Why does the present moment appear to be so short-lived?
In the mind, we continually create new worlds, made up of our interpretations. Just as the outer world grows and evolves with new life forms replacing old ones, in the mind, there is a similar process. There is a constant turnover of thoughts, and there is no shortage of material that passes through the ‘interpretation mill’ set up in the mind. This imaginary world runs in parallel to our physical reality.
The mind monopolizes receding time, which we know as the past, and the time that is approaching us, which is the future. The present moment isn’t chronological time in the sense of looking at a clock or a calendar. It is not wedged between the past and the future, such as when we say yesterday is the past, tomorrow is the future and today is the present.
The present moment isn’t chronological time in the sense of looking at a clock or a calendar.
The present moment happens when we break away from the world of interpretations we create in our minds.
When we are not interpreting thoughts and experiences, awareness disengages from the mind. When awareness is free from the past and the future, it becomes present. In the beginning, this cessation of mental interpretations happens for a limited period. Consequently, the experience of the present moment is shortlived. It takes conscious effort to refrain from interpreting thoughts and experiences.
When awareness is free from the past and the future, it becomes present.
A more lasting experience of the present may be challenging to achieve unless our awareness can retreat entirely from the mind. The underlying design of meditational, mindfulness, and other such practices is to gain complete control of awareness and hence, stay in the present. However, there are practical difficulties. When we try to concentrate in a quiet environment, there appears to be a sudden surge in thought activity, and the habit of interpretation goes into overdrive. It can overwhelm the practitioner.
The reason for this is simple. When our senses are open to the world, our attention gets scattered, and we become more interested in the outside world than thoughts moving within the mind. When the external input is cut off, all of a sudden, thoughts we previously did not pay attention appear dramatically magnified. It is like sitting in a dark movie theatre, and suddenly the screen comes alive with fast-moving action sequences.
Retreating from interpreting thoughts and experiences is a gradual process. It cannot happen all of a sudden. If we practice watching the mind when it is relatively quiet, such as when we are in the midst of nature or first thing in the morning upon waking up, it becomes easier to witness the mind when engaging in busy activities.
Retreating from interpreting thoughts and experiences is a gradual process
When we consciously interpret thoughts and experiences and make deliberate use of them for some purpose, we continue to remain in the present. The critical differentiator is ‘being conscious’ as we use the mind. The mind need not wholly disappear as long as we can continue as a witness and not engage in interpretations of thoughts and experiences.
We need not fear that by stopping the habit of interpreting thoughts, the mind will not function efficiently. The opposite happens. The mind becomes more efficient and energetic.
If we are in the habit of continually twitching and moving our fingers, this habit will spill over when we want to use our hands for something that requires fine motor skills. However, without such a habit, they may work more efficiently during tasks requiring significant manual dexterity. The brain that directs our fingers is separate from them. Similarly, the awareness that leads the mind is different from the mind.
The mind quietens down when we stop the habit of interpreting thoughts. When the mind is quiet, the role of the mind and that of awareness become apparent.
Unless awareness separates from the mind, we cannot be in the present.
There are some obstacles between going from an idea of the present moment to experience. When we become aware of some of the fundamental mechanisms of the mind, it will help foster an understanding of the mind.
It is only through understanding that the mind becomes a friend, an ally, and a joyful life companion. When we don’t have understanding, the mind becomes a source of internal friction, a place of unhappiness we seek to escape.
For many, the idea of the present moment is an escape from the past. Or it may be a departure from a busy mind in which we feel suffocated. We associate the present moment with freedom and happiness. We all are in search of these two. However, we keep returning to the same mind after a temporary stint in the ‘present moment.’
What gives the mind such power over our awareness that we cannot separate the two?
There are two central ideas around which all mental processes occur. One is the idea of happiness and its counterpart fear. The other is the idea that ‘I am this or that.’ These ideas give context and meaning and are the foundations of every thought. From these basic ideas, the mind springs a trap. When we identify with the contents of any thought, we fall into the habit of interpretation of thoughts.
The idea of happiness is the universal currency of the mind. We bookend each thought with this idea of happiness. Desires signal any gaps in joy, and the fruition of such desires is the cement that closes such a gap. Unknowingly we spend a significant part of our waking consciousness trying to coat and seal each thought with our idea of happiness.
If happiness is the outer covering of thoughts, the inner core comprises the idea of ‘I am.’ This idea embeds deeply into every thought, thereby extending the reach of our perception.
If we perceive the mind from the outside, we see it as a whole, a ball of energy full of thoughts. Further away, we go from the mind, the less distinct its constituent thoughts appear. However, through this idea of ‘I am,’ we can go deeply into any given thought and understand the mechanisms of the mind.
By sampling a small quantity of air, we can ascertain air quality. We don’t need to study the entire volume of seawater to understand the molecular composition of water. A little drop of water will suffice. Similarly, using one thought as a representative example, we may be able to understand the mechanism of the mind.
All experiences happen in relation to thoughts. When there are experiences, it follows that there must be someone to experience. Looking outwards in relation to a thought results in an experience. Looking inwards in relation to the thought takes us towards the experiencer, the ‘I am.’
With any thought, experience happens on the periphery, and the experiencer is located in the center. Through awareness, we perceive both as one, as awareness is separate from the mind. The experiencer and the experience live in the mind. The is a distance between the two whenever there is a feeling of ‘I am experiencing.’
We grade experiences on a scale running from abundant happiness on one end to extreme fear on the other end. We associate happiness and fear with positivity or negativity, respectively. Fear and joy surround every thought. They change in composition depending on what happens in the outside world.
Fear and happiness manifest in relation to that experiencer, the idea ‘I am.’ This ‘I am’ is unique to each individual, and we cannot experience the joy or fear of another person. We can only carry an interpretation of their happiness or despair.
The idea of ‘I am’ that exists at the center of each thought is ultimately a reflection of pure awareness. The idea of ‘I am’ can come and go, but awareness always remains. Awareness is like the eye behind the lens of a camera. The idea of ‘I am’ is like the lens of a camera. Unless there is something to capture or witness the light that filters through the lens, the lens serves no purpose.
Why awareness associates with the idea of ‘I am’ in the first place is an unanswered question. Perhaps it is part of the evolution of consciousness back to its pure state.
Like peeling a cabbage from the outermost to the innermost leaf, when we peel away the layers of the mind, the result is less and less of the idea of ‘I am.’ As we peel away the innermost leaf of the cabbage, we are left with nothing. But that space of ‘nothing’ is inseparable from the air (representing everything) that surrounds the cabbage before it is peeled.
Similarly, when we peel away every layer of the mind, the idea of ‘I am’ becomes lighter, and when the last layer is peeled, there is emptiness. That emptiness cannot be separated from an awareness that was there all along.
Just as the dense layers of leaves of a cabbage hide the ‘nothing’ at its center, many layers of thoughts, ideas, and conditioning hide the awareness at the center of our being.
The mind is ‘something,’ but awareness is ‘everything.’ In that ‘everything’ is the present moment.