There is a lot of talk today about being here now, but what does it mean? Do we not look back or forward? Do we train our minds not to wander, to stay focused on the present moment? Is this what is called being mindful? What does mindful mean?
The busier, faster and noisier our lives become, the more we are being told to slow down, breathe, savor the moment, be here now. If we can hear over the increasing din, the message is “Live for the present, be in the zone, zenfully alive.”
It’s kind of like trying to grab the brass ring on an out-of-control merry-go-round with monkeys running wild. Or being held captive in a corporate retreat and told you have to manage 20 more projects and attend a new workshop on stress relief.
Buddha supposedly said, “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” (Some Buddhists say this is not an exact quote and that he actually advised not attaching to thoughts in the present either.)
Sayings like this are satisfying, but only briefly. They seem to make sense at first, then actually lead to more questions the more I think about them.
It does make sense not to dwell too much in the past or future. If someone has hurt us or we’ve made mistakes in the past, the sooner we can forgive them and ourselves and move into enjoying our current lives. Each of us might have to handle this in a different way and on a different timetable.
I knew a man who was stuck in the past. One beautiful morning we walked on the beach and he spent the whole time complaining about his ex-wife, trying to convince me that she belonged in the nut house and was responsible for all his troubles. When we got home, I was exhausted. Then, by accident, I met the ex-wife at a social function. She seemed fine to me, had happily remarried 10 years earlier. In the meantime, my friend lived in a dark hovel of an apartment and drove a piece of shit car.
I’ve also known people who are afraid of the future, of trying anything new, who send doomsday prophecy emails or spend hours planning for every possible disaster scenario when they make a purchase or take a trip.
Sometimes looking back or forward can be helpful. If we lose a loved one, we can remember good times and soften the grief somewhat. If we are undergoing physical therapy or chemotherapy, we can envision ourselves getting better and stronger every day as we reach into our healthier future, because, let’s face it, the present sucks.
While the concept of being present in the present (the present is a present!) is helpful, it is not a rigid rule or formula. I like to think of the idea as a guideline. My mind feels best when it can flow freely, back and forth, keeping a balance. Like standing on a rock in the ocean, if I tilt back or forward too far and too long, I might slip into the water and go under.
So I am mindful of where I stand and of all that is around me.