Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and author of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence (from Random House in October ...Read More
When are you?
There’s a profound and miraculous mystery right under our noses: this instant of now has no duration at all, yet somehow it contains all the causes from the past that are creating the future. Everything arising to become this moment vanishes beneath our feet as the next moment wells up. Since it’s always now, now is eternal.
The nature of now is not New Age or esoteric. It is plain to see. It is apparent both in the material universe and in our own experiencing. Simply recognizing the nature of now can fill you with wonder, gratitude, and perhaps a sense of something sacred.
Further, by coming home to now, you immediately stop regretting or resenting the past and worrying about or driving toward the future. In your brain, this rumbling and grumbling – called rumination – is based in networks along the midline of the top of your head; while this helped our ancestors survive, today most of us go way overboard, and rumination is a big risk factor for mental health problems.
Additionally, through an intimacy with the present, moment after moment, you develop a growing sense – visceral, in your belly and bones – of:
- Impermanence – you see the futility and foolishness of trying to cling to any of the ephemeral contents of this moment as a reliable basis for deep happiness.
- Interconnectedness – you feel related to a vast network of causes that have shaped this moment, including to other people, life, nature, and the universe altogether.
- Fullness – recognizing the incredible richness of this moment – its sights, sounds, sensations, tastes, smells, thoughts, memories, emotions, desires, and other contents in the stream of consciousness – you relax craving and drivenness since you already feel so fed.
For most people, the subjective present is an interval one or two seconds long. It contains the last second or so of the immediate past as well as the emerging present often infused with expectations about the immediate future. It’s OK, therefore, if your sense of the present usually has a kind of temporal “thickness” to it. You will probably also have flashes of intuitive recognition of the infinitely thin duration of now that boggle and sometimes stop the mind.
The present moment is continually passing away, so if you try to hold onto it in any way – such as by remembering it or forming ideas about it – you are no longer in the present. Therefore, relax. Open to this moment. Not planning, not worrying, not lost in thought.
Instead of seeing yourself moving through time, explore the sense of being an ongoing presence, an awareness, through which time moves. Let the world come to you. Recognize that sights and sounds and all other mental phenomena appear without effort. You don’t have to do anything to be here now; you’re already here now. Let go some more.
Be aware of a single inhalation. Don’t try to sense or understand it as a whole. Allow yourself to be with this moment of sensation without remembering what was or wondering what will be. The same with a single exhalation, and then with breathing altogether.
Letting go, letting go.
Be particularly aware of endings, of sounds changing and thus disappearing in the instant of hearing, of each moment of consciousness altering and thus ending to be replaced by another one. (If you get frightened or disoriented by a growing sense of the vanishingness of each appearance of reality, focus on something concretely pleasurable and reassuring, like the sensation of flannel against your cheek or the touch of someone who loves you.)
Then be particularly aware of emergings, of the arising of matter and energy in the world and the arising of appearances – perceptions, thoughts, longings, etc. – in the inner one. Let go into feeling buoyed by the uprising swelling of this moment congealing into existence, endlessly renewed by the next emerging. Open to trusting in this process, like a wave continually carrying you even as it continually breaks into foam.
Above all, open to the enjoyments available in this moment, even if it is a hard one. No matter how bad it is, it is nurturingly remarkable that it is at all. I don’t mean this in any kind of sentimental, rose-colored-glasses kind of way. Sometimes what the moment holds is awful. But the nature of the moment – its transience, its interconnectedness with moments before and to come, its simultaneous emptying out and filling up – and the awareness of it and its contents, is never awful itself, and is in fact always unsullied and beautiful.
And much of the time, the moment will be filled with rewards overlooked in preoccupations with past or future, such as a dense incoming stream of sights and sounds, tastes and touches – even a sense of beautiful qualities of heart like warmth, compassion, sweetness, friendliness, and love.
So nourished, so full with the riches of now, who would want to be anywhen else?