‘Being in the now’ often seems to strike people as a little impractical, to say the least; perhaps even frightening. The idea that thoughts and memories should be ignored, or that they might automatically disappear with the practice of mindfulness, is indeed daunting. Will you forget your personal history? Lose all the useful knowledge you have acquired over the years? Perhaps we need to forget ‘mindfulness’ and just let ourselves be!
The fact of the matter is that the information and skills we have accumulated, and our inherent capacities, don’t just disappear when we’re not thinking about them. Indeed, you could say that our capacity, depth of experience, and creativity actually have the chance to increase when we’re not busy worrying about things or trying to hold onto what we already know – a fact well known to artists of all kinds.
As a great fan of MOOCs*, I’ve been following an interesting course called The Mind is Flat, produced by Professor Nick Chater at the Warwick Business School in England, which discusses how memory is integrated into present perception and experience. This is an idea I first became familiar with in a completely different context – I love it when science meets philosophy! Because it becomes clear in the context of mindfulness, together with enquiry,that we can really know something, from the inside out, by staying with our present experience. In other words, memories can arise when needed. The relevant past experience is implicit in the present moment. Nothing is lost.
In my own experience, relaxation and concentration meditations are immensely helpful and supportive in dealing with all the excitements and stresses and tensions and worries we have to contend with in daily life. And with the addition of focussing and enquiry tools, practice becomes mindfulness, i.e., the ability to stay with what is happening in the present moment and allow understanding to happen.
There are so many factors that contribute to distraction and tension. And of course, not everyone is interested in exploring the psychological explanations for the construction of the personality, and the life stories we live out. Happily, it does seem to be a natural human tendency to grow and mature, without having to explore every possible explanation, scientific or otherwise, for where we find ourselves. The point is, we can only find ourselves if we see where we are in the moment. And let’s face it, for most of us, that usually takes practice!
* Massive Open Online Courses = Free education offered by many leading universities, from Harvard and Oxford to lesser-known schools such as the University of Warwick, UK. See e.g. http://www.futurelearn.com/courses/categories