Sunada sometimes hears skepticism about the idea of being “in the moment.” Does it really mean we should cut ourselves off from our past and future? Are we to drop all our cherished memories? Should we naïvely stop planning for our future? No, she’s quite certain this isn’t what the Buddha had in mind when he taught about mindfulness. So let’s take a closer look at what it might really mean.
In the Buddhist scriptures, mindfulness is described as having several different aspects. One of them is sati, which is Pali for recollection, memory, or recalling to mind.
we can be aware of our past (a helpful thing to do) without being in or holding onto the past (an unhelpful thing to do).
When we’re present with ourselves, we don’t just pop into existence at that moment. We also come with a whole lifetime of learning, experience, skills, and knowledge, all of which are manifesting in some form for us at that moment.
For example, right now, I have all that I’ve learned from my Buddhist studies at my disposal. I don’t discard that in order to be in the moment. They are PART of my being in the moment. My past informs and gives a cumulative shape to my present. And my past is what has equipped me with all the skills and experience I have at my disposal NOW, to act on things in the moment. So as you can see, we can be aware of our past (a helpful thing to do) without being in or holding onto the past (an unhelpful thing to do).
Another aspect of mindfulness is sampajañña, which translates to something like “mindfulness of purpose.” This is about being conscious of where we’re headed — a sense of direction or where we intend to go.
It means taking a bigger perspective of how we wish to be right now, as part of a vision of how we want to be in the future.
Intention could simply mean, for example, a commitment toward being kind and compassionate toward others. It doesn’t have to be anything as grand as a life purpose. It means taking a bigger perspective of how we wish to be right now, as part of a vision of how we want to be in the future. Without it we’d drift aimlessly like an idiot sitting smelling the roses, having no clear sense of values or direction. But at the same time, it’s quite a different matter from living in the future – such as wishing for things we think we lack, or worrying about dangers that we think lie ahead.
So in the course of our daily lives, returning to the breath and coming back to the present doesn’t mean cutting ourselves off from our past and future. Rather than limiting ourselves down to a tiny, stunted slice of ourselves, I think it means quite the opposite. It means seeing our full breadth and depth clearly within a broad sweep of time, but from the standpoint of where we are now.
It means expanding our awareness in all dimensions and with greater sensitivity, so that we can clearly see EVERYTHING that impinges on our present experience.
By analogy, it’s sort of like stopping during a hike up a mountain and taking in the panorama of the trail behind and ahead of us. Of course, we want to be fully present and take in the view – after all, that’s what hiking (and life) is all about. At the same time, we stay aware of where we’ve come from and where we’re going, without getting caught up in either. And with all that in mind, we make informed choices about what steps to take now – including which trail to take, the pace of our walk, and so on – to reach our destination safely and enjoyably.
So with this definition of mindfulness, I think “staying in the moment” is a tremendously helpful, but challenging thing to do. It means expanding our awareness in all dimensions and with greater sensitivity, so that we can clearly see EVERYTHING that impinges on our present experience. Clear seeing also means understanding what we can and cannot change, and maintaining the wherewithal to make wise choices in the midst of it all. Wouldn’t you agree that this is how we’d like to be ALL the time?
“The past is a memory. Tomorrow is unknown. Now is the knowing.” Ajahn Sumehdo
The past and the future are only meaningful when we bring them into the now with full awareness.
Very useful and clear. Thanks Sunada
Aaaah I see! That’s answered a couple of questions for me. Thanks Sunada.
I like Mike’s response – the quote. The mind is a great negotiator on behalf of the ego. The whole point of dropping the mind — emptying the mind — is to simply be awareness itself — pure awareness. Life can be fully navigated without carrying “knowledge” of anything. Life is made up of energy and without thoughts all that is going on is absolutely obvious, for the energy that thought ordinarily takes is free to witness wholly the present. I have a poem to share, here: Pure Awareness