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Life today is so immensely stimulating. Just think of all the things you look at: internet, movies, cellphones, TVs. All of your experiences are being recorded by the mind. Where is the present moment?
We have memory of all the events that have happened. Every experience is recorded in some way and the more intense experiences also have an emotional component. Many times people have told me that if they watch a movie or TV show that’s too intense or violent at night, then they have nightmares about it. They don’t sleep as well because the mind has been disturbed. There’s something about what has been imprinted in the mind that stays in the background, even during sleep. These experiences end up affecting our whole life as we accumulate more and more impressions.
Think of children when they start going to school. Kids are so hard on one another—they humiliate one another, reject one another, and get rejected. They can’t deal with emotions that come and stuff the energy attached to those emotions. This tension begins affecting them throughout their whole life.
When we have these impressions in our system, they stimulate the mind and the mind spends a lot of time going to the past and future. We’re recalling the past, even if the memory of the event is gone. The emotional feeling of it is still there. Often, I have the experience of driving somewhere with the radio on and some song comes on that was popular when I was in high school. Not only do I remember the song really well, but a certain feeling comes over me. The song was attached to certain feelings I had, maybe for somebody I was with in high school. It’s as if I’d been brought back to that moment in time. So, these impressions can be quite powerful.
Then, of course, the mind often goes off into the future. A lot of that is either planning or worrying. We’re planning to do something that’s going to make us happier or we’re going to accomplish something. Or, we’re worried about what might happen.
The mind ends up spending more time in the past and future than it does in the present moment. There’s certainly been a lot of talk and many books and seminars about living in the present. But how can we do that? What does that mean?
The Mind is Not the Way
If I said “Let’s all stay in the present moment. Work as hard as you can. Now stay focused in the present moment!” How long will that last? Probably 5 to 10 seconds. Then, the mind will drift away. So, staying in the present moment is not something you can do through effort. You can’t tell the mind to do it. The mind’s not going to obey you because there’s too much stimulation from all of these events, stresses, and impressions that are going to cause the mind to drift off into the past and future.
Certain emotions we call negative are associated only with the future or only with the past. If you worry about the future, you’re anxious about the future. You fear for what might happen in the future.
But for the past you have regret; you have guilt. These kinds of things come up: “Oh I wish I hadn’t done it that way. I should have done it this way.” It can just sit there and trouble your mind too much.
Escaping with Distractions
To escape this, most of the time people look for distractions. They say, “If I distract my mind then I’m not troubled by any of this stuff.” So they often just want to keep busy. If they’re not busy with some work, then they’re looking at their phone. That’s the big distraction nowadays—an unlimited source of entertainment and news stories, which in the end really have no impact on our lives. We keep reading story after story and video after video, because it takes the mind to the outside and we’re distracted. So we’re not aware of anything in that inner dimension.
Why is this a problem? Well, everyone wants to be happy and peaceful. Distracting yourself might provide some entertainment and a little bit of happiness but it’s not allowing you to experience that joy that is deep within you.
A Radiant Baby
Let’s take a look at a person in a very pure state—a newborn healthy baby. You look at the baby and the mother’s holding the baby. Walk behind them and look closer at that baby. The baby gives you this huge smile. You know it’s not like an adult smile; their whole body is just glowing with a smile. Can you sense the joy and love?
Everyone has seen this radiance. What happens as we grow up? Why do we lose that? You know the baby isn’t getting that joy because you’re so beautiful and they want to look at you. Anyone could be looking at them. It’s innate. It’s inside them.
Radiance didn’t go away as we grew, but something started to block our experience of our own inner joy. Joy is the default state for a baby. Now sometimes the baby’s upset and cries of course, but only when the baby has a real problem, such as being cold, wet, hungry, or tired. But when that problem is eliminated, they will automatically return to that default state, being happy, joyful, and loving.
Activity in the Mind
Adults don’t return to that default state because of all this other activity in the mind. An adult may have no problem at the moment. They’re not cold, wet, tired or hungry. But the mind is focused in the past or future. Feeling some anxiousness, worry, fear, regrets—all this stuff is there playing in the adult mind. That blocks the experience of inner joy.
A baby never lies there thinking, “Well, I’m fed and warm now, but how do I know if they’re going to feed me tomorrow? What will I do if they don’t come back?” See, a baby doesn’t do that; that’s thinking about the future.
A baby doesn’t lay there thinking, “Oh, I feel so bad! I threw up on that woman today. I can never show my face in that house ever again; I’m just too embarrassed!” A baby never does that because that’s regretting the past.
But this is what adults do: hanging on to the past and worried about the future. It’s the stimulation of going into the past and future and the emotions associated with that, which dominate the mind. So we don’t experience much of the inner joy and love that are our deepest essence.
It is through meditation that we can change and get rid of that stress and those impressions. Then, we can simply start to experience our own nature, coming back to more of the purity that a baby experiences, but with an adult mature mind. So this is a little bit about meditation.
Encountering Typical Stress
Often people talk about a stressful experience or a stressful event, but there’s really no such thing. No, there are things that commonly stress people out, but it’s how they respond to the event, not the event itself, that causes stress.
Two people could have experienced the same event and one is all stressed out and the other isn’t. The other one doesn’t get triggered and react in a stressful way.
The Stress Threshold
Everyone has what I call a stress threshold. There’s a point where events become overwhelming and then your whole system reacts. There’s a point where the body reacts, blood pressure goes up, cortisol is released, the mind becomes tense, and breathing changes. So, it’s a whole physiological response to an event that’s overwhelming. But what is overwhelming isn’t the same for everybody and that’s because of the threshold.
Now, I’ve seen that the threshold changes in life and it can get lower or it can get higher. For most people, who are not doing anything to really deal with stress, the threshold is just getting lower and lower and lower and it takes less and less to set them off and you start to see this with people as they get older.
Years ago, I had an experience with my mother. She was about 84 at the time and I called her every week. One Sunday, she gets on the phone and she’s really upset, like something terrible had happened. I said “Mom, sit down, tell me what’s wrong, what happened?”
She says, “I got a book in the mail from Readers Digest that I didn’t order.” When I tell that story, people usually laugh, because of course it sounds pretty silly. But for her, in her eighties, she hadn’t really done anything to deal with the stress in her life, so that little event was the trigger for this huge stress response. Now, her threshold had gone very low.
The rest of us react the same way but it just takes a little bit more.
- Where is that threshold for you?
- Which direction is it going?
- Is that threshold getting lower and lower and lower as you get older?
- Then, when you get to be 84, could the tiniest thing set you off in this way?
The Emotional Trigger
Now if you look a little closer at my mom’s story, it’s not really the book. You can’t blame the book for causing this. See, the mind always wants to blame something. For example, you may say, “I feel this way because of that! That happened, or this person said this.” So those are our triggers, but in the case of my mother, if it hadn’t been the book, it would have been something else.
The experience, or emotional component, was already there in her system and her mind was looking for an excuse to blame. Some trigger would have come and that’s true for everyone. Something’s going to trigger it and then whatever is inside you will present itself.
Meditating Every Day: Discovering the Present Moment
I hear people talk a lot about anxiety or depression that bothers them. This really has not been my own experience. I was fortunate to have started meditating so early. Those experiences when I was younger doing really serious meditation every day worked! It really worked. Clearly I have seen that this is a very effective program.
When we talk about living in the present moment, I have found that experience has developed naturally over many years and has become more and more profound. It’s not like you say, “I am in the present moment I’m in the present moment!” It’s not like that; it’s completely natural. But when you are reading about it or talking about it, you bring some attention and say, “Oh yes, this is what I have been living!” Without effort.
The practices of deep meditation and working with the breath bring about a natural state of mindfulness that is spontaneous, that you don’t have to think about or make any effort to achieve. It’s just there; you just live it.