Mindfulness: Can We Live in the Present?

For several years I’ve been a member of an organization of “spiritual leaders” devoted to the question of developing a trans-traditional spirituality that would be more suitable to our time. Why me? I’m not a “spiritual leader,” but I think I’m their token scientist with a clear interest in spirituality.

A serious question was asked by another member about living in the here-and-now, especially as a way of dealing with our human suffering, and while it was directed to one of the Buddhists in the organization I felt like giving it a few minutes’ reflection. You may find my answer of interest.

I’ll paraphrase the question, since I wouldn’t want to quote without permission…

“The challenge I have is to continue working on how to live in the Now! How much of the time can it actually be done? Can you, after years of practice, have only moments of living in the now, or can such nowness be extended to hours? It doesn’t seem possible to me that a person could really live in the present for any length of time….”

My response:

You addressed your question to *****, ****, but I’ll take a shot at it too.

Using the methods developed by G. I. Gurdjieff in his experiments with developing mindfulness techniques that worked for Westerners, I spent a lot of time living in the present years ago.  In a supportive environment, like other people working at it, I could spend much of my day very much anchored in the present.  Working on my own I could do it pretty well too, but it took more effort.  Nowadays I don’t focus on it anywhere near as much, except when I teach this in my Basic Mindfulness class at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, where I try to stay anchored in the present for the whole 2 hours of class.  I often get intellectually excited by something we’re talking about and lose touch with the present, of course – and I’m very pleased when my students start to catch me when I do this, and feel mindful enough and secure enough to tell me to come back to the present!     😉

While I don’t formally try to be present and mindful all that much in everyday life anymore, I usually remember to do so when situations get sticky, and I feel there’s been an overall shift in my level of consciousness/being from that earlier work, such that while I wouldn’t describe myself as “awake” I could accurately say I’m not as deeply asleep, lost in consensus consciousness and my own story, as I used to be.

Oh, Gurdjieff’s approach differs from classical mindfulness meditation techniques in that it’s mainly about developing mindfulness in everyday life, rather than in special environments.  Few of us have every done anything really stupid while sitting quietly on a little black cushion, but our mindlessness in everyday life has sure gotten us in trouble!

You can get the flavor of Gurdjieff’s methods from my blog, where I’m slowly posting a transcript of my mindfulness course (http://blog.paradigm-sys.com/), and or from my three books on mindfulness training (“Waking Up,” or “Living the Mindful Life,” or “Mind Science: Mindfulness Training for Practical People.”

A final word.  We have to be very careful about using mindfulness techniques as a way of avoiding reality.  To be mindful is to be curious about what is actually happening, inside and outside at the moment, and to be courageous in looking at it.  Given our human condition, that means that while it’s often satisfying and joyful to be more mindful, real mindfulness also makes us more acutely aware of our own and others’ suffering.  If you try to turn mindfulness exercises into ways to feel good no matter what, that’s exactly the kind of living in illusion, samsara, maya, that the Eastern spiritual systems say is at the root of suffering to being with.  I know mindfulness practice can be twisted this way – I’ve done it a lot of times!

Learning to become more mindful is a great way to go, and, I believe, fully compatible with the essence of real spirituality.


  1. So are some types of everyday activities more conducive to mindfulness that others?

    When I knit, that seems very mindful. You count stitches as you go along, and the needles and yarn feel a certain way in your hands. It is a very grounding experience. Since it was something I learned to do in the company of older generations of my family, it also has that feeling of connectedness to it. Like it joins us all somehow, even to those who were gone before I was old enough to remember.

    Playing music, drawing and even cooking are activities that seem very mindful to me. So maybe it is possible to be mindful more than a few minutes at a time?

    1. Take a look at Shinzen Young’s writings on the web about the nature of meditation. Very basically, he sees that any activity which teaches and strengthens your voluntary concentration ability, your clarity of perception of moment-by-moment experiences, and your equanimity in the face of whatever is happening is the essence of meditation…

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