Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What is Being Present?

Being present is the best gift we can give someone. It doesn't matter whether you are being present for someone that is deeply suffering and has asked for your help, or you are being present for someone that pushes all of your buttons and throws you into fits of rage. The most generous thing you can do for that person is to be present. Actually, being present might be the best thing you can do for society!

A lot of people are talking about "being present" these days, and that is potentially very good, but there is also the possibility that few people know what it means and for this to become an empty phrase. If this notion of being present sounds elusive to you, you definitely need to question what it means. So the question should arise: what are we being present with?

We are living in a world with immense demands on our attention. Dharma teacher Ethan Nichtern  has talked about how people's attention may be the number one commodity in today's world. It seems like modern humans are augmenting themselves with pocket brains in the form of smart phones that can answer any question in a minute. We now have 24/7 access to facebook, email, twitter, news, weather, food reviews, blogs about everything, porn, etc. With all of this stimulus and the demand to absorb the best information and get things done quickest, it is no wonder that we have a really hard time just being here

But what is here? What is now? That is what the practice of meditation forces us to explore.

When we practice meditation, we are learning to be present with ourselves. First we learn to be present with our breath. Then we learn to be present with the sounds in the room. We learn to be present with the aching in our backs, the itches on our nose, the coolness on our skin. Then we learn to be present with the aching hearts beating in our chests. 

If we go far enough, we may learn to be present with our suffering. Admitting our suffering, knowing where it comes from and where it leads to is the ground we work with on the Buddhist path.  

We work with our hopes and our fears. When, for example, an archer fires an arrow at a target, hope rises that the arrow will hit the bulls-eye. It may hit the bulls-eye, but then the archer fears the next arrow won't hit the bulls-eye. Then the archer is on the roller-coaster of thoughts. If the archer's awareness is strong, she will recognize what is happening. Then, rather than ride hope and fear into a dead-end, the archer comes back to the present: the cool air, the wind, the bow, the feathers, the breath, the muscles, the stance and the release. The archer practices mindfulness in this way.

The target in your case might be acing an exam, getting a promotion, getting laid, selling your car, pulling off a great meal, etc. Our hopes and fears can distract us quite easily and the more we stimulate the mind, the more we find ourselves spinning out of control. That's what happens when you lose your cool and it surprises you. 

Being present takes practice. Sitting meditation is not the only way to learn it, but shamatha and vipassyana practices can be highly effective methods for working with your hopes and your fears, for improving your awareness of what is happening  in your life. By practicing meditation you will be less bewildered when your emotions explode or sneak up on you.

When you know yourself in this way, you become more available to others. You can start to contribute to society more constructively. By working with your hopes and fears, your interactions with the world becomes less about you and more about the way things really are.

If you are interested in reading more about shamatha and vipashyana practices, check out this Capital Dharma post from a few months back.

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