep trying to improve her function. It meant that she was more accepting of whatever progress she made.

I've reflected a lot on my Mom's words this past year as I've struggled to accept who I have become as a result of my car crash. But acceptance, while fleeting and incremental, once it becomes regular practice is like a catalyst that continues to allow me to perceive inspiration from many quarters.

A quote from "After Dark" by Haruki Murakami was enlightening: “People's memories are maybe the fuel they need to burn to stay alive. Whether those memories have any actual importance or not, it doesn't matter as far as the maintenance of life is concerned. They're all just fuel." And fuel serves its purpose while being consumed. Thinking of memories in this light means letting go of any constraints they may contain on who I might become.

This approach can be very liberating and has helped me deal with the other outcomes (chronic pain, depression, tinnitus, etc.) of the crash. Another quote from a Japanese author, this time Fuminori Nakamura in "The Gun," is relevant: "I had told myself that if I didn’t think about things, then I wouldn’t be unhappy. Even if I had already been visited by misfortune, so long as I was unaware of it, or didn’t think about it, the unhappiness could not materialize."

For the longest time, I have been trying to hold onto the past as if I could bring a static representation of myself into the present and on to the future. But life is about change, anyway, so why was I so caught up in the past? In "The Wisdom of Insecurity," Alan Watts wrote, "For the greater part of human activity is designed to make permanent those experiences and Joy's which are only lovable because they are changing. Music is a delight because of his rhythm and flow. yet the moment you arrest the flow and prolong a note or chord Beyond its time, the rhythm is destroyed. Because life is likewise a flowing process, change and death are its necessary parts. To work for their exclusion is to work against life."

For me, this means being engaged in the present. I also realize that this is one of the main restorative functions that my daily martial arts practice provides for me. To train effectively I have to be 100 percent in the present moment. Such practice clarifies my thinking and provides a daily reset of equanimity and presence of mind that positively influences other aspects of my life. Warrior-sage Miyamoto Musashi wrote in the "Dokkodo" that we must "accept things just as they are." In a martial arts context, this really means not dwelling on what or how things were, nor on what they will be, but dealing with what is in front of you now with what you have. This is reminiscent of Bill Widener's quote, "Do what you can, with what you've got, where you are."

This approach of acceptance and presence is also found in a story about Shotokan karate master Hirokazu Kanazawa. In the lead up to the 1964 Japan karate championships, Kanazawa broke his hand and was set to miss out on a competition he was favored to win. At the last minute, though, inspired by the arrival of his mother who traveled more than 30 hours to see him fight, he decided to enter the tournament. He would fight with one hand in a cast. This is an example of accepting a limitation (one arm unable to be used) and making the best of what is available (the other arm and 2 legs). He described the experience of being present in the presence as one in which he was fully engaged and could seem to "read" the opponents he faced while he won his way to the championship.

I've written before that "when the student is ready, the teacher will appear." What I recently realized is that I am simultaneously the student and one of my own teachers. My challenge for the next year is to allow myself the time and space to learn the lessons I'm trying to teach myself and continue to work towards presence of mind in the present moment. It hasn't been and will not be easy, but the important things rarely are. Striving for presence in the present needs doing, regardless, and I look forward to the daily challenge.

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2018)