What does it mean to stay ‘Present’? Can we control our thoughts?

by Hari Balasubramanian

This piece is framed as a 'conversation' but it is really a conversation or debate between two voices/perspectives in my own head (here's a similar piece from last year).


Image“There's a lot of talk these days about 'staying in the present moment', 'being mindful', etc. I find it all quite puzzling. Because it doesn't matter what is going on or what I am thinking, I am always in the present – isn't that the case?”

“Well, I find myself usually thinking of the past or projecting future scenarios…”

“Sure – that's true for me too. But isn't it true that thinking of the past or the future also happens the present? A memory of the past is somehow retrieved now in our mental space and we say we are thinking of the past. The screen on which the past unfolds or the future is projected is always the present.”

“You can get very technical about it if you like. The idea of being present is simply to clear your mind of unnecessary and – on many occasions – troublesome thoughts which keep taking you on needless mental journeys.”

“Okay – then what remains when your mind is clear of thoughts?”

“I guess you experience sensory stimuli going on right now – you feel how cold the wind is, or how red that piece of cloth is, how bitter the coffee is and so on.”

“And why are these sensory perceptions more special than thoughts of the past or future? Isn't the feeling that the coffee is bitter a kind of thought too – you taste the coffee and something in your mind, some kind of past knowledge or memory, learned or ingrained, but which is still thought, informs you that it is bitter.”

“At least it is more immediate…”

“Yes, but the present is already the past by the time you label something. Thought is always one step behind whatever is unfolding…”

“But you are missing the bigger point. You can get too preoccupied with events in your life that have already happened and cannot be undone, and you can get excessively anxious about what might happen tomorrow; you can get into a cycle where such thoughts keep running in your head, like a broken record. So it isn't useful to encourage this type of mental activity.”

“I don't disagree with what you say. Though I must note here that thoughts of the past can also be essential – without them you can't learn and function intelligently. And thoughts of the future allow you to plan ahead – again very essential in daily life, work etc. To say that these are to be avoided is not correct. But I do get the drift of your argument: we dwell in thought patterns that are not efficient, that do not contribute to anything but take up a lot of energy, and being present is a way of keeping them off…”

“Yes, that's exactly right…”

“Let's explore this further. How exactly does one stay in the present?”

“Well, the typical method in so-called meditation or mindfulness exercises – and I am not saying these are the only methods or that they are correct, these are just examples – is to focus on one thing, an image, an object, your breath. Whenever you find yourself lost in chains of thoughts, bring your attention gently back to the object of your focus. The object of focus is your proxy for the Now. Following the breath, for example, is like following the Now. The most open-ended technique, which is the hardest to convey, is to be simply be aware that you are aware. Every time you are lost in some mental jumble, you simply become aware of it and thereby create a pause. The method does not matter so long as you can maximize the space between thoughts – it is in this space that you are present.”

“I have tried these techniques that you mention. Whatever their new-agey or mystical connotations, they are at heart very empirical exercises. They are empirical because you put your own mind, which is really a bundle of thoughts, under close observation (although, crucially, what remains unresolved is exactly who the observer is). You find some very interesting things. You mentioned ‘chains of thought' and I think it's an apt term. Literally, thoughts can be ‘chained' to one another. You have thought T1, followed by thought T2, followed by thought T3 and it just keeps going on this manner. Before you know it, you may dozens of linked thoughts!”

“What are these links you are referring to?”

“Well, I've noticed that successive thoughts have something in common. I look at the red blanket on the bed, which in turn reminds me that the blanket was purchased in a store in India, which in turn links to a conversation I had with a close friend the exact day that I purchased the blanket. That conversation was about the upcoming elections in India, which in turn leads to a thought about the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and how things have gone since he was elected. So from a blanket, I've jumped to a political figure and the state of the entire country in the space of a few thoughts!”

“Yes, this goes on until you shake yourself off these thoughts and return to the present. Or something from the present catches your attention – say your phone begins to ring…”

“You could put it that way. But I am not so sure. The fact is that the images, perceptions, thoughts and sensations you are experiencing always change. This constant change is what we conceptualize as time. When your attention switched from chains to thought to, say, the abrupt ring of your phone, what changed was only the content; you like to call one as ‘Present' and the other as ‘Not Present', but as I see it, it's all the same. When a movie is projected, the screen shows all kinds of things, things you like and things you don't like, but the screen itself is neutral to the content. In the same way the Present – which is really another name for consciousness – cannot really be pinned down or described (after all if everything changes continuously then it's clear that even a discrete moment does not exist); yet the Present is somehow is the ‘no-thing' that enables the ever changing thoughts or sensations or perceptions that each individual experiences.”

“That all sounds very nice, but are you saying that since everything is in the Present, we should give in to whatever thoughts that come and make no effort to exert some kind of control?”

“I am only asking: can we control or choose what thoughts come to us? It seems we can control, to some extent, our reaction to a thought once it has appeared – even of that I am not 100% certain – but can we control what kinds of thoughts we will have? Sometimes we are able to consciously generate a thought, but for most of the time, waves of thoughts seem to come to us out of who knows where!”

“That is correct – we seem to have some control only in retrospect, after a thought has begun to arise. But the reaction to a thought or reaction to anything in your conscious experience – that's very important, that's where there appears to be some choice.”

“And yet, the reaction to a thought is a thought too, isn't it? When you want to stay ‘present', what you really want is to generate a counter-thought, a kind of reminder, which stalls your current chain of thoughts. In other words, you want one type of thought in your mind to restrain/tackle other types of thoughts which arise from the same mind. This is – as one Indian saint noted – like making the thief the policemen, and this so-called policeman will go with you and pretend to catch the thief. Naturally, in the end, nothing will be achieved!”

“If nothing can be achieved, then why do meditation and mindfulness have so many beneficial effects, which many swear by and which even scientific studies are now confirming?”

“I cannot speak for others of course. At the end of a meditation session I too always felt good. But then one day it struck me: does it feel good because the struggle to keep track of and control thoughts is over? If meditation has any use, it is to demonstrate that the notion that thoughts can be controlled may be an illusion. This realization is of great value because if there is very little I can do, then why bother, why not just take it easy! Let thoughts come and go as they want! If a thought or an emotion demands my attention, I will give it attention and when the time comes, the thought will eventually go. Paradoxically, such an acceptance of thoughts may actually slow things down and bring about a deeper relaxation. But all this that I am saying is just my own experience. It is always easy to talk intellectually. What happens in practice is quite another matter!”