Whenever we aren’t paying conscious attention to the present moment―right here and right now, and within as well as around us―we are effectively sleepwalking, even when we are wide awake. Usually, this take the form of being caught up in thoughts about what happened in the past or what may possibly happen in the future. This occurs unconsciously; for most people it’s an auto-pilot mode of operating that we default into easily and habitually. We were here, in the present, and without being aware of when we slipped away, we’re thinking intensely about things that happened yesterday, last month, or perhaps even years ago or something that might happen tomorrow, next week, or two months from now.
When we’re focused on the past or the future, it is impossible to respond consciously and skillfully to the here and now. We are cut off from the possibilities inherent in the present moment—we become unable to see it and experience it for what it is, and we are disconnected from the opportunities for learning, growing, and healing it may contain. During these episodes, no matter where we are and who we are with physically―mentally and emotionally we are somewhere else. While it can be valuable to occasionally visit the past, and it’s important to plan related to the future, getting stuck in either, is an exercise in futility and a tremendous waste of time and energy. After all, the past is as good as it’s ever going to get; it ain’t changing, no matter how much or how long we ruminate on it. And the future cannot be controlled, regardless of how much planning and rehearsing we engage in―it remains to become whatever it will be―subject to a multitude of variables, some we are aware of and many of which we are not, that may or may not come to pass.
As I detailed in Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain, the core of my program of recovery from these serious co-occurring disorders is a nearly hour-long morning routine that includes spiritual reading, mantra-based meditation, prayer, self-hypnosis, stretching, and Chi Kung (sometimes spelled Qi Gong). Among the many benefits of this daily practice is how it helps me maintain present-centeredness. In Buddhism, the word mantra means “mind protecting.” A mantra ( a repeated sound, word, or phrase) protects the mind by preventing it from going into its usual automatic and unconscious flitting about. Outside of formal meditation, when I find my thoughts wandering, I use several other mantras as a way of anchoring my conscious attention in the here and now.
However, even during the meditation that I’ve been doing consistently for many years, there are times when I find myself thinking about various aspects of the past or the future. Moreover, as my recovery has progressed, I’ve modified the content of my non-denominational prayers, changing some of the words I say silently. Every once in a while in the midst of my prayers, I’ll realize that I’m using the “old” version rather than the one I intended to use―in effect, I’ve briefly gone unconscious, even during an activity designed to facilitate conscious awareness!
Staying in the moment is the foundation of wisdom and enlightenment in many spiritual traditions. It is a goal that I strive for in my recovery process and my life. It’s one thing to achieve present-centered awareness (a.k.a. mindfulness), but it’s quite another to maintain it. Because it is so easy and natural for the awareness of our present experience (both internal and external) to slip, for me, returning to the moment is just as high a priority. In fact, the essence of a spiritual awakening for me is to recognize that my mindfulness has lapsed, and use that awareness to return to the present moment.
When we begin to practice mindfulness in a dedicated way, it is understandable to assume that when our thoughts drift elsewhere, they must be lassoed and controlled. Yet that approach is simply a variation of the belief that we need to be in control of things, including our thoughts, in order to feel at peace. Mindfulness is about accepting that thoughts occur naturally, observing them, and learning how to work with them.
When you realize you have been caught in a thought, it serves no purpose to judge or blame yourself for having it. That only reinforces your attachment to that thought and gives it more power. Rather than following the thought unconsciously, you can gently shift your attention back to your experience in the present moment. It can be the sensation of your breath as you inhale and exhale, a mantra, an image, a sound, a physical sensation, a feeling of compassion or love, or a sense of the connection you share with others, with nature, with that which beyond oneself. Let your attention rest in that experience. There is no need to concentrate on keeping it there. It is not something to be captured and kept. Rest assured, your thoughts will wander off again. But the practice is not learning how to stay present, so much as it is developing the skills with which we can return to the present.