Living in the Present Moment
In Bone Crossed, by Patricia Briggs, the main character, Mercy Thompson, is captured by a cruel and violent vampire. To manage her fear as she waits in a cage for the torment she knows will come, she reminds herself to stay focused on the present moment. She won’t let herself think about the past or the future, not even the next second. Whenever she finds herself imagining what might happen, she snaps herself back to this instant, to what she sees and hears and smells. She doesn’t even allow herself to judge or analyze what she’s experiencing. That way, she can avoid the thoughts that intensify pain, and she won’t feel the fear that comes from worrying about the future. 
This is easy for Briggs to write, yet how many of us could be so calm when we’d been kidnapped? Of course, the main character of an action novel is larger than life. Mercy is stronger, smarter, and more accomplished than your normal human being.
Indeed, Briggs prepares us for this moment. In previous books about Mercy, for instance, we learn that she studies martial arts. We’ve seen her fight. In those fights she sustains her focus with great precision. That’s how one wins. No matter what we’re doing — shooting baskets, sparring, creating art, singing, playing with our children, or make loving with any degree of intimacy and satisfaction — to do it well, we must focus on this moment and this moment alone. That means no judgments, no narratives about our experience. Instead, we must live and breathe, watch and witness.
Pain Is Not the Same as Suffering
This strategy might not work for everyone. Some people experience beatings, scorn, relentless labor, violations, bullying, and physical agony. Others are beset by hallucinations and grandiosity. Sometimes the only way we survive is by imagining ourselves elsewhere, leaving our bodies, getting lost in fantasies.
Most of us, though, haven’t been captured by villains. We aren’t being tormented. We may feel anxiety, depression, loneliness, disappointment, or exhaustion, but rarely are these so horrible that we can’t bring our awareness to the here and now. If we feel overwhelmed, that’s because we’re focused on the past or the future or the stories we weave about our feelings.
“There’s that anxiety again. I can’t stand it,” we might tell ourselves, or “I’m so sad, I’ll never get over this,” or “That was a horrible thing she did to me, and I’ll never forgive her.”
In the book, Peace Is Every Step, the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh offers some phrases we can recite in our minds to enhance our meditation. One is “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in; breathing out, I know I am breathing out.” Another is, “Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile.” The one I have found most helpful, especially during times of stress and insecurity, is “Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment.” 
Wonderful? We might not think this moment’s so wonderful, yet if cannot be happy now, Hanh asks us, when we will be? When we let go of assumptions about the past or the future, when we bring our awareness to our breathing, to the in and out, the rising and falling, the watching and witnessing, we experience joy.
Hanh writes, “While I sit here, I don’t think of anything else.” . Because of this, he feels calm, content, joyful. Life is about living right now, he tells us, engaging with what exists in the moment. When we think about what has come before or what might come after, we are not fully alive.
One way to find pleasure in the moment, no matter what is going on, is to appreciate nature. The Chinese poet Wumen Huikai writes a poem about the seasons, reminding us of the heat in summer, the rain in spring, the chill as autumn arrives, and the snow that falls in winter. He invites us to use our senses to watch and hold and smell and listen to the life around us.
“If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,” Wumen writes, “this is the best season of your life.” 
Does this mean that if we focus on the here and now we will never feel unhappy or worried? Of course not. It does mean that it helps when part of us notices and watches, experiences life without getting lost in our emotions. If we do that, we will be able to hold the sensations and feelings that arise within us with compassion and kindness, as if they were young children or wounded birds.
Is Dwelling in the Present Moment for Everyone?
Not everyone thinks mindfulness is a good thing. Some people like the drama and excitement of strong feelings and self-righteous judgments. Others don’t see how calmness ever gets you anywhere in life. You need common sense and hard work to make it. You need determination and grit. This mindfulness stuff is a distraction from what good, honest folk should be doing.
There’s truth to this. Meditation isn’t for everyone. Some people prefer prayer or gospel singing. Others like to run until they settle into “the zone.” Playing music, dancing, baking bread can give us a sense of contentment without any thought of “present moment, wonderful moment.”
Sue Bender, in her book about the wisdom of the Amish, explains that they do not distinguish “between the sacred and the everyday.”  Whatever they’re doing, whether quilting, hanging laundry, canning peaches, or mowing the lawn, the Amish consider it a ritual. Yet the idea of focusing on the present moment, on understanding it to be a wonderful moment, would doubtless be foreign to them. One does one’s work with one’s entire being. That’s all. From this, contentment comes.
Such contentment, in as much as it is felt, arises not from any particular event or success, but from the Amish capacity to focus on what one is doing. You don’t have to Amish to do this, though. When my husband builds cabinets or repairs boats, for instance, he’s not thinking about what happened earlier that day, nor is he planning what he’s going to do next. If he gets lost in the past or future while using tools, he is likely to injure himself. Mindfulness keeps us safe, whether we’re sparring or canning or logging or working with wood.
You don’t have to be doing something dangerous to experience problems due to a lack of focus, though. During one of my voice lessons, I realized I had a tendency to anticipate the next note, thinking about it before I carried the first one to its completion. By doing this, I lost the intensity and accuracy of the sound. This happens when I play piano, too. If I think about something other than the notes I’m playing right that instant, if I anticipate the next phrase, or if I notice with surprise that I’ve had a great run of concentration and accuracy, I make mistakes.
Maybe we don’t think of this as dwelling in the present moment, because when we focus deeply, we just do what we’re doing. We don’t think about how this is a “wonderful moment.” We don’t label or judge the experience. Yet when we live with that kind of intensity, the moment is peaceful and pure. Does that not make it a wonderful one?
But what about those times when our bodies ache or our hearts hurt?
Present Moment, Wonderful Moment
That’s when I most need to bring my awareness to my breath, to consciously quote Thich Nhat Hanh: “Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment.” At times, I’ve spoken those words over and over like a mantra, grateful for my breath and for the capacity to speak. By doing this, I avoid the chattering thoughts that make any moment worse.
Not that I don’t ever wail or curse or pound the piano. I do this and more. If we dwell in the present moment, it does not mean we stop being human, stop having feelings. Besides, if the present moment is so horrible or terrifying that we can’t tolerate the sensations in our bodies nor the turmoil of our thoughts, then dissociation or distraction might be the best thing.
Such times are rare, though. During most of our unpleasant moments, we feel uncomfortable, nervous, annoyed, or angry, but by changing the stories we tell ourselves about our experience, we may find that the intensity of our emotions fades away. If left to themselves, emotions pass quickly. So do thoughts.
Perhaps you have a beautiful painting in your home you can gaze at when you feel stressed. Maybe there’s a tree outside your window or some clouds. If nothing else, you have your breath. Watch, notice, witness. Give up the judgments that swirl through your brain. They’re just stories. Pay attention to what is real, to the essence of what is happening. Let the wonder of life, of breath, of the present moment bring you peace.
In faith and fondness,
- Briggs, Patricia, Bone Crossed, New York: Ace, 2009.
- Hanh, Thich Nhat, Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, New York: Bantam, 1991, 8 and 10.
- Ibid 10.
- Quoted by Zinn, Jon Kabat, “This Is It,” Ilana Rabinowitz, ed., Mountains Are Mountains and Rivers Are Rivers, New York: Hyperion, 1999, 81-82, 82.
- Bender, Sue, Plain and Simple Wisdom, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995, 13.
Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved