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What Does It Mean to Live in the Present?

presence What Does It Mean to Live in the Present?

In recent decades the concept of living in the present moment has been widely discussed, prompted by the surprising success of Eckhart Tolle’s 1997 book, The Power of Now. For millions of readers Tolle’s basic thesis, that there is something special about the here and now, came as a spiritual message they could seize upon in daily life.

The power that the present moment possesses, as many people now believe, is its reality. To be in the now means that you are not distracted by memories of the past or expectations about the future. You dwell instead on whatever is right in front of you, applying mental clarity, alertness, and your full attention. Simple enough—until one looks deeper. Young children live in the now. Are they better off for it, considering the years of maturation that lie ahead to bring about full-fledged adulthood? The elderly suffering from dementia typically have severe memory loss, forcing them to live only in the passing moment, and this condition becomes confusing and blank, not to mention a source of distress.


The first thing to say, if we want to unravel these issues, is that the present moment isn’t the same as the minutes ticking on the clock. The power of now cannot be found by looking at time, because the whole phenomenon is experiential. To live in the now is to have a completely different experience of mind, body, self, and world. Children offer a clue, if they are young enough, by not being so conditioned that they conform to society’s framework of life.

In that framework it is bad to be late and good to be on time. One fills the time efficiently at work and in a leisurely fashion on vacation or when given some free time. In other words, time is part of a way of life that we absorbed early on from the people around us, and the whole framework extends to core beliefs about birth and death, growing old, being dominated by memories, hopes, wishes, and fears, all of which are deeply rooted in social conformity.

As long as these concepts have the power to define your experiences, the experience of now is overshadowed by conditioning. At the same time, we must look at what the mind is doing right this minute. It is being active, filled with a continuous stream of sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts. Much of this activity is born of habit; if you think the same way today as you did yesterday, your mind is running on autopilot. Moreover, by identifying with all your opinions, beliefs, habits, prejudices, and automatic reflexes, you are relying on a mental construct that is substituting for realty.

This construct, which all of us have built since childhood, defines the ego-personality. “I” is shorthand for a self-made model of mind, body, and world that revolves around what the ego wants and fears, what it finds pleasurable and painful, and so on.

With all of that in mind, living in the present moment is a slippery business. The fly in the ointment isn’t that time is fleeting but that the person who tries to experience the present moment is actually blind to it. The now is the place where we encounter life, and if we encounter it through layers of conditioning and false assumptions, there is no now. There is only repetition of the old, with a faint recognition of newness if an unexpected experience arises, such as traveling to another country or making a new friend.

In fact, for the ego the now is a threat, because it potentially contains the unknown. Always feeling insecure deep down, the ego protects itself from the threat of the unknown by denial or distraction or converting the now into something old and familiar.

Therefore, the power of now resides only outside the ego, and since the ego is a product of time and an artificial mental construct, to live in the now means escaping from the bondage of time and the repetitive activity of the mind. No matter what your mind is doing at this moment, it is removing you from the now. To live in the present moment isn’t attained through thinking, feeling, acting, or doing anything else associated with the active mind.

Instead, living in the present moment involves consciousness. Most people equate consciousness with the mind, but consciousness is actually the source and origin of the mind before any activity, even the slightest thought, arises. Consciousness has been called the screen on which the mind throws images, a metaphor that goes back to Plato and his teaching of light throwing shadows on the wall of a cave. In this metaphor, to pay attention to the shadow play is illusory. Only by turning around and seeing the light directly does one confront reality.

Up to now, you’ll notice that living in the present moment has become increasingly abstract and even metaphysical. Why can’t it be a simple matter of being here now, to use a pop phrase from the seventies? It can be a simple matter if you go about it the right way. All that is needed is a shift of attention to your sense of self. At any given moment, no matter what is going on mentally “in here” or physically “out there,” the experience is happening to the self, and therefore a sense of self is blended into every experience.

Normally we don’t notice our sense of self—we are simply too used to ignoring it. But the self is our connection to consciousness. All of life consists of the self consciously being present. Once you recognize this fact, you can reframe your life beyond the social model you have been conditioned to believe in.

The self doesn’t have to learn anything new or struggle to escape the old. Your sense of self has been spontaneously present all the time, only unnoticed because the ego has convinced you that it is the self. Once you go beyond the demands of “I,” experience is transformed. It starts to happen in an open state of awareness that has no agenda. On its own, your sense of self, if you notice it at all, has become entangled in your individual personality and the story of your life, a story you are constantly building day by day, year by year. The present moment is beyond stories. It exists outside time, which is why spiritual traditions all describe a place that is beyond the physical world.

This place isn’t a mystical Nirvana or the promise of Heaven. It is here and now, as a potential of the present moment. This place is pure awareness, which anyone can access. It is a field of all possibilities, which unfortunately we have shackled through the ego-personality into a small arena of limited possibilities. The present moment is nothing but a liberated state of the sense of self. Having seen this, we can discuss what such a liberated state feels like, what it can deliver every day, and most important of all, how to get there and make the present moment our true home. This will be the subject of the next post.

(To be cont.)

Reprinted from San Francisco Chronicle with permission

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