One of the things I noticed early on in my marriage is that my wife and I have a very different natural relationship to time. By that I don’t just mean she’s goal oriented and I’m more process oriented, which is also true, but no, this was something else.
By way of example, by the time I woke up, my wife would have already run through a mental list of what had to be done that day, in what order, why it had to be done, the potential obstacles, possible costs involved, and so on. Psychologically, she’s future-oriented.
I, on the other hand, often found I’m laughing to myself about something a friend said years ago, a kind word, a beautiful moment, embarrassed about a slight from the past, even getting into imaginary arguments and reliving tense conversations from the past. My tendency is to focus on experiences in the past in general.
Both can be an unconscious way to ward of anxiety.
Some of us try to create peace and balance by thinking of all the possible obstacles that might come our way in the future so we can eliminate them. Of course this ensures, we’re never at peace, because we keep casting our mind forward into the future, even creating sources anxiety where none exist.
Some of us want to raid our closet of memories in the hope we can come back with some mythical equilibrium we used to have. This is the same thing in reverse, creating contrived problems to solve.
This is what the mystics call monkey mind. It slips forward into an imagined future, it slips backwards into a remembered past, fixating on anything but the present. It keeps us tied up in our little dramas. That way, the psychological self, the false self, the ego – it goes by different names – stays in control.
Balance, though, as the cliché goes, is always right here, right now. Technically, as the mystics also remind us, there isn’t anywhere else. Anything else but right now is a mental construct.
That means there are two kinds of time. The first is the sequence of events we experience. The other is our inner story of accumulated mental-emotional stuff as we navigate, evaluate, and construct a story about that experience.
That’s our inner sense of time. Not just the experience itself, but our emotional response to that experience and how we situate ourselves in relationship to it.
Staying in the present is a consistent theme across all contemplative traditions. It’s central to the Zen tradition. It’s the essence of non-attachment. It hearkens back to Brother Lawrence’s classic The Practice of the Presence. It’s central to the work of Meister Eckhart. Christ himself invites us to do so in the gospels. (Matthew 6:34) It’s Ram Dass’s 60’s classic Be Here Now. Keeping the mind in the present is one of the greatest spiritual disciplines, and daily mindfulness or meditation practice is intended to cultivate that capacity. It allows us, as Eckhart Tolle puts it, to die to the past every moment.
Exercise, too, works like a booster shot to that spiritual immune system. For some reason, focusing first on physical discipline affects the ability to have mental discipline. It allows greater perspective and increases our ability to let go.
In fact, in the traditions, the body plays a huge role in the capacity to stay in the present in general. Beyond the daily practice and physical exercise, one method of returning to the present is body awareness. There are many different ways to do this, from a full body scan – a couple of seconds spent concentrating awareness in each section of the body, from the feet up – to focusing on the in-breath, to focusing on spinal flow. A simple and favorite one of mine is placing focus on extremities, usually the hands. If an aggravating thought comes, or I notice extended emotionally charged interior monologue, I can shift back into neutral – a place of balance – simply by paying attention to the energy in my hands.
That’s it. Just notice them, a faint pulse, the energy in them. From there I’ve usually dropped whatever I was caught up in. And if not, I can return attention to the hands. The body is always in the present. That’s an access point out of which we can experience nondual or kingdom awareness. It takes some amount of discipline, of focused attention, of practice. And I’ll be the first to admit I need to grow in this area, spending a great deal of time in my own head.
But it helps to find a point of focus, return to the present, and then let the awareness grow out to the rest of the field of perception right now: a computer, low hum of the processor, half a glass of water shaking as I type, long shadow of the glass, light refracting through the water and the glass, playing in the shadow. Neither past nor future. Just what is happening right now.