Over and over again, you’ll hear Buddhist teachers talking about the need to “be in the present moment,” but interestingly this wasn’t something the Buddha emphasized much. There are one or two scattered references that are similar to the concept of being in the moment, like this one:
They don’t sorrow over the past,
don’t long for the future.
They survive on the present.
That’s why their faces
are bright and serene.
In many ways the language of “being in the moment” is useful, because so much of the time we’re unmindfully caught up in thinking about things from the past, or things that might happen in the future. But actually we only have this present moment. Even when you’re thinking about the future or past, you’re focusing on thoughts that are arising right now. You’re always in the present moment.
The problem implicit in what the Buddha says above isn’t actually to do with the past, present, or future, but with how we relate to memories and our thoughts about the future.
First, we tend to get obsessively caught up in thinking. It so happens that much of our obsessive thinking is concerned with things that took place in the past or with things that will or might take place in the future. But it’s also possible for us to obsessively think about the present, like “I wonder what she’s doing right now?” or “I wonder if he doesn’t like me?”
The Buddha tended to treat the past, present, and future in the same way. For example, in verse 421 of the Dhammapada the Buddha says:
He who clings to nothing of the past, present and future, who has no attachment and holds on to nothing — him do I call a holy man.
Certainly, we can think about, say, the future in an anxious way, but we can also think about the future in an objective or metta-ful way. For example the Buddha said things like:
While you are performing a bodily act, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily act I am doing — is it leading to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful bodily act, with painful consequences, painful results?’
So we’re actually meant to think about the future! Similarly, there are good reasons to think about the past, and the word we usually translate as “mindfulness” is sati, which primarily means “memory.” The Buddha made the connection between mindfulness and the past quite explicit: “…the monk is mindful, highly meticulous, remembering and able to call to mind even things that were done and said long ago.”
Our mindfulness can include reflecting on past actions, as with this piece of advice:
Having done a bodily action, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily action I have done — did it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Was it an unskillful bodily action, with painful consequences, painful results?’
So thinking about the future is unhelpful when longing or anxiety are involved, and thinking about the past is unhelpful when there’s sorrow involved, but it’s perfectly possible to think mindfully about the past or future. It all comes down to the quality of attention that you bring to anything you’re aware of. It’s whether craving, aversion, or delusion are present that’s important.
The problem with the language of being in the moment is that often people think there’s something wrong with thinking about the past or future. As we’ve seen, that’s far from being the case — as long as we’re paying attention to thoughts of the past, future (or present!) without attachment, aversion, or delusion. But the false impression given by the language of being in the moment also leads people to think that it’s wrong to have goals and aspirations. Since Buddhist practice doesn’t in fact teach us to “be in the moment” in a literal way, the “problem” of goals and aspirations isn’t in fact a problem at all. Of course we’re to have goals and aspirations. The Buddha was very keen on striving, and his last words were, “Strive diligently.” We’d never make progress if we don’t have goals and aspirations.
What’s important, again, is the quality of attention we bring to those goals and aspirations, particularly regarding whether there is craving, aversion, or delusion involved in them. If we grasp after attaining goals, or experience aversion because we haven’t met our goals, or have goals that are deluded, then that’s obviously unhelpful. But we can also have appropriate goals and work toward them without grasping or aversion.