The other night I was discussing the "how to" of being present with a friend of mine. I fell back on the old Zen standby, "Chop wood, carry water." Her 13-year-old daughter, who was sitting with us, chimed in with the incisive understanding of delicate concepts that belongs only to a child: "So, don't chop water when you should be carrying wood." Exactly right.
Contrary to popular belief, human beings cannot multitask. What we are capable of is handling a number of serial tasks in rapid succession, or mixing automatic tasks with those that are not so automatic. That's one of the reasons that the NTSB reports that texting while driving is the functional equivalent of driving with a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit. You just can't effectively attend to two things at once — even the superficially automatic ones.
So, how do we stay present? The first thing to recognize is that, try as we might, we really can only do one thing at a time, so we ought to do that thing wholeheartedly. Most of our time is spent in the past or the future, rather than the present moment. What we end up doing is passing through that moment on the way to somewhere else and, in doing so, we miss the moment. That's how life ends up passing us by — we do it to ourselves.
Rehearsing — and that's all we're doing is rehearsing — the past is problematic because it's something that can't be changed. It's done, set in stone, immutable and immovable. Certainly, we can change our relationship to the past, but staying there is simply ruminative and, for some of us, baldly destructive.
Anticipating the future is also problematic — even futile — because, no matter how much we'd like to convince ourselves otherwise, we can't really control the direction in which things will go. We can set an intention, true, but, in the end, the universe has a way of deciding.
Staying present, then, means staying here — right here — and there are a few simple steps that can lead us to the experience of profound attention and direct experience of the moment that we're in.
Take a breath. Breath, along with change, is the only constant, and being present starts with the breath. Simply draw a deep breath and let it out through your nose. When we breathe through our mouth, it triggers a subtle anxiety response, which increases heart rate and redirects blood flow. That's why you rarely see elite runners and cyclists panting, and why one of my own martial arts instructors used to make us train for hours with a mouthful of water. A slow release of breath through the nose has the opposite effect of mouth-breathing and draws a relaxation response.
This technique and intention is also taken in part from the Theravada Buddhist meditation tradition. Try it out: Take a breath and, when you exhale, what happens? Exactly — nothing. In the Theravada tradition, the oldest of the Buddhist traditions, meditation practitioners are taught to focus on the out-breath because on the out-breath nothing happens. Everything falls away for that simple span of time — a breath.
What are you doing right now? Consider, as a correspondence to that moment of suspended breath-time, what you're doing right at that moment. For most of you, right now, you are reading. Are you just reading? Where are your thoughts? Your emotions? Your hands? Your sense of time? You are reading — that's it...so, just read.
Not being present is easy. There are bills to pay, and kids to pick up at school. There are doctor's appointments and reports to write, books to read, parents to resent, loved ones to miss and the list goes on and on. With all that going on — past and future — it's no wonder that presence is so elusive. It is not, however, as elusive as you might believe.
Be a witness. In becoming aware of what you are doing — exactly what you are doing — in any given moment, bear witness to it. Observe it, name it, and stand away from it — all at once. The moment is now...now...now...now... When we cling to a "now," rather than simply bearing witness to it and letting it pass by, we become trapped in time as it passes.
The great Zen teacher Takuan wrote in one of his essays on swordsmanship that the mind cannot come to rest on a thing — in this case, he meant an opponent or a technique or a stance — because then the mind itself becomes trapped by that thing and we, turn, become trapped by the trap. The mind must flow like the breath if we are to remain constantly and consistently present in the moment and not mired in the past or at the sufferance of anticipating the future.
Let the rest go. Much like bearing witness, or engaging witness consciousness as the wisdom teachings refer to it, whatever is not there in that moment let go. Be there, right there, right then. That's all.
The concept of nirvana is often misconstrued as the experience of great peace and the attainment of bliss. That is the outcome of nirvana. Nirvana itself translates to something more like "no holding" or "no clinging." It is this release that brings freedom, which affords that great peace and attainment of bliss. Travel light — what we do not need in that moment, don't take on board.
Come back to the breath. When the world or your thoughts begin to again intrude, simply come back to the breath. Inhale, and release your exhale to unbind yourself from the shackles of the past and the anxieties of the future. The constancy of breath can create the constancy of presence for us, if we choose to show up.
The act of being present is, in a sense, a meditation without meditating. The stillness here, though, comes from action — breathing, attending, witnessing, releasing, and breathing again. This simple cycle can profoundly change the way that we experience our world.
© 2011 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved