The Eternal Now. Common to all forms of Buddhism is the understanding that the only thing that truly exists is this moment in time. The past is how we remember it. The future is how we expect it to be. The only thing of which we can be certain is now. Why is this realization so important?
Buddhism stresses the idea of dependent origination, or karma. This says that everything that exists now is the result of that which has come before. The past is gone; it is impossible to change. To some, this makes Buddhism seem fatalistic; that life is predetermined and out of our control. However, the opposite is true. Yes, we cannot change the past, but we shape the future in this very moment. That is why our thoughts, words and deeds right now are so important. Certain practices aid in focusing on this moment.
The best known of these practices is Zen meditation. Unlike some other meditation practices, Zen meditation is not about “zoning out” or escaping the world around you. In fact, it is the opposite. As one clears the mind of random thoughts, often by focusing on the breath, an acute awareness of surroundings develops. Sounds, smells, light and temperature seem more defined. As changes occur, the mind takes notice, but then moves on. Making no attempt to analyze each event, they are allowed to come and go. An example I often use is the sound of a fire truck. While sitting zazen, a fire truck goes by. The mind registers the thought “fire truck.” You then return to counting your breaths. The mind does not begin to dwell on the sound, wondering where the truck is going, how big the fire is and why is it interrupting my meditation? As one develops this ability to concentrate on the present moment, the practice carries over to everyday life. We see things more clearly, because we see them separate from all non-essential elements. Problems are more easily resolved when we are able to strip away our emotional thoughts of the past and future, and deal with the problem at hand.
The idea that right now is the most important time is not exclusive to Buddhism. Often, as I channel surf, I watch speakers from other religions. One evening, as I surfed, I happened to hear Father John Corapi, a Catholic priest, say that we should savor this moment. He said that too often we spend our time reliving the past or worrying about the future. By doing this, we never fully appreciate right now. He then said, “Your life right now is a gift from God. That is why it is called the present.” A clever play on words, but true regardless of your religion. This moment is a gift, and like a gift, it must be unwrapped from the past and future. Only then can we realize its infinite potential.