Present moment awareness, or living in the present is a deep human quest. A quest that has evoked much interest in recent times thanks to the success of some Eckhart Tolle’s best-selling books: The Power of Now and A New Earth. Living in the present has always been a formidable challenge to humanity, and will likely continue to be. I make no claim to living in the present in the true sense of this term, nor can I pretend that there is anything new or original in this article. My sole purpose here is to explore the meaning of this grand idea, its potential benefits, the many obstacles that come in the way, and a few practices that might be of help.
What does it mean to live in the Present?
The meaning is likely to vary from person to person, depending on his/her background and experience. In general, the phrase means to disengage one’s mind from its constant preoccupation with the past or the future and to experience a presence like a sense of freedom and inner silence while doing whatever needs to be done at the present moment. But what about memories? I think I am essentially a past-oriented person, and memories do occupy a large place in my inner world. Not a day passes without some pleasing and soothing memories intruding into my consciousness. Are these memories inconsistent with living in the present? Honestly, I do not know. All I know is that I have some recurring memories of a soothing kind, and quite often, I invite them into my mind. Paradoxical as it may seem, inviting the past seems, in my case, to herald the present with relative ease.
Benefits of living in the Present Moment
The benefits include greater effectiveness in action and an inner silence and an enhanced ability to cope with stress. If life is 10 percent experience and 90 percent responding to that experience, living in the present can make the process of responding that much less stressful. Living in the present moment encourages an attitude of surrender and acceptance of the constant reality shift of one’s surroundings. As stress is very largely a result of resisting the present, an attitude of letting things go can be helpful.
Perhaps the biggest stumbling block to living in the present is our constant and unceasing attempt to refashion the universe in our image. It is not an easy pastime, as most of us would admit in our saner moments. It is, however, a deeply ingrained habit, which most of us find very difficult to shake off, although a part of us keeps whispering to us, all the time, that the only thing we can possibly change in this world is ourselves. Another obstacle is an illusion to which most of us cling most of the time: the illusion of control, the belief that we can control people and events around us, to achieve whatever it is that we may be seeking at a particular point in time. Although this illusion is shattered almost every day of our lives, we keep clinging to it. To clarify, we do have some control over our responses to the many stimuli that come our way, but the illusion of control takes our attention away from this small window of control, to the world at large which is largely beyond our control.
How to start living in the Present Moment
No arguments, no advice
This means, simply, that when listening to another person, particularly when that other person is considering a problem or merely expressing a feeling, ensure that you give full attention, don’t interrupt with arguments, opinions or advice. Given that life is very largely a matter of interpersonal relations, this practice does make sense. Listening with complete attention generates empathy, compassion, and total acceptance that what the person is expressing because, at this moment, their emotions are valid. Teaching yourself this is a character strength, as the virtue of fairness includes putting yourself in someone else’s shoes (“Take the VIA Survey and Learn Your Character Strengths: Fairness,” 2015). This practice also contains, at its core, the art of listening. A slight roll of the eyes, if you like, an odd question or two, but otherwise, the essence of this practice is to listen with deep attention and empathy. And it is but a small leap of understanding from this to realize that such listening can be highly therapeutic in interpersonal relations.
The world is fine as it is
Our anxious minds always resist the present moment and wish that the world, and the people around us, were somehow different from what they actually are. But the reality is this: The present moment has a logic and momentum of its own and the world is fine as it is, with all its angularities and imperfections. It need not, and will not, be different, no matter how much we rail and rant against it. And accepting and embracing the present as it is, holds the key to peace and sanity. This is why the practice of mindfulness acts as a buffer against depressive symptoms.
Sit down and sit still
It is easy enough for us to say that we should live in the present, but reality almost always conspires against it. Tensions rise, tempers fly, and life is anything but peace and tranquility. It is a constant test of patience. Here is another, simple, practice that might help in such tense, out-of-control, moments: Sit down and sit still, literally. Studies have shown that sitting still, choosing a focal point such as a noise or an image, and breathing has beneficial effects on your immune function, your brain, and increase in antibody production.
Feed your brain
The idea of living in the present is one thing, but living that idea is quite another. As a growing body of medical evidence shows, biology matters, particularly the electrical activity in the human brain. Greater the coherence in the brain waves, greater the capacity of the human mind to dwell in the present. As is becoming more widely known, such coherence is helped by practices like transcendental meditation, and the deep relaxation they induce in the human brain (Balaji,, Vame, & Ali, 2012). Call it yoga or meditation, we all seem to need a daily labor of adaptation and transformation, particularly regarding achieving greater coherence of the brain waves.
Live 15 minutes at a time
Here is an idea that is more profound than it appears at first sight. Can we tell ourselves, as we pass through our tension-ridden day, that we will live 15 minutes at a time, no more? Not that we assume we have only 15 more minutes to live, but we begin engaging in an inner dialogue that might sound as follows: “Look, it is now 10 am, and I am going to try and live the next fifteen minutes as mindfully as I can. Come 10:15, I will focus on the next fifteen minutes till 10:30.” All we need is a desire to try out an idea, which has the potential to disengage our minds from the tangles of time, and bring them to the living reality of the present moment.
Balaji,, P. A., Vame, S. R., & Ali, S. S. (2012). Physiological Effects of Yogic Practices and Transcendental Meditation in Health and Disease. North American Journal of Medical Sciences. Haynes, & Anne. (2004). Meditation and Health: An Annotated Bibliography. American Library Association. Orme-Johnson, D. (1995). Summary of Scientific Research on Maharishi’s Transcendental Meditation and TM-Sidhi Program.
Surprising Benefits of Mindfulness, According to Science. (2015). Retrieved from http://www.purcus.com/benefits-of-mindfulness/
Take the VIA Survey and Learn Your Character Strengths: Fairness. (2015). Retrieved from http://www.viacharacter.org/www/Character-Strengths/Fairness
Tolle, E. (1999). The power of now: A guide to spiritual enlightenment. Novato, CA: New World Library. Tolle, E. (2006). A new earth: Awakening to your life's purpose. New York: Plume
Professor T.S. Srinivasan is currently Visiting Professor in three of India’s national institutes of management – at Lucknow, Kashipur, and Trichy. Formerly, Professor, International Management Institute, at Delhi, India, and at Kiev, Ukraine. Professor Srinivasan has more than 30 years of experience in management education and training, including industrial experience of twelve years. He also attended the Indian Institute of Management, India’s top business school for nearly half a century.