The question to answer is this: Is my attention present? Consciousness is only ever here now. Thoughts and feelings cannot occur anywhere other than in the present moment. Our physical body exists only in this moment. However, our attention is unfixed in time and space. Our attention drifts away from the present as we experience memories or imagine the future.
Mind is a condition of existence arising from the ever-present consciousness. Observe: if you are absorbed in a memory or thoughts of the future, whether pleasant or unpleasant, the mind is doing this now. Thoughts and feelings rise and pass now. Right now, many people are experiencing feelings connected to memories, while others are anticipating the future.
Our observations of incoming data are immediately placed in context with our past experiences. Because of this process, many people live in the moment as if it equals the past. Are we aware in the moment of our thought and feeling choices, or are we running on autopilot? Are we living our lives in response to what is happening now, or are we reacting to present input based on our past? Do we simply go about running our prerecorded programs? Context predisposes us toward living on autopilot. Often, our routines lull us to sleep, and our attention drifts. This is not good or bad, it just is.
When we live on autopilot, an event occurring now may be unconsciously associated with something that happened in the past. Or, a future event may be equated to a similar past event. If that event was pleasant, we could develop expectations about how the future event will bring joy. Imagine our disappointment if the future doesn’t measure up to our hopes. Dreading a future event is also rooted in our autopilot program.
Is our attention on choosing what we think and how we feel right now? When we practice awareness in the moment, the observer is awake. Awakened, we observe our automatic and habitual thoughts and feelings. In our awakened state, we have the freedom to choose our responses to what is happening now. Awakened, we notice how thoughts and feelings arise and pass—without analysis or attachment. Awareness of the present is often referred to as mindfulness. Mindful focus on the present is powerful because it takes us off of autopilot and restores our power of choice for our emotions, thoughts, and (re)actions.
With a mindfulness practice, we are able to observe and end our habit of reacting to this moment as if it equals the past. With practice, mindfulness relives anxiety about the past and the future. Being aware in the present moment isn’t about forgetting our past or ignoring the future. Keeping our attention present is about making conscious choices. Mindfulness brings our attention to the content of our thoughts and feelings. This action returns us to the point of power—which is now. Keeping our attention present enhances our journey because we stay awake to our moment-to-moment thoughts and feelings that create our experience of reality right now.
The goal is not to forget the past. Our memories contain gifts. Some of our memories are very pleasant; some are not. The feelings happen now. Perhaps a memory helps us learn to forgive ourselves or others. Maybe we are learning to release guilt, or perhaps we are growing to realize that the way my life is today is in my power now. The gift may be learning to let the past go. What if the gift is practicing shifting attention away from the past and into the moment? My point is that memories have something to teach us when our attention is present. Planning for and taking action toward our future is also valuable. We plan for the future with our attention present.
I want to share my simple process: First, I observe that I’m dwelling on a memory. Second, I notice how I’m feeling in the moment. Third, I consciously choose what I want to think and feel in the present. Notice that I don’t beat myself up for drifting into a memory. I welcome my freedom to choose my thoughts and feelings now. I also follow this process when I observe myself future-tripping. I invite you to try this approach if it appeals to you.
While our thoughts and feelings can only occur in the inescapable present, our attention drifts. Running our lives on autopilot equals a surrender of our power. Habitually worrying about past or future events wastes the moment. Nonetheless, our past is a teacher worthy of our respect, and dreaming of a brighter tomorrow may birth positive change—now.
We are living a lifetime. Our memories of the past arise now. Our thoughts about the future occur now. The context of our experience is ever present. Paying attention to the content of our thoughts and feelings allows us to respond to life events in the present. Observe, without judgment or attachment, present thoughts and feelings. Then, decide if a shift in attention is desired. Under all circumstances, be gentle with yourself.
The awakened life requires practice. In every moment ask: Is my attention present? Just asking the question brings our attention into the moment. There are endless resources and countless teachers to assist you if mindfulness is a process that attracts you. I assure you that practicing mindfulness costs nothing. Mindfulness need not be tied to religious doctrine, yet that option is available if you find it fulfilling. I have the highest respect for your discovery and practice of present attention methods that serve you. However you decide to shut off autopilot, enjoy the journey.
Irmgard Friedburg says
Jordan, I seem to read this article at the perfect time. I am at a cross road in my life which heightens my awareness of the future, past and presence. I will attend an all retreat the day after tomorrow, in a setting that is familiar and helpful for me. But I find your clear descriptions and explanations refreshing. The retreat I will attend only asks for donations but I know that many people do spend a fortune for practicing mindfulness — I like your point that mindfulness costs nothing!
Irmgard, thank you so much for taking the time to comment on this article. I’m glad you found value in the message. I wish you the very best on your journey of life. May the retreat be filled with meaningful jewels that you will cherish for a lifetime. Shine on!