If there is one catch phrase that captures modern spirituality, it is something like, “Be here now,” or “Be present,” or “Live in the Now.”
These are all expressions of the practice of mindfulness. The idea is that most of us live our lives distracted from what is actually happening. We are obsessed about the past or the future or we are lost in illusory ideas and fantasies about the world. We are never really grounded in the present moment and this is the cause of all our pain.
This idea is propounded by many modern spiritual teachers, such as, Eckhart Tolle and Guy Finely. However, the idea has been around for thousands of years in many of the world’s great spiritual traditions, but seems to have been born in Hindu spiritual practices.
This idea or practice has no doubt brought solace to many a wearied traveler on this journey of life. However, it seems that it can be taken to its extreme, which like anything, can result negatively. It is possible to take the words, “be present” to mean that we need to be focused on the present moment 24/7. I can’t let any thoughts in my head at any time. I can’t think about the past or the future, I can only focus on now.
For one, this is a big ask.
When most of us sit down to meditate, or just sit quietly and be, we are bombarded by a massive array of thoughts from every side: “What am I going to have for lunch? Is Sandy’s new boyfriend right for her?” And then when we try to stop these thoughts from coming, they come in strengthened lines of battalion.
No doubt part of taming the mind is accepting it and becoming mindful of everything the way it is, including the mind and all its thoughts. And no doubt the kind of freedom that comes from a lack of bondage to our own thoughts will amount to a blissful life. But while life lived this way would be blissful, it may not be so practical.
Yes, I could gaze at the majestic blue sky and listen to the waves crash on the shore of the ocean. But making plans for my own future, or recollecting the past in order to take stock and learn from what I have previously done would be difficult tasks to perform if torn from the now.
The ability to think, to imagine, to analyze are faculties that transcend the present moment.
So if we are focusing on what is happening now, then can we imagine or recollect or analyze? It is hard to exercise these faculties while practising mindfulness. That’s not to say that it is impossible—there may be some who can do this—but it seems quite tricky for us common folk. And it seems hard to imagine a life lived without the use of these other modes of thought.
Yes, we could say that the ultimate existence is to be present and accept whatever happens. That means that if because of my sole focus on the present, I end up without money, or with serious health problems, or any other “unfortunate” circumstance, I will accept this with joy and will live a happy life no matter what.
This sounds like a noble idea, but for one, it is very hard for the common man to achieve, and secondly it is based on the assumption that there is no underlying purpose to life beyond being present each moment. It is the idea that the only task we have in life is to focus on what we are doing from moment to moment. But what exactly we are doing is of no major concern as long as it is done with mindfulness.
But for me, there is a purpose to life, and it does matter what we do from moment to moment.
The purpose for me is to draw nearer to our spiritual source and to bring peace to the world, both being inter-connected. This is based on the assumption that there is good and bad in the world and a necessity to do good.
We are not here just to practice mindfulness, we are here to transform our reality in a positive and creative way. The counter to this would be that mindfulness does itself transform us, and hence the world around us. But I think that through the faculties of reason, recollection and imagination we can also transform reality in a purposeful way.
What I’m getting at is that life is not just something to be present to and accept; it is something to actively shape. Being present is, no doubt, a huge part of experiencing life to the fullest and being able to create it in an ideal way. But along with mindfulness are the faculties of memory, imagination and reason, which enable us to create our lives in a more ideal way.
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Apprentice Editor: Sarah Qureshi/Editor: Travis May
Images: Balint Foldesi via Flickr