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November 28, 2011

The present moment properly understood is not a mathematical or infinitesimal moment.  There are some who like to point out that inhabiting the present moment is impossible since, before we can truly be aware of it, that particular moment has already passed.  Technically speaking, this is true.  Pierre Hadot explains that when we speak of living in the present what we refer to is not the mathematical moment but the duration in which an action takes place. This can be the duration of a sentence one utters, the movement that one executes, or the melody one hears. (P. Hadot, The Present Alone is Our Happiness, 163)  The claim here is that it is the quality of our involvement in an activity that constitutes our presence to it.  We are living in the moment when we are fully engaged with a person, thing or event.  Live fully today, we are told by Saints Gregory and Therese: liberated from past and future, strive to be-with whatever your current activity is.

    Living in the moment requires full concentration.  Our awareness of the infinite value of the present moment is at once an attitude of seriousness about every moment of life and a relaxed state of appreciation for the gift of these moments as they come to us one after another.  Above all, living in the moment requires a transformation of our ordinary modes of presence.  What facilitates/hinders my capacity to be present?  How does my presence contribute to an experience of the present moment as sacramental?  Three aspects of presence are involved in our potential for living fully in the moment.  They are: presence to oneself (self-presence), our relationship to time, and presence to the Other/others.

Presence to Oneself 

    First of all, we must be with ourselves.  The present moment cannot be experienced as sacramental if we are not aware of and in-touch with ourselves.  Self-alienation is an option for humans, that is, we are capable of affective isolation from ourselves.  We continue to function even if we are not aware of disturbing feelings, thoughts and motivations.  This schizoid state can prevail in the spiritual dimension as well as in the mundane circumstances of my life.  Because I am religious or am involved in a religious enterprise does not guarantee that I am living a spiritual life.  Self-presence is an indispensable condition for being available to the movement of the Spirit in my life.

    In The Wise Heart, Jack Kornfield discusses the importance of presence to our feelings.  He distinguishes between primary and secondary feelings.  The first and essential quality of primary feeling refers to the fact that

every moment of our sense experience has a feeling tone. . . . Each sight, sound, taste, touch, or thought will have either a pleasant, painful, or neutral quality.... Everything that registers in the brain is assigned some negative or positive valence.

The primary feeling tone comes first.  Then, Kornfield tells us:

Born of this simple feeling tone, there arises a whole array of secondary feelings, all of the emotions we are familiar with, from joy and anger to fear and delight.

The significant point being made here is that awareness of primary feelings is a direct route to enlightenment. (pp. 125-126) The stream of primary feelings is always with us, but we are not always present to this level of experience.  As a result we often get caught in the secondary emotions that are generated by the positive or negative value we consciously or unconsciously  assign to primary feelings.  If, for example, we are suddenly made afraid, the negative feeling may move us to anger or some other reaction before we have had time to identify and work with the feeling.  Our lack of self-presence on this primary level accounts for much of the conflict and unhappiness we experience in life.

    Being aware of our feelings does not mean that we will always be happy, but it does mean that we might learn to have more equanimity even in the midst of daily life.  Being present to ourselves enables us to be more present to others and to the situation in which we find ourselves.  And this, in fact, increases our happiness potential, since the present is the only place we can be happy.  As Goethe wrote: The present alone is our happiness.  The more we are in the present, the more we will experience happiness and the other primary emotions.  In our next reflection we shall consider how our relationship to time and our presence to others influence our living in the present moment.

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Last updated: 11/25/10.