We often talk about "living in the present". But what do we really mean by "living in the present"? Does that mean that we do not think about the past or the future? But how can we not think about the past or the future? That would not be possible or desirable. For we do need to recollect the past and to plan for the future at times. So we need to discuss what we mean by "living in the present".
"Living in the present" menas living well in the present, living skilfully in the present. Doing what we have to do now well, for that will, in fact, be the best guarantee for the future. And also there will be no regrets when we think back about the past. Instead, there will be joy -- joy at having lived a good life and at having done good deeds.
How do we live skilfully in the present? For that we need wisdom, we need midfulness and understanding. We need to know how to place our mind, how to compose our mind, how to steer our mind in the right direction -- away from the unwholesome and towards the wholesome.
To live wholesomely we need mindfulness, we need to engage mindfulness in various ways. How? Mindfulness is like our watchdog. Whenver an unwholesome thought arises, mindfulness can alert us. It can tell us: "This is unwholesome. We shouldn't be thinking or responding this way." And realising that, we can check the unwholesome. For example, when anger arises, mindulness can tell us: "Hey, watch it. You are getting angry. You better look at your anger. You better get a hold of yourself and cool down. You better not say or do anything which you will regret later." And so on and so forth. Actually, there is more than mindfulness involved her. First, mindfulness spots the anger. Then with wisdom and understanding, we can reflect and caution ourselves from giving vent to anger.
Similarly with other mental states such as worry and anxiety. Again mindfulness can notice how worrisome we have become lately, how poorly we have been applying the Dhamma in our daily life. We can then check the unwholesome trend. We can adjust and correct our attitudes. If we try to stay more in the present by being aware of all our daily activities, paying good attention to whatever we do, we can check the wandering worrisome mind. Staying more and more in the present, living from moment to moment, day to day, doing the best we can, solving each problem as it comes along, we will find scant time for moping and worrying. We will be living, that is to say, we will be living well.
So mindfulness and wisdom go hand-in-hand. If an unwholesome mind arises, mindfulness alerts us and we can check it. If a wholesome mind arises, mindfulness also knows. We can approve of the wholesome mind. We can encourage more of such mind or thoughts to arise.
Mindfulness also has a quality of memory or recollection. So from time to time too, mindfulness can remind us of the impermanent, suffering and no-self nature of life. Reflecting often on these three characteristics of existence, we can live more wisely, with less pain-bringing kind of attachment.
By engaging mindfulness in these various ways, we will be living skilfully in the present. Also, we will be gradually developing our perception on the impermanent, suffering and no-self nature of existence, and of this mind and body.
On another level, mindfulness can expericence directly and vividly the constant arising and passing away of mental and physical phenomena. This is through Vipassana (Insight) meditation. When we sit in meditation, especially during an intensive retreat, we will be observing closely the nature of our mind and body. As our concentration develops, we will be able to see very clearly that mental and physical phenomena are constantly arising and passing away, that they do not remain the same for even two moments. Such direct kind of seeing can climax in the attainment of magga-phala(path and fruition) insight knowledges and Nibbana.
Thus, we can see that there are various aspects to living in the present. There is that which involved skilful living from day to day, and there's the direct perception of phenomena in the present moment in Vipassana meditation. The latter kind is what we must all come to eventually, for it is only by such direct seeing that we can truly comprehend the impermanent, suffering and no-self nature of this mind and body. Comprehending thus, we can cut off for good our defilements of greed, hatred and delusion. Once these defilements are eliminated, we will suffer no more torments of mind. We will become quenched and cooled. We will live our last life as arahants and not be reborn again. Of course, right now we may still be a long distance from the goal, but we are, through skilful and mindful living, already checking our defilement. Mindfulness, the Buddha said, acts as a check and gradually, through deepening wisom, we can cut off the defilements completely.
Living in the present entails not going unskilfully into the past or future. Sometimes we think needlessly about the past. For example, we may be recollecting some ill-deed we had done and remorsing over it now and then. We are unable to forget it, so it keeps popping up. What we should do si not to mope over what had already been done, but to resolve not to repeat the mistake. That is the best we can do. It is unwholesome and unskilful to keep mulling over a mistake, such taht we become very miserable and are unable to live in the present.
Sometimes we may be thinking about some injury that we perceived, rightly or wrongly, to have been done to us by another person. We are unable to forget. We nurse the pain in our heart. There is pain and anger in us whenever we recollect, and we want to hit back at the other person. This too is unwholesome and unskilful.
Sometimes we live in the past, thinking of some happiness or pleasures that we enjoyed then, and wishing and yearning for those "good old days". Such placing of the mind too is painful and unskilful.
As for the future, we can plan to no end until we cannot eat or sleep. We can also, so to speak, worry ourselves to death, thinking about some impending problems. Our we may be having some great expectations such that we cannot concentrate on what we are presently doing.
These are just some examples of how we go unskilfully into the past or future. There are many other possibly scenerios. Basically, our problem is that we take everything too personally. Whethere it is the past, present or future, we tend to relate to them from the context of "I" and "mine". We don't realize that ultimately nothing belongs to us. We ourselves are conditioned and impermanent beings. How can something that is impermanent and which has ultimately no-self, owns anything in the first place? Not to mention too the thing we supposedly own is also impermanent itself! So can we see the height of our own folly?
The Buddha advised us to live skilfully in the present so that we can eventually realize the impermanent, suffering and no-self anture of all conditioned phenomena. On the ultimate level, we need to do vipassana meditation to penetrate these truths on a direct experiential level. Once we have done so, we will be able to live well, naturally, effortlessly.
But while we have not yet eliminate the defilements, we need to use all our skill and understanding to live well in the present, and not to go unskilfully into the past or the future. If we recollect the past, it should be for good purpose, such as to see where we had gone wrong with a view to not repeating the mistake.
Sometimes too we can recollect the good deeds that we have done in giving, observing precepts and meditation. We can get much joy and comfort in such skilful recollection. In fact, when we are near death, recollecting the good that we have done can give us a peaceful comforting end and a good rebirth.
As for the future, no doubt we need to plan from time to time. We can think and plan accordingly. We should do so with a good mind, thinking well and deeply. The problem is we often tend to over-think and over-plan until we become anxious and agitated, and even neurotic. So we should plan calmly and not get excited. We should be flexible and versatile, understanding that we may need to change or modify our plans as we go along. And we should carry on doing what we have to do from day to day.
On a wider perspective, we have to decide how we want to live our life, in which direction we wish to go, and the measures we have to take to realize our goal. Then we need to go about steering our life towards that direction.
Living in present, we need lots of mindfulness. We can be mindful of all our bodily postures and activities getting up, sitting down, stretching, bending, eating, drinking, walking, standing, urinating, defecating, opening a door, switching on a light, picking up the phone, etc. We shoudl pay good attention to whatever we are doing. In this way too, we can check the wandering and worrisome mind.
As for the mind, we have already mentioned about the need to be mindful of what arises in it. The main point is to guard the mind from being invaded by greed, anger and delusion. Our task is to cultivate wisdom, loving-kindness and compassion. So in whatever we do, we should try to be as mindful as possible with the view to cultivating wholesome qualities. And in whatever situation we may be, we should always try to respond with non-greed, non-anger and non-delusion. Which means to say we should respond with wisdom, loving-kindness and compassion.
It is not possible for me to write more comprehensively on the subject of living in the present in just this one article. But I do hope the thoughts that I have shared with you thus far may have been of some help, that they may have given you some pointers along the way. I wish you good practice. May you live well and happily in the present.