How Living in the Present Can Change Your Life
posted by Mark Mackay on June 21st, 2016
I wasn’t initially keen on sharing my journey on the blog, but it became clear that it could help a lot of people. Plus Roman’s a difficult person to say no to. So yeah, there’s that =)
If you’re reading this and you do any kind of meditative practice, I hope you can take what I share on the subject of presence and use it as a mirror to gain perspective on your own process. The importance of presence as a continual practice is as easy to take for granted as it is difficult to integrate, even for experienced Tibetan monks, a point we’ll get to soon.
Around seven years ago, I read a book called Peace is Every Step by a Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh. He’s the founder of meditation center, Plum Village, and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr.
It’s a book about presence that has the power to change your life. For better or worse, at the time I read it, my mind was too heavily preoccupied with circumstance, problems and conditioning for it to sink in deeply.
The premise of Nhat Hanh’s book is that mindfulness is not something to be cultivated 20 minutes per day while meditating, or an hour per day during yoga. It’s something to cultivate in every step, whether we’re standing washing dishes, buying groceries, or arguing with our loved ones. By cultivating mindfulness and presence in each step, we move closer to our highest potential and therefore, peace is embodied. If that’s not a worthy goal, I don’t know what is.
Even at the time I read the book, I practiced meditation and yoga and, with a fresh perspective on presence, I started noticing myself slouching in my chair, or catching my mind wandering and would snap myself back into the moment where I knew I truly belonged. It seemed like progress, and in some ways it was.
But what I now know is that the effort I was making to cultivate presence, in spite of my daily practices and small wins, was nowhere near enough if ever I was to hold a peaceful state of mind in any meaningful way. It would be seven years before the value of this book was reintroduced to me.
The first ceremony
“Okay, go and take some time for yourselves. Try to cultivate as much presence as possible before we meet tonight…”
Those were Roman’s words on my second night at Paititi’s mountain land, Larapata. Despite having experience with medicinal plants, I was a little nervous about what that night would hold, and the wisdom in this recommendation struck a chord that cut through my apprehension. Clearly, this was a good idea.
In spite of my best efforts meditating by the river, my first ceremony with the indigenous Peruvian medicine of Ayahuasca was challenging. But, as the tantrum my Western-conditioned ego was throwing calmed down and the voice shouting “never again!” slowly faded, things became more manageable, and the lessons began to come through.
A major part of my personal process was giving myself an unreasonably hard time about making the tiniest of mistakes. Expressing myself with a lack of grace due to being super anxious in social situations was a big part of that. And, during ceremony, Mother Ayahuasca began to repeatedly show me these same occasions and how, if I’d made a greater effort to integrate the teachings of Thich Nhat Hahn seven years ago and made presence a continual practice, these moments and the disturbing emotions they caused would never even have happened. “Every step”, she reminded me.
In spite of working so much on myself for so many years and developing a detailed understanding of the root causes of my challenges, the problems still lingered. At lot of healing had happened, but I still struggled and wasn’t sure why. I found out that night that presence was the missing piece of the puzzle.
Replacing habitual thoughts
We all have our habitual patterns of thought we know don’t serve us, and understanding what those are is definitely progress. But changing them feels like turning an oil tanker on the open ocean, an unavoidably slow process that requires a lot of energy. For my part, I’d developed incredibly stubborn ways of thinking that were holding me back in spite of realizations, understanding, and healing. I’d needlessly ruminate over the past and be fearful of what the future may hold, both at the expense of the moment.
I’m continuously realizing that presence truly is the panacea for all the troubles of the mind. It’s what allows us to catch ourselves in heated moments of reactive anger. It helps cultivate willpower in moments of temptation to indulge in distractions we know full well we shouldn’t even be considering.
When we face projects that are overwhelming, presence helps us focus on putting one foot in front of the other, taking steps in the right direction in a consistent way that produces results and helps us avoid becoming paralyzed with doubt or indecision. It’s what allows the recognition of unskillful communication habits in ourselves, and to be more patient of similar characteristics in others, instead of reacting hastily and causing needless friction.
The more I contemplate this, the more I recognize that presence truly is everything. And if you find meditation on presence difficult, you might take comfort in the fact that even Buddhist monks do, too.
A week or so after the retreat, Roman recommended an essay on presence by Tibetan Buddhist scholar and practitioner of the Dzogchen tradition, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, who was also a professor at Naples Eastern University for some 30 years. As if the message wasn’t clear enough by that point, some quotes from this amazing paper drilled into to me to ensure I was paying attention.
“If one does not know how to integrate the presence of awareness with all one’s daily actions, such as eating, walking, sleeping, sitting, and so on, then it is not possible to make the state of contemplation last beyond the limited duration of a session of sitting meditation.”
A state of contemplation in this context refers to a relaxed state of presence – a calm and mindful totality of being, undisturbed by attachment, craving or impermanent phenomena in general. Perhaps the fact that it’s so difficult is one of the reasons why it’s so easy to overlook. After all, if one can hardly maintain a clear space of mind for a few minutes at a time during meditation, how can we hope to both recognize and achieve this state of freedom in the relative chaos of everyday life? Namkhai Norbu goes on to say:
“Therefore, because the continuation in the presence of the true State is the essence of all the Paths, the root of all meditations, the conclusion of all spiritual practices, the juice of all esoteric methods, the heart of all ultimate teachings, it is necessary to seek to maintain a continuous presence without becoming distracted…”
“What this means is: don’t follow the past, don’t anticipate the future, and don’t follow illusory thoughts that arise in the present; but turning within oneself, one should observe one’s own true condition and maintain the awareness of it just as it is, beyond conceptual limitations of the ‘three times’. One must remain in the uncorrected condition of one’s own natural state, free from the impurity of judgments between ‘being and non-being’, ‘having and not-having’, ‘good and bad’, and so on.”
A couple of weeks later as I was watching a documentary called The Yogis of Tibet, I found more determination to stick to the practice. One of the monks interviewed during retreat in the mountain, Geshe Yeshi Chopel, says that …
“The most difficult thing to do is remain in single pointed concentration… The efforts of speech like recitations of mantras are no problem. Controlling the mind is”.
The documentary then switches over to Choje Togden Rinpoche, who shares his experience of his first ever retreat as a young boy:
“Although verbally you are reciting the mantra, your mind is really, really busy trying to get out of the retreat place. But when you become more seasoned and more mature in your meditation, things will change.”
Whether it’s a mantra or an asana, doing the action is the easy bit. So easy that we can trick ourselves into thinking we’re actually doing our daily practice just because we’re getting on the mat and stretching our bodies. But to what extent do you use each asana to sink deeper into the moment as you do it? And to what extent do you bring that sense of peace off the mat and into your everyday life? I certainly have room for improvement here. But, after learning about the monks above, I suspect we all do.
The integration process
So, presence is easy to overlook and tough to hold onto during practice, let alone to integrate into life. But in spite of the challenges I’m working on right now, by taking a moment to inhale and exhale deeply before putting one foot in front of the other, progress is happening. When I feel overwhelmed by size of my to-do list and the deadlines I’m facing, I now use that feeling of being attached or over analytical of the outcome as a reminder that I’m not present. Even as I write this blog post.
When I get to spend time by myself, I make an effort to really be there, weaving presence with slow and rhythmic breathing for as long as possible, focusing singly on whatever I’m doing, coming back to that breath rhythm when I find my mind wondering. It’s meditation, even when I’m not “meditating”. When I do meditate or get on the mat, I focus deeper into the moment than I ever have before, focusing on each stage of each breath as it arrives and passes by. It’s a soothing process for an overactive mind.
Spending time with people is still a challenging practice for me. I’m very content in my own company, so although it may sound like a trivial thing, it’s very much outside my comfort zone. But it’s becoming increasingly more manageable, specifically thanks to lessons in presence from the Embodying True Nature retreat.
And truly, presence is our true nature. Whether you look at animals, plants or trees swaying in the wind, the turning of the constellations at night, or watch the way indigenous communities sit contently with one another, it’s not difficult to see how presence is one of the most natural phenomena possible to observe. If we all took as much effort to embody this quality as your average Buddhist Lama, things would change fast.
Fretting over the past or being fearful and anxious of the future all come at the expense of the present. And such things are a direct result of the “fight or flight” mentality we’re continually bombarded with by the media and debt-based money system. Fear, anxiety, attachment and consumerism are imposed through conditioning and are not in our true nature. Heart-centered presence? That’s an inherent quality of consciousness.
Reading books and listening to lectures from Buddhist monks and other spiritual leaders is always insightful and inspiring. But taking those lessons and integrating them into our everyday lives? That’s where we find the real work. In my case it was the missing glue to hold all the component parts of my healing process together and move forward with my life. I hope someone out there finds that lesson even half as useful as I did.
[Image credit, Paul Hessell]