The Buddha is supposed to have said, “Be where you are; otherwise you will miss your life.” Inspired by this Kate Davis, author of “Intrinsic Hope: Living Courageously in Troubled Times,” speaks of being totally present as one of the habits of hope.
This means paying attention to whatever is going on and not getting sidetracked or distracted — in other words, living where life is actually happening rather than in our heads. To understand the difference between being present and not being present, think of a time when you felt completely alert and aware. What was happening? Where were you? What did you see and hear? Chances are you can probably remember the situation very clearly. Then think of a time when you were completely preoccupied by all the thoughts in your head. Perhaps you were upset or worried, perhaps you were planning or fantasising. Perhaps you were blaming someone for something they did, or perhaps you were justifying your own actions. Now ask yourself the same questions. What was happening? Where were you? What did you see and hear? It’s probably a lot more difficult to recall the precise details of the situation. This is the difference between being present and not being present and the difference is big, according to the author. Now consider how you felt when you were in the present moment and when you weren’t. Chances are you feel much more alive and alert when you were in the present moment.
Being present sounds easy, but it is not really. “The endless stream of conversation in our heads keeps us from being in the here and now. It’s as if an internal committee is always commenting on our lives. Sometimes it is off in the past, rehashing what happened minutes, days, or years ago, sometimes it is lost in the future, daydreaming about what we could or should do in the coming days or years.” In all these moments, it is “judging, comparing, evaluating, reasoning, or just plain thinking.” Although our bodies are physically in the present moment, our minds are usually wandering somewhere else. So Davis reverses the French philosopher Descartes’ insight, “I think, therefore I am.” According to her, “I think, therefore I am not present.”
If we are not present, we will not see what’s happening in and around us and therefore miss out on life. On the other hand, “whenever we pay attention, life reveals itself to us. Being present slows us down so we can see and hear more. It increases our experience of life and lets us relate to our surroundings in a fresh and unobstructed way.” Psychologist James Hillman called this “notitia,” which “refers to that capacity to form true notions of things from attentive noticing. It is the full acquaintance on which knowledge depends.” This “full acquaintance” makes everything feel spacious and timeless. In these magical moments when we are completely engaged with what is happening, we forget our sense of self. “I,” “me,” and “mine” dissolve into the vastness of the present moment. In the intensity of direct experience, the self dissipates like the morning mist revealing the sacred and the numinous. For Davis, this experience is indescribably hopeful.
Being present also cultivates intrinsic hope because it gives us more choices about how to act and makes it more likely that our choices will be appropriate in the moment. Only in the present moment can we choose to take action and how to act.
Only in the present moment can we actually decide to do something and thus foster hope. When we live in the present, living attentively, then we can truly open our eyes. Then our heart will be open to hope!
(The writer is professor of science and religion and author of Death: Live it!)