I finished running around our neighborhood yesterday and, as I slowed to a brisk walk the final few hundred yards, I suddenly became present. That is to say, I became aware that I had just finished running nearly one hour in length and did so completely unaware of my surroundings. I was present and yet absent.
Am I the only one who seems to spend far too much of life absent instead of present? I’d love to change this about me but I find it is so difficult. I can be absent from my own presence…surroundings…even conversations. You usually know, don’t you, when someone you’re talking to really isn’t listening? Do you ever catch yourself, however, talking to someone while thinking about something else? That is, you look like you are present—except to the discerning—but you’re really absent.
I am too frequently inside my head but somewhere lost in thoughts. I am either busily re-living a past conversation…what he/she/they did or said to me; what I wish I had done or said to him/her/them. Or, I am thinking what’s coming…a situation, a conversation, an encounter, an opportunity, a challenge and I am imagining what I’m going to do, or what I’m going to say, or how the circumstance or situation will unfold before me (which, ironically, it never does as I’ve imagined it beforehand). Some of this “planning” is, of course, necessary. Pam and I, for example, are flying to LA soon and, for weeks, we’ve been planning our itinerary…as in, a few days in LA, then up the coast to Monterey and Carmel, CA, Pebble Beach, then into San Francisco and a tour of the wine country of Napa Valley. Instead of simply making these plans, however, I get lost in imagining how the experience will unfold…all the things we’ll do…what we’ll feel…and what will likely transpire. I know better than this. But I do it nonetheless. The result is usually a kind of proverbial “Griswald” vacation. Make plans but detach from the outcomes. Jesus put it this way, “Take no thought for tomorrow” (Matt. 6:34) – just another way of saying the same thing.
Isn’t the greater part of unhappiness in life experienced whenever we are absent from the present? I have wondered about this for a long time.
Maybe you have mastered the ability to be inside a jungle of thoughts yet aware of the singular vine as it grabs the tree and climbs its way toward the light. But I have not. It is this madness that causes me much grief. It is this flaw in me that gives rise to the complaints I hear from those who love me enough to tell it like it is: “You are only ever interested in yourself McSwain!” I want to defend myself, responding that I am not. But, the truth is, when I’m absent from the present, I come across to others as completely self-centered, self-absorbed. Again, the little ego in me, while smaller, is still there.
This may seem to you as inconsequential. But I think it is not. In fact, I am discovering for myself that it is in learning to be present when no else is around that I am better at being present when someone is. I am learning that happiness is not found when everything works out as I’ve imagined it, as in the daydreaming that takes place when we’re holding what we hope is a winning lottery ticket. Happiness is living in the NOW! It is non-resistance to what is. It is being present to this moment and with those who occupy the present moment with us. M. Scott Peck once said, “Mental health is directly related to the degree of reality you accept.” Reality is what is. It is the acceptance of the responsibility of this present moment, however it appears to you. When Pam, my spouse, asks me, “Are you listening to me?” I know she would not be asking if I were really present.
Here are a couple of things I’ve been trying to practice: First, when I become aware of my absence, I realize I’m present. The Buddha said, “Do not dwell on the past; do not dream of the future; instead, concentrate the mind on this present moment.”
Awareness of absence IS presence.
Second, I try not to judge myself as if I’ll never quite make it in this regard. Instead, I try to give thanks for the sudden flash of insight that comes to me, as it did yesterday, following the hour-long run. I could have spent much of the rest of the day judging myself for exercising the body while failing to train the mind in present-moment awareness. Instead, I expressed gratitude that Presence graced my absence with awareness. I have come to believe that this is the meaning of grace in the New Testament. Grace is God making her Presence known by rescuing you from your absence.
The degree of happiness you experience in life is inexplicably tied to amount of life you live in the present.
I am never nearer to Presence…or to God…than when I am present to this moment in time. I am never more peaceful inside the mind…the heart…than when I am present. You may never be nearer to God than when you are present in this moment. In fact, God may BE this MOMENT.