Time. We mark years, months, days, hours, minutes and seconds. We mark seasons. We mark life events. We live our lives in time: both circular and linear. Time began before we did and time will continue after we cannot experience it any further. Some say we repeat time with rebirth. Others suggest that we only have one lifetime of which we should make the most. Still others suggest there is existence outside of time with concepts like infinity and eternal life. We sure do write, discuss and ponder time a lot, but do we ever really experience it? Meaning: what would it be like to live in the moment, to be aware of and completely conscience within an instance of time, not thinking of the past, not worrying about the future, but being fully present in the here and now?
Sci-fi geek that I am, I often recall the Star Trek: The Next Generation movie entitled Insurrection when Captain Picard and Anij discuss experiencing a moment of time. Anij explains to Captain Picard, “You stop reviewing what happened yesterday. Stop planning for tomorrow. Let me ask you a question. Have you ever experienced a perfect moment in time?” A few lines of dialogue later, she picks up the topic again by describing what being present is like. ”We’ve discovered that a single moment in time can be a universe in itself. Full of powerful forces. Most people aren’t aware enough of the now to even notice.” The visual effects show water stopping and a butterfly’s slow flight if I remember correctly. Captain Picard is obviously caught up in these moments of time as well as being mesmerized by Anij herself. The power of both the moments of time and Anij herself is palpable.
In our modern world, much of religious practice attempts to cultivate such a presence within the individual whether that is through prayer, song, walking a labyrinth or dance. Spiritual practices like yoga and meditation also promote mindfulness and the connection of mind and spirit. Even martial arts, like Tai Chi, promote a heightened sense of awareness and discipline.
Yet, for all the attempts at being present and even the modern fad of mindfulness, there are some people who do not think it is possible. The Christian Saint Augustine of Hippo, in book ten of his Confessions, suggests that the present is never truly present but exists only as the minute moment in which it transitions from the future to the past. If time works as he suggests then we can never really be present in the moment. I do not agree with his assessment of time. I believe that there are some moments when we do really experience the present, when we are truly present and when everything else that might be going on in our lives or the other thoughts and worries that occupy our minds stops and we are able to just be.
At the same time, I think “being” takes practice for us to be any good at it. Just like running painting, cooking, reading, sewing, knitting or even calculus, we cannot just be good at them because we want to. We must focus our minds and practice those habits that cultivate mindfulness. We must become mindfulness athletes much like people become mathematicians, sports athletes or spiritual athletes. We must train ourselves if we really ever want to practice or “do” being present well. Just as some of us have a natural talent for cooking or enjoy five miles runs, there will be those of us who excel at mindfulness. Thankfully, many of these people offer classes that we can take to help the rest of us become better at it just as we would take a painting class or a writing class.
Yet, after defining being present and describing how we can cultivate it in our lives, one question remains unanswered: why? Why is being present important? The answer to this question could fill volumes, but let me limit my response to two key ideas: personal growth and better interpersonal relationships. Of course, these ideas can and do present myriads of additional benefits all of which cannot be discussed here although some of them will.
First of all, I think it is important to highlight that personal growth is just that: personal. What one person reaps from practicing mindfulness may not be what another one does or even what another one wants to derive from the practice. However, some basic benefits that many people experience include: a deeper spiritual connection to the Source of Being, a more developed sense of interconnectedness with the planet, with animals and with other human beings, a richer understanding of their personal needs, wants and desires, clearer thoughts, a sense of peace and wholeness and/or a renewed devotion to mindfulness itself. Inter-personally, a practitioner of mindfulness may strengthen connections with friends, have a clearer understanding of what a friend is going through at the moment and therefore may be able to help him or her more effectively, heightened listening skills, more compassion, elevated perception and intuition, be able to express themselves clearer, gain more friends and have those friendships be more rewarding, fulfilling and beneficial.
Mindfulness, by increasing self-knowledge and cultivating solid friendships, does create powerful forces like Anij describes: the human values of love, compassion, justice, attentiveness, humility and wisdom. It should make us better human beings: ones who practice justice, awareness and virtuous living. I believe with my whole heart that justice, love, virtue, compassion, wisdom and attentiveness to suffering should be the goal of all humanity regardless of their gender, religion, ethnic origin, class, race or sex. It seems to me that striving to become more present in the here-and-now can only benefit humanity and make the world a better place.
Ivy A. Helman, Ph. D.: A feminist scholar currently on the faculty at Boston College teaching in its Perspectives Program and an Adjunct Lecturer at Merrimack College. Her most recent publications include: “Queer Systems: The Benefits of a More Systematic Approach to Queer Theology,” in CrossCurrents (March 2011) and Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents(2012).