I was talking to a friend the other day and the subject of being in the present moment came up. I shared the story of another friend, bestselling author Tom Sterner (author of The Practicing Mind), who had the mind-blowing experience of expanding time in a crazy-busy day when he devoted his attention to the present moment, in every moment. (He provides full details of that incredible experience in his book.)
My friend-in-conversation listened with more than a hint of skepticism. But rather than challenging my assertion that time had actually expanded, he posed a question instead:
“What if you don’t like the present moment?”
Ah. What, indeed?
That question pretty much sums up the reason why so many of us don’t live in the present moment: we don’t like it. Or we see it as merely a means to an end, in effect judging this moment as “less than” some future moment when we’ll have accomplished something or when we’ll be having fun. Many moments feel like moments to be gotten through, rather than moments to actually live.
And then, of course, there are those really unwelcome moments when we feel sick or defeated – moments of dealing with physical, emotional or financial distress. Those are the moments we most wish to avoid. Who wants to be in a moment when the only experience to be had is one of pain or struggle? Who in their right mind would want that time to expand?
I’ll cut to the chase here: present moment awareness isn’t about wanting or liking something. It is about being with the fullness and flow of life rather than resisting it. In the absence of resistance – in the absence of judgment – there is simply the experience you’re having. And that experience will morph into the next, and the next, and the next…and all of that will happen more smoothly if you don’t resist the moment you’re in.
So being in the present moment is, fundamentally, about releasing resistance. And as with most things worth mastering, releasing resistance requires intention, awareness, willingness and practice – what I refer to as the four portals of transformation. First you intend to live more and more in the present moment without resistance, and with that intention you become more aware of when you’re not. As your awareness expands, you find more opportunities to willingly practice different ways of shifting your focus to the present moment.
Here are two simple keys to expanding your awareness of when you may be resisting the present moment:
- Understanding that resistance is created by thought. Without any thoughts about how much you don’t like something, or how little time you have or how much more you have to do, you have no resistance to what is going on right now. A quiet mind rests easily in the present moment, just as it is.
- Resistance to the present moment doesn’t feel good. It feels like stress, impatience, frustration or resignation. Your feelings are a key indicator of when you are, and are not, in resistance.
True present moment awareness is completely neutral. If it has any feeling at all, the feeling is one of peace. It is without judgment, assumption, or projection of any kind, yet there is an inherent recognition that life is flowing and ever-changing, not static. Those two elements are related: as we release judgment, which is always constricting, we create space for something new to occur. We align with the natural order of things rather than push against it.
Present moment awareness is often described in terms of slowing down and being fully absorbed in the sensory experience of what you’re doing right now, which is tremendously valuable because, when you are fully absorbed in what you’re doing, your mind is quiet. When your mind is quiet, you are not judging. An absence of judgment equals an absence of resistance. Voila! You are in the present moment.
Right now, I’m pausing to feel the warmth emanating from my plugged-in laptop. I’m listening with curiosity to the erratic rhythm of my fingers tapping the keys, and appreciating the crispness of the clicking sound they make. I’m breathing more consciously and realizing that it’s been raining for quite some time now. I’m noticing that my legs are crossed and sensing I need to shift position. There, that’s better.
Just before the pause, my focus was all over the map. I kept looking at the clock and wondering if I could possibly finish this article on time. I fast-forwarded to an upcoming client appointment and tried to remember what we’d discussed in our last session. And I was distracted by an email I just received with some disappointing news. Pausing to shift my focus toward the sensory experience of this moment, rather than allowing it to linger on all the thoughts swirling through my mind, helped me to move forward, calmly, and to feel genuine appreciation for this quiet writing environment I’ve created for myself.
So I shifted from anxiety to appreciation in a matter of minutes, and I can tell you that’s a shift worth making, time and time again. Yet you don’t need to focus exclusively on sensory experience in order to release resistance. The key, really, is in making a conscious choice about where to focus rather than allowing your attention to be absorbed in your habitual thoughts. You can focus very specifically on something, such as your immediate sensory experience (as I just did), or you can soften and expand your focus so that it becomes pure awareness. After all, this moment includes far more than what you can perceive through your senses, so being present to it doesn’t necessarily mean narrowing your focus to sensory experience. Your expanded awareness acknowledges the nonphysical aspects of your experience as well, including whatever thoughts and feelings you are having, yet it doesn’t attach to them. It simply allows and expands, without judgment.
In my ongoing example of being present to this moment, as I notice distracting thoughts intruding again, I can pause, take a deep breath and close my eyes. I acknowledge that these thoughts are present. I notice a feeling of mild anxiety and breathe gently into it. I notice how my mind latches onto the disappointing news and starts creating unhappy future scenarios with it. I keep breathing, feeling and allowing, without buying into any of the thoughts that are present.
I begin to experience the spaciousness of this moment, and I remember that, no matter what is showing up right now, it is temporary. There are countless ways things can unfold because Life holds infinite possibilities. I breathe into that sense of possibility, notice that I’m no longer feeling anxious, and come back to my writing. I shifted this time from anxiety to peacefulness – another shift worth making, time and time again.
A present moment purist might point out that the very fact of my “remembering” something means I wasn’t in the present moment. But the deeper truth is that “moment” is not the same thing as “minute,” or any finite measurement of what we experience as linear time. The present moment is a gateway to the eternal Now, which encompasses all time and all possibilities. As my focus softened and expanded into simple awareness, I had access to a kind of knowing that is beyond my regular habits of thought. You might even call it wisdom.
That’s the beauty of cultivating present moment awareness. You become wiser, more grounded and more peaceful. You may also, if you’re willing to lighten up about all this, develop a real sense of humor about the countless ways your habitual thought patterns throw roadblocks in your path. And you become appreciative of how powerful your focus and attention truly are.
So to my friend I say, “So what if you don’t like the present moment? You’ll love what becomes available when you make friends with it anyway.”
And so will you.