Ya know, we talk about it all the time, but what is the present? What is right now?
This is important to ponder, because inhabiting the present moment isn’t just a huge part of Zen, it’s one of the foundations of secular mindfulness as well. Philosophical ruminations won’t bring us very far with this question. We can drape concept after concept onto the present moment, and still not catch sight of it—even though it’s the only thing we’ve ever experienced.
We can only rely on direct experience, here. Intimate immediacy from a living, first-person perspective.
What is the present? It’s not the midway point between past and future, because where are the past and future right now? Past and future are just dreams. Without thinking it over, without referencing time, just take a breath, let everything be, inhabit senses, and then blurt it out: What is the present moment?
I don’t know about you, but I’m speechless. And even if I say something like, “Just this,” or, “The oak tree in the lawn,” then as I’m burping out those words, I’m already referring to an abstraction, to a moment that’s already gone. No matter what answer I give, I’m referring to a memory, reality as it was a split second ago, and that split second might as well be a gulf when we’re dealing with this subject.
You can know the present moment clearly just by paying attention and letting your thoughts and images be. Sure, we’re always in the present, but we don’t always know the present, do we? We play tag with it, hopping in and out of it as we bounce back and forth between reality and our visions of reality.
When you fully inhabit the present, you realize that all things are inseparable from the present, and since we’re inseparable from the present, we’re inseparable from each other.
We see that, for at least 13 billion years, there’s only ever been this single moment, like a lump of clay that’s constantly being formed into different shapes. In that way, change exists harmoniously with the changeless.
Because the moment is eternal, even though the things that appear within it are not.
Think about it: what do right now, 10 years ago, and 10 years from now all have in common? Presence. At one time, 10 years ago was now, now is now, and someday 10 years from now will be now.
Thoughts and words make all of this into something abstract, but it’s not something to be believed or disbelieved; it’s something to be experienced. When you experience the present moment as it is, you experience all the teachings simultaneously.
Right there is not-self, right there is impermanence, ignorance, wisdom, suffering, and freedom, and none of it can be spoken of or thought about, because once it is, we’re speaking and thinking about something else.
Clocks can’t measure it, words can’t express it, and images can’t capture it.
Lest we think that this is all about abandoning intellect and being like non-human animals, animals don’t live in the present either—not in the way we’re talking about here.
We’ve all seen cats prepare for a jump; we’ve all seen dogs anticipate a treat. We’ve all seen animals suffer from separation anxiety, grief, jealousy, and the whole host of other past-future based afflictions that we experience too.
It’s not about giving up our humanity, or turning into rocks or trees. It’s just about experiencing what is, and then embodying that, easing into that. When there’s thought, there’s thought. When there isn’t, there isn’t. When there’s pain, there’s pain; when there isn’t, there isn’t. If we’re planning for tomorrow, we’re doing it now. If we’re thinking about a friend we don’t see much anymore, we’re doing it now. And when we aren’t, we aren’t.
But by abiding the present, we’re probably going to experience a lot less pain, sadness, and worry in life because a vast portion of those feelings depend on us getting wrapped up in the past and future, or by comparing was or could/should be, to is.