Recently I attended a talk given by a dharma teacher who also happens to be an award winning poet. During the talk she spoke about mindfulness and the emphasis that is commonly put on the concept of "being in the moment." Now, as she is a poet, her words and description had an eloquence I can't even begin to convey. On my best days I might be able to devise a sexually inappropriate haiku. So this one is all on me to try and convey her message. (Prepare the life boats.)
What she related was a clarification around "being in the moment." The common perspective seems to focus on what is your personal perception of the moment. However, in actuality, "the moment" is complete in and of itself. It has nothing to do with "you."
That standpoint, the personal view, causes you to create or apply filters to what is being experienced as if you own it or that it is revolving around you. This approach will often lead to the creation of judgmental thoughts such as liking (complete with a thumbs up icon should you choose to have one) or disliking, a comparison and subsequent evaluation of this moment to other moments (you know, the flavor of this moment just doesn't compare a moment that has chocolate in it), personal interpretations of what is being observed or experienced (did the Barista just look at me funny?... I think there's a conspiracy against me for wanting five shots in my latte) or a focus on how the specific situation pertains to you individually (while I'm happy to be attending this wedding, I think they should have talked to me first about the colors they chose). All of this activity will result in the creation of mental churn and a strengthening of one's identity.
The other approach, where the moment is complete in and of itself, is to comprehend that it is, in fact, not "your" moment at all. "You" don't actually matter. It's the moment in and of itself and all that it encompasses. Here, there is an awareness of all that is going on. You are not "checked out" as you might interpret this to mean. Rather, you are intensely present, focused outward and not creating, and subsequently distracted by, the internal mental radio chatter and static. The less 'you' there is, the greater the level of awareness.
In this approach to mindfulness, there is a tremendous peace in dropping the subject (you) and the object (what you are perceiving and subsequently evaluating how it relates to you) and just allowing things to be as they are.
The trick to this is that you must learn to gradually quiet the mind by slowing down and eventually stopping the habitual creation of mental chatter; the constant churn. "Being present" and "being in the moment" can be seen as the end result. It's the journey of unraveling the mental tangles we get caught up in and discovering the quiet stillness underneath that is always there. It's experiencing the peace that accompanies that stillness which extends to depths that have no end.
The moment just is and is always present. The problem is, we're not. We're busy ruminating on how much fun we're having scrapbooking with Martha Stewart or racing our Formula One racer... and yet, we're not actually doing those things. (And for the record, yes gentlemen you can race your Formula One as well.)
To help myself embrace this concept of presence a few years back, I came up with an exercise which really helped me in putting this concept into practice. It's one I continue to use regularly. As I often write about, inspiration is everywhere and can show up in the most unexpected of places and the concept behind this exercise is no different. It arose from the movie "Tron Legacy" (don't worry, it doesn't involve motorcycles leaving trailing wall of light behind them... but admit it, wouldn't that just be so cool if it did? Eh, give it another 50 years).
I've termed the exercise 'Taking yourself out of the equation.' In the movie, a character willingly removes themselves from an situation so as not to be a distraction or deterrent from a mission that's underway. I've written about this approach in my book, but will repeat it here given the context of this article.
I recommend trying this exercise in nature at first. Nature has an inherent purity and can assist greatly in clearing out mental and bodily distractions. Find a safe quiet place away from the cacophony of activity in your daily lives. This can be a city park, nature preserve, whatever you might have accessible in your vicinity. No need to trek to Nepal to try this.
Find a comfortable quiet place and sit down. Take some time to focus specifically on getting your mind as quiet as you can. Like preparing for meditation, set aside the daily mental struggles and issues that occupy your mind and give yourself permission to step away from everything. (Don't worry, they'll still be there when you come back should you choose to pick them back up.) Focusing on your breath or repeating an affirmation might help calm you as well.
Once you're able to gain some level of control and focus, look around and imagine what this place would be like if you were not there; in other words take yourself out of the picture. Take the concept of "you," your stories, beliefs, perceptions, everything that makes up the idea of "you" as a unique individual, and pretend that it doesn't exist. There are just a set of eyes seeing and ears hearing and body feeling sensations, but they are not this personality of "you."
Observe, but don't evaluate as might be your normal tendency. Allow everything to exist as it does. What's it's like in its raw pure form? There's no need for mental commentary. Nature has existed just fine without it, and it always has. If it helps you to maintain your focus, continue to hold your awareness on your breathing as it naturally arises and falls or continue repeating your affirmation.
Allow the presumably simple and mundane become miraculous. For example, the choreography of the leaves blowing through the trees, while intrinsically common, know that these unique circumstances making up that observation will never repeat themselves exactly the same way again. The combination of the exact number of leaves on the tree in their exact state of age and height, the strength and temperature of that specific breeze which is the result of specific air temperatures. The strength of the roots into the ground to a specific depth. All of that makes up that one observation, of that one moment.
So you see, that this, and every, moment is unique and our acknowledgement of them is important in this practice.
Now take that view of the tree you observed and multiply that out. What else might be happening in that moment? The critters on the ground building, eating and carrying. The birds in the trees singing and flying in and out. The flowers blooming. The clouds dancing in formation above you. The list is endless.
And the important thing to remember in all of this is that none of that requires "you" to be interacting, evaluating, or controlling any of it... however, "you" have the privilege of observing the beauty of life unfold before you. In nature there is a perfection that we cannot possibly replicate.
Once you become comfortable with this concept, try moving to a more urban setting and observe the play of life here. An unfamiliar mall or busy street corner would work well. Somewhere you're not too familiar with as familiarity tends to bring up reverie of memories.
You may find this to be more difficult as there are more distractions to pull your attention away. Also, habits of judging may kick in being around people and populated places. Simply try to notice if they come up and try to set them aside.
With this exercise you may soon notice the habits of creating judgments or working mentally to put situations into a context where you feel more in control. Over time you will increasingly gain an acceptance of things as they are and appreciate them as such (almost anywhere you go).