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Wanting to live in the present is something many people find frustrating. They are told that life renews itself in the present moment, that the burden of the past disguises the joy that is always available in the present. The problem is that these lovely promises are hard to translate into personal experience. You need to probe a little deeper to see what is really needed. There is wisdom in the now that isn’t revealed to the mind.
It is the mind that finds the present moment so elusive. Constantly occupied with thoughts, feelings, and sensations, the mind gives the impression that it is already present. This is an illusion. Consider the light coming at us from distant galaxies. Gazing at the night sky, this light seems to be shining here and now, but in fact it took billions of years for starlight to reach Earth, so the light you see is actually billions of years old.
Surprisingly, the same is true of what you see right this minute. In the very brief time it takes for photons of light to travel from your retina to the visual cortex in your brain, there is a delay. In effect, you are seeing the past, just as when you gaze at the stars. The same is true of the other senses as well. The rise and fall of perception brings a time delay. Likewise, the coming and going of thought is actually just an impression of being present. The vast majority of thoughts require an interpretation, which puts thinking even more in the past. Consider how a thought like “I am really hungry” can linger for hours until you get a chance to eat.
Yet you are actually present in your mind, however, the inner place where you are present escapes your notice. This place is the silent gap between thoughts. A thought is transient, rising and fading away like a wave on the ocean. Yet the ocean is always present, and so is the silent background of awareness that you glimpse, for a fraction of a second, between thoughts.
If you dive into this silent gap, which is the purpose of meditation, the awareness you experience is in the present moment. Silence has no bad memories, wounds, traumas, and conditioning from thee past. Therefore, it can be present. Silence is continuous and new at the same time. The newness comes from the creative possibilities that human awareness contains. Not all of these possibilities are new. When your mind delivers its next thought, in all likelihood it will repeat or resemble a past thought. Habits of thinking are the main reason we do not experience the present moment.
Your body has no such problem. Cells are always present—they have to be in order to survive. Your cells do not store a supply of oxygen and nutrients for more than a few seconds. They depend on being nourished without worry for the future. In other words, they trust in the wisdom of the now. If a cell could voice what this wisdom consists of, it would say that the new
Is always new
Knows what is needed at all times
Refreshes the experience of being alive
Contains vibrant energy
Has no regrets about the past or apprehension for the future.
These are the very qualities the mind seeks in the present moment. Yet there is actually nothing to seek, because the now occupies no space in time. It cannot be seized or described. There is “no there there” by the standards of the thinking mind, which craves to hold on to pleasurable experiences and banish painful ones. The now isn’t about pleasure or pain.
Once you realize this, you have taken the most important step to being in the present moment: Stop believing that you can get there by thinking, feeling, believing, hoping, or any other mental process. The wisdom of the now, as your body already knows in its trillions of cells, is embedded in existence itself. Without this wisdom, a cell cannot exist. The illusion that you can exist without the wisdom of the now must be discarded.
As viewed in the Vedic tradition of India, everyday life is pure illusion when it is lived on the basis of the five senses and the mind. “Illusion” is a word, really an accusation, that people distrust, because all of us are deeply conditioned to live at the level of the material world, which must be interpreted by the five senses in order to make sense. Yet the five senses have nothing to do with perceiving reality, not even the physical world.
All experience occurs in consciousness. Without awareness, the world “out there” has no sights, sounds, textures, smells, and tastes. That part can’t be questioned, because on face value we all know that in deep sleep there is no world “out there,” not for us as experiencers. Here the wisdom of the now takes a strange twist. In deep sleep, according to the Vedic seers, you experience pure awareness, which makes sleep the closest anyone comes to the total absence of illusion.
I know that this reasoning sounds strange, and the automatic response is that sleep contains no experience at all if you aren’t dreaming. But this is because the haze of the conditioned mind overlaps from your waking hours into your sleep. With clarity of awareness you would perceive sleep as the quiet peace of pure awareness. In fact, you have to go there in order for your brain to clear the slate and rid itself of accumulated toxins, two things it cannot do while you are awake and thinking.
Few people are likely to pursue total clarity when they are asleep, but the wisdom of the now is glimpsed in waking hours, too. These glimpses come when you experience anything the mind cannot create and never has. The most valuable experiences in life are love, compassion, insight, empathy, truth, beauty, inspiration, joy, wonder, creativity, and inner growth. No one invented them. They cannot be invented, in fact, but are innately part of human awareness. They are our interpretation of pure awareness made manifest.
The reason you don’t need to seek the present moment is that it is already finding you instead, in those moments when the silent gap between thoughts delivers these gifts. If the silent gap were empty, spiritual life would be just as empty and pure awareness a void. But in reality infinite possibilities exist in pure awareness, and the gap between thoughts is the portal for activating these possibilities. To be conscious of this reality takes you out of all illusions. Now you have a lifelong motivation for valuing the gifts of the now and doing everything you can to live by them.