Our thoughts are always focused on the past, the present, or the future. The present is the only place we can be grounded in the reality of what is happening in our lives at any given moment. Past is gone - as insubstantial as the thoughts of it. Future is a completely imagined composite of assumption, hope, worry, and storytelling. Present encompasses all of our five senses and the ability to act with a clear, focused mind.
Meditation is one of the number one ways people can work on embracing the present moment, but it's also probably the hardest, at least in my humble opinion. Just sitting there, eyes closed or open, focusing on a mantra or breath or whatever your technique is, the brain is just roaring with memories, plans, stories, and everything else under the sun. It can be incredibly frustrating, and often the assumption is that in order to properly meditate, you need to banish all thoughts from your mind. That's certainly what I've always thought - that implies great focus, self control, inner peace.
The book I've been reading for the last week or so has given me a completely different perspective on meditation, however. It's called The Joy of Living by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist master teacher of meditation and philosophy. Marc recommended it, and it's a great read, regardless of your religion, spiritual affiliation, or if you're a seasoned or green meditator. It's taken a lot of the self-imposed pressure off my meditation practice by reiterating time and again that the purpose of meditation isn't to stop your thoughts - that would be like trying to stop the flow of a river. The purpose of the mind is to have thoughts. Meditation, in Mingyur's view, is "simply a process of resting the mind in its natural state, which is open to and naturally aware of thoughts, emotions, and sensations as they occur."
Later, he goes on to say one of my favorite things I've read in the book so far. In describing how attention to thoughts always wavers in beginning meditation practice, he says that the trick is to simply catch yourself and become aware of your mind wandering.
And when you suddenly remember, Oops, I was supposed to be watching my thoughts... just bring your attention back...The great secret about these "Oops" moments is that they're actually split-second experiences of your fundamental nature.
The good news is that the more you practice, the more "Oopses" you're likely to experience. And gradually these "Oopses" started to accumulate, until one day "Oops" becomes a natural state of mind, a release from the habitual patterns of neuronal gossip that allows you to look at any thought, any feeling, any situation with total freedom and openness.
'Oops' is a wonderful thing.
Personally, I think the number one time I'm present throughout my day is when I'm teaching yoga to young children - especially the under 5 crowd. I have to be 100% focused on what is happening in that room right in that moment. Who's engaged? Who's flopping out and running around in circles and about to faceplant? Who wants to go upside down? Who sees a dog at the jungle? (My job is wonderful)
Teaching yoga to kids is so interactive. We're always asking them questions - everything from "Did you bring your hands to yoga today?" to "What do you see?" or "Can you show me your manatee pose?" You never know what they'll respond with or when 57 ideas will be thrown at you at once. One kid needs to be praised, another needs to be asked to keep their hands to themselves or their yoga mat off the floor, another kid needs a little encouragement to come out of their shell. As the teacher, it's your job to be the leader of the adventure, so for 30, 45, 60 minutes, you're 100% engaged in your surroundings. It's exhilarating, energizing, and sometimes exhausting all at the same time.
The great thing about it, though, is it doesn't require any conscious effort for me to be present with the kids. It's not a choice, it's a natural response. Whatever else is going on in my life, any worries or weariness, simply shuts off in deference to the present. As opposed to seated meditation, where you're actively trying to focus or let thoughts go or focus on breath, and when you're inevitably wondering if you're doing it right, there's so much action and interaction with teaching kids that being present is something that just happens.
I'm trying to bring that kind of total mental focus to other areas of my life, but as a compulsive planner, slave to the clock, daydreamer, and worrier - it's a challenge. Keeping up with my meditation practice every morning has been a huge help in keeping myself present throughout the day. The biggest help, though, is simply remembering that it is my intention. "Oops" moments happen every day, a zillion times a day. The important thing to remember is to be thankful for them. Every "Oops," as Mingyur says, gets you closer to freedom and openness in your mind and in your heart.