What does it mean to be present? How can we become present when our lives, and our societies, are constructed to keep us distracted, to constantly turn us away from just being here in this moment? Before embracing Buddhist practice, I tried a lot of different ways to distract myself from the present moment, and I experienced the consequences of that. This way of living only increased my suffering and confusion.
There are four significant teachings from the historical figure we call the Buddha. These teachings are referred to as the Four Noble Truths, and all the Buddhist teachings grow from this source. The First Noble Truth states that there is suffering. Suffering is a natural condition of life. This might seem like a grim view of life. Who wants to suffer? Everyone wants to be happy! And most of us have the idea that happiness is achieved by turning away from suffering. But if you look deeply at your experience, you come to see that most of our efforts to be happy actually create more suffering. We chase after our ideas of satisfaction: “Well, if I had the right car, I would be happy. If I had the right house… the right career… the right partner, then I would happy.” But then what happens is I get the right car, and after about two weeks I am no longer satisfied. I want something more, something else, to be happy. The feeling of satisfaction quickly turns into dissatisfaction, into craving something else.
This idea that acquiring or changing something outside of us will make us happy--this is suffering. Our very idea of happiness, of wanting or expecting the world to provide us with positive experiences, certainty, and stability--this is suffering.
The Second Noble Truth identifies the causes of suffering: selfish desire, or craving, grounded in ignorance. Ignorance means thinking that we know what will bring us real happiness, when we don’t.
The Third Noble Truth states that if there is a cause of suffering, there is a remedy. Release from our suffering is possible, and the Fourth Noble Truth describes the path of liberation. This is called the Eightfold Path: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.
What is right mindfulness? The moment I think that I know, this is not it. Real knowing doesn't happen through the intellect. Knowing exists in a place beyond the intellect. This is a place that we can begin to know, to understand, through the practice of living in the present moment, which is a result of a disciplined spiritual practice rooted in self-reflection.
Right mindfulness involves a willingness to stop running from what is present in this moment. To stop distracting ourselves. To give up our attempts to make the world conform to our ideas and expectations. A lot of what fuels our distractions and avoidance of the present moment is simply our fear of it, our fear of what will arise if we become quiet and still. The fear of being present is often rooted in our fear of letting go—of letting go of all those things we think we need to be happy. True happiness unfolds as a by-product of directly experiencing the nature of our suffering.
Our fear keeps us from living in the here and now. Yet we are ignorant to the reality that nothing really exists except the present moment--just now, nothing different. There is no past, and there is no future; there is only right now. Consider this: Can you live two seconds ago? Can you live one second from now? You may think you can, but in truth this is simply not possible. There is nothing but now. Then the important question, how much time do we spend living now? Most of our life is spent trapped in the past or in the future, having regrets for what was or wishing things were different.
So, how do we manage to live in the present moment? We don't have to manage it. It is already happening. We simply need to realize it. And how do we realize it? This is very simple, and this is the wonderful thing: we realize it by simply being aware that we are breathing. Being aware that we are breathing in and being aware that we are breathing out. Absolutely the most important aspect of our daily life is our breath. And how often are we aware that we are breathing? How much attention do we pay to our breath? How often are body and mind in the same place?
To live in the present moment, being aware that we are breathing in and breathing out, this is the most significant and important thing we can do in our lives. This is how we stay present. This is how we don’t surrender to our fear of being present: by not rejecting our fear but also not allowing the fear to dictate our choices and run our lives.