Vermeer (The Milkmaid)

Occasionally when people hear me talk about being present, they object on practical grounds, saying that it’s impossible to be present in their day to day existence because circumstances force them to think about the future and remember the past. Really there is no contradiction here. You can be present and make decisions about the future and remember what you’ve learned in the past. It may take some practice, but all inner change of this nature requires practice.

P. D. Ouspensky spoke to his students about making their inner work their center of gravity. I like this term. Center of gravity has the implication of being a focal point, but at the same time it implies that there are other things going on, other forces at work. So what you want is to make the present moment your center of gravity, the place you return to for balance, your home. Everything can come out of the present, including decisions about the future.

In a very real sense the future exists as an implication of the present, and the past exists as a reverberation of what’s happening in the moment. All of time exists in the present moment, and so if you are not rooted in the present, you are nowhere. Imagine you are standing in your kitchen cutting up an onion. You want to be present and so you are trying to focus your attention on how you slice the onion and then cut it into cubes. That is a certain level of presence, just being there, cutting the onion. But at a deeper level the moment can begin to extend itself into the future and back into the past. Maybe your experience of that moment will be an emotional sense that this onion has come from the ground, that someone grew it. Maybe you grew yourself, or a friend grew it, and that will be included in the moment of cutting it up. Maybe this onion is to become an ingredient  in a soup that you making for a friend. That also can be included in your experience of being present. The point is not to lose your focus, or your center of gravity, in the moment. If you can stay focused in the present, it’s fine to let higher centers bring whatever perceptions and emotions it wants. Your job is to not identify with these emotions and perceptions. You cut the onion; you are there; and you allow your higher centers to add to the moment. In the end being present shouldn’t be a limiting experience, if you restrict it too much, if you don’t let it expand and grow, you will lose it.

Now let’s look at the same activity, cutting up an onion, and see how you might drift into the past and the future if you have no a center of gravity in the present. Generally, cutting up an onion is not an activity that is likely to command much of your attention. It’s something you’ve done before (the past) and it’s something you have to do to have a result in the future. (In this case the result is a soup.) In other words the moment is not valued for itself because it’s considered insignificant, and therefore you’re likely to give a minimum of attention to it. You don’t want to cut yourself, so you’ll have to be a little attentive, but you probably figure that you can think about something else at the same time. Maybe you’re having somebody over to dinner, and you want to make an impression on them. Maybe you think about what you’re going to say or what you’re going to wear. Maybe you go over the last conversation you had with them. Without effort, without an anchor in present, you drift. The onion gets cut, and from the point of view of personality, that’s is all that counts.

People generally believe that they can be present in the enjoyable moments of their lives, and that other moments—moments that are either painful or are preparation for pleasurable moments—can simply be ignored or frittered away with imaging or thinking about more important moments. The problem with this attitude is that anticipating the next moment or regretting the last moment can become a habit. Whole days can pass in anticipation or regret. You ruin your breakfast dreading going to work. At work you spend as much time as possible imagining what you will do afterwards. After work you anticipate a meeting in the evening with a friend and miss dressing and then driving there. And when you arrive at the friend’s house, something happens—maybe they inadvertently insult you—and you can’t wait to get away and go home to watch television or to go to bed. So there you are, at the end of your day, having lived the whole sixteen hours in anticipation.

If you have a different type of personality, a backward-looking personality, you may miss the present because you are always reconsidering how you should have acted in the moment before. The sign of a backward-looking personality is that you are always second guessing or regretting what you have just done. The result is the same. You miss living your life.

The point I want to make here is that there are no more or less important moments; there is only the moment. The present is the only reality. There is no past or future. Without a connection to reality (the present) you will always be dealing with unreal situations. Instead of seeing what is front of you, you will spend all your time involved with likes and dislikes that are based on the lies you tell yourself. And in the end a life without a center of gravity in the present is a phantom life.