A mere moment separates the past from the future. This small moment is called the present. Considering the vast history and prehistory behind us and the infinite possibilities of the future ahead of us, it is not surprising that our minds pay little attention to this small moment that is the present. However, this small moment called the present is the only aspect of time that is real; the past is only a memory, and the future is only a projection or anticipation.
There are many valuable lessons to be learned from the past that can be applied to the present in hope for a better future. This mode of thinking is emphasized and encouraged, particularly in Western schools of thought. As with anything taken to extreme, a problem develops when this practice is taken to an extreme, also. Examining past failures can produce a range of emotion that can be summed up as regret. Projecting the possible consequences of present actions into the future (or anticipation) can produce a range of emotion that can be summed up as worry. Much regret and worry produces stress. Balance must be found to reduce stress.
Balance for the abstracts of past and future can be found in the reality of the present moment. Focusing on the present moment is a goal known as mindfulness when cultivated through a Buddhist practice known as vipassana or insight meditation. This practice is for taming the mind and involves no gods, so this practice transcends religious boundaries and doctrines.
So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:34 NASB)
Mindfulness of breathing may be the best known form of this practice. You essentially focus your attention on your breathing to anchor yourself in the present moment. Find a comfortable place, relax and take a deep breath. As you inhale, notice how refreshing the air is, but also notice the tension building in your body. As you exhale, enjoy the release of tension and let it flow slowly out of you. I find inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth helps maintain focus. Nevertheless, your mind will wander, at least in the beginning.
A wandering mind is not a failure as long as you bring your attention back to your breathing. Recognizing and acknowledging where your mind wanders can actually be enlightening. If you are like me, you will be surprised to discover how much your mind wanders to the past or the future. I was amazed at how little time my awareness dwells in the present moment. However, this is also when I became aware that the present moment is the only real part of what has come to be known as the time stream.
The refreshing air and building tension in the body is very real when you inhale. The release of tension as you exhale is very real, but the inhalation has now become part of the past. Exhaling quickly becomes part of the past as you inhale your next breath. It takes very little time to become aware of how small a window the present moment provides within that so-called “time stream.” You may even wonder if time is simply a manifestation of the human mind, but realize that your mind is wandering again and bring your attention back to your breathing. (The human mind seems to love the abstract.)
It is important to recognize that our breath is only used to anchor our attention to the present moment. There are numerous things that can be used to focus our awareness on the present moment. Walking meditation can produce the same results as your footsteps become your anchor to the present moment. In her book How to Train a Wild Elephant: And Other Adventures in Mindfulness, Jan Chozen Bays provides fifty-three different exercises that can be used to anchor our awareness in the present. It is easy to recognize the analogy between our thoughts and a wild elephant, even if you have tried mindfulness only once.
The immediate benefit of mindfulness is that you are taking a break from the stressors of regret and/or worry. The blog on the Wildmind Buddhist Meditation website often reveals articles on medical research that suggest meditation is beneficial in other ways, as in this example. Some people seem to find mindfulness easier than transcendental meditation because focusing thoughts seems easier than clearing thoughts. The former could become a stepping stone to the latter, also.
There is another benefit of mindfulness. Grounding and centering are practices associated with some spiritual and/or magical pursuits. Mindfulness enhances this since you are essentially grounding yourself in the reality of the present moment. The inner transformation that mindfulness can produce seems magical in itself. As a beginner who still struggles with the wild elephant, I can only wonder what transformations continued practice will bring to me.