What is the present?

I am learning to be more present, but what does that even mean, and why is it worth learning?

The word “present” comes from pre meaning “before” and esse meaning “to be”. It means what is before or in front of us.

Learning to be more present therefore sounds like nonsense. Am I learning to be before or be in front of something? Is this the profound spiritual art of getting in front of things? Is there a course I can do on getting out of things? Learn to be more absent…

Linguistically there’s something a bit off with “being present”. But maybe we can give a better name or a better context to this thing we are trying to learn.

The present is what is in front of us right now. It has temporal and spatial significance because it is right here and right now.

And the right here right now is taking care of itself. I don’t have to learn how to make the here and now be here and now. I’m not organising the party, I only have to show up.

And I think that’s where the language is coming from, because another way it’s phrased is “be more in the present moment”.

The present moment is the moment that is before us. It’s the party that’s going on right now and we can show up to it if we choose.

But I’m not taking anything for granted. What is a moment? A moment is a very brief period of time, etymology open to debate. The present moment is the brief period of time right before us, that we can choose to be in somehow.

Which is more nonsense, because we can’t be in a moment. We are in all moments of time, moment after moment. Because we are the ones experiencing time through the lens of our own consciousness. Moment is not a scientific measure of time, but a subjective and experiential one, and if we are not “in” it, it doesn’t exist.

So let’s cut through all the bullshit now that we’ve cracked this thing wide open. What people really mean when they talk about being in the present is paying attention to sensory experience rather than being preoccupied with self-generated thoughts and imaginations.

There must be more to it than that and different lessons to be learned, but for now the key point is that we are learning to be comfortable in the more primal world of sensory experience, rather than escaping constantly into “higher order” thoughts and cognitions.

Why do that? There are lots of potential reasons and justifications for it, and mine may well change over time as well. But at this present moment what seems most compelling is this:

My brain is responsible for creating this world of sensory and somatic experience. I may receive light through my eyes and vibration though my ears, but the interpretation and depiction is all carried out automatically by my own brain without my awareness or conscious control. As such it is something I am doing from a deeper level of my own being, and yet I tend to view it as an external “reality” to which I am subject and from which I am separate.

You don’t control your own heartbeat, and yet you do. A deeper part of you controls it, and does so brilliantly for our benefit and health and comfort. How much more amazing is it that our every moment of conscious experience of our world and our own bodies is also crafted and curated by us?

I think that’s why so many traditions focus on the breath. Breathing is a physiological function that exists at the fluid boundary of conscious and unconscious control. Breathing is automatic, but we can also take control of it at will. Yet both parts are “me”.

So in conclusion I’m not sure that “learning to be present” isn’t just a vague metaphor, when what I’m really doing is learning to relax and get comfortable in the deeper and more primal regions of myself and the world I create, a world that is not separate from its creator.

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