The act of meditating is mostly about not doing anything else at the same time. That’s why last month I discussed how to measure the time of your meditation practice without letting the act of measuring time become overwhelming; you have to be able to let go of worrying about time.
When we let go of being concerned about one thing, most of us seize onto something else to concentrate on. If it’s not the time, it’s the laundry; if it’s not the laundry, it’s the dog; if it’s not the dog… We are constantly tugged on by the past and the future, and as a result, we spend very little time in the present. Author Terry Pratchett used the phrase “temporally unfocused” to describe this situation: we end up existing in a little blur around the here-and-now, smeared out into a cloud by all the worries, concerns, memories, and other things that drag at our attention.
The act of meditating is mostly about not doing anything else at the same time. Meditation practice is time and space set aside for directing our attention in ways that we choose, deliberately, instead of letting it get pulled all over the place by other matters.
It’s not that the issues clamoring for your attention are unimportant: they might be of life-changing importance or they might be totally meaningless, anything from “Did I do so badly on my performance review last week that I’m going to get fired next month?” to “I want to scratch my elbow.” The point is that these things are all temporally unfocused: none of them are in the present moment. Our hopes and fears, our memories and dreams, our regrets and anticipations, are all about some time other than the current moment. They are about our past and our plans, not about our present and our presence.
The act of meditating is mostly about not doing anything else at the same time. It’s not about what we did yesterday, or a moment ago, or about what we’re going to do later today or even a moment from now.
Being present in the moment, from moment to moment, is a process of trying not to inhabit our past or our future. This is the opposite of multitasking: when frantically multitasking, it may seem that we are always in the moment, but that is an illusion created by the frantic sense of “Do this now!” that we get when we switch between tasks. Multitasking is more a way of never being in the moment, because there are so very many different moments to be in. The more we try to inhabit all of them at once, the less we are in any single one of them.
The act of meditating is mostly about not doing anything else at the same time. Meditating is unitasking.
In order to practice unitasking, to practice inhabiting only the present moment, we try to minimize external distractions, like keeping track of the time. Even then, our minds are excellent at churning out yet other distractions, like the endless to-do lists that haunt us in our quiet moments. This is normal and is not a failure; as long as you have a mind, it will wander. Simply bring it back to the present moment. This is where having a focal point can help: whether it’s your breath, or a candle, a mantra, or a simple image, keep returning to something that exists in the present moment.
The act of meditating is mostly about not doing anything else at the same time. Meditation is a practice, not a performance.
Even with a focus, it’s easy for our minds to zip around like a butterfly that’s been drinking expresso. Practicing meditation is not about pinning the butterfly down, it’s more like casting a net around the butterfly and very, very gently decreasing the directions it’s allowed to flitter about. Eventually, if you do it gently enough, the butterfly might just settle onto the one blossom you put in the center, or at least it’ll spend a moment there. Meditation is an equally gentle process of returning the mind and attention to a central point – the focus, the present moment – and gradually reducing the amount of time the mind spends fluttering about in other directions.
The act of meditating is mostly about not doing anything else at the same time. Meditation is passive but dynamic.
Some people approach meditation as something that they do, as an active process. It leads to trying to meditate but actually spending most of their time concentrating on the idea of meditating and wondering whether they’re actually doing it yet. This mistake results from confusing “dynamic” with “active.” Being present in the moment is passive, not active, because actively trying to get to the present moment is likely to result in worrying about it rather than actually doing it. Just because it’s passive doesn’t mean meditation is a static situation where nothing changes. Meditation is a dynamic state, not a static one. The comparison to a butterfly describes how our minds refuse to stay static and unchanging: they go off in a different direction at any given chance. In practicing meditation, we use that dynamic nature to return constantly to our focus in the present moment. This gentle redirection is not so much an active process as a passive process of drawing that dynamic nature into a more centered situation focused on the present moment.
The act of meditating is mostly about not doing anything else at the same time. So what are you doing right now?