Mindfulness is remembering to know the present moment clearly. The present moment refers to whatever object that is most prominent at the moment. The object could be a physical sensation like itchiness, pain, warmth, touching, seeing, hearing, tasting or smelling. It could also be an emotion or a thought. Here, we use the expression “know clearly”. Other expressions that mean the same thing are “see clearly”, “see precisely”, “be aware”, “observe”, “note clearly”, “notice clearly”, “comprehend” and “pay attention”.
Let’s examine the technique to “know clearly”.
To know an object, bring awareness to the object and acknowledge it with curiosity and kindness. Without curiosity, interest will wane and the mind wanders off quickly. In addition, we can label each object silently as it happens, to perceive more clearly the qualities of the experience.
See the object correctly. Don’t confuse with other things. The analogy is like seeing A but the hand reaches out to grab B instead. When you see the object correctly, there may be a shift. It could be the object disappear, or it changes to something else, or a sense of clarity arises, or a sense of release arises. You may need to try a few times. Firstly, shift slightly from where you perceive the object is located. Next change the way you look at the object by labelling it, instead of just noticing it. And even change the label itself, because maybe the previous label is incorrect. When the object is not seen correctly, the sense of cloudiness or confusion may continue. I recall many years ago during a retreat at Kota Tinggi, there was a sitting session, which for a long duration, I saw colourful patterns in my mind eye, evolving into different shapes, like a kaleidoscope. What is even more special is the usual numbness and leg pain when sitting cross-legged for a long period didn’t arise. I was ecstatic when reporting to the teacher about it. Only to have the teacher reminding me that the mind had played tricks on me. Meaning I had not seen the object correctly.
See the object in its entirety, and not partially. See beyond the physical aspect. Include the corresponding emotion or mental aspect as well. Know the characteristics and manifestations of the object. For example, when there is a pain, don’t just observe the soreness, but the accompanying aversion for the pain to go away.
Pay attention with a balanced effort. Without enough effort, dullness may arise, the object is not clear, or you feel distanced from the object. At this point, you should change to notice the “dullness”, or “not clear”. When the effort is too much, agitation may arise. At that point, you should change to notice “agitation”. Be patient with whatever experience that arises. Have a sense of acceptance if the sensation is unpleasant. And have a sense of letting go if the sensation is pleasant; not holding on it.
Mindfulness is a skill. Skill needs to practise. Put these techniques into practice during breath meditation, and other mindfulness practices to experience the result.
In my interaction with people, the general understanding of mindfulness practice is about being in the present moment. Even though when they may not have in-depth knowledge nor practise it.
On the surface, some may interpret being in the present moment to mean be aware of what is in front of you, not doing anything or not thinking about anything else.
The mechanics of being in the present moment is much more rigorous. For some people, it may not be apparent where they should pay their attention. And when it feels like many things are happening concurrently, which particular thing should they pay attention to. Let’s take the case of myself sitting here, typing this article. When I am typing, my attention is on the typing itself. Halfway through, an itch arises on my face. I know it and I reach out to scratch the itch. I continue to think about what I want to write next and I purse my lips. Those are the things that I pay attention to. I am also aware that I have crossed my feet. Then I notice the intention in the mind before the actions are carried out.
Most prominent sensation
So if we want to practise “being in the present moment”, what should we pay attention to? A rule of thumb is to pay attention to whichever sensation that is the most prominent. This prominent sensation becomes the object of attention. The object could be bodily sensations like itchiness, a pain, warmth, release, hearing, tasting, smelling and seeing. It could be emotion like anger, joy, frustration, sadness, anxiety, dullness, love, calm, fear and disgust. It could also be a thought like still images, moving images, regrets, planning thought, rumination and worrying thought. Investigate this object with curiosity and kindness. If the object is a pain, then how does it feel like? Is there pulsing? Does it come and go or is it constant? Is it associated with an emotion, like irritation, or aversion? When the irritation that arises due to the pain becomes prominent, the attention should switch to the irritation.
For the case when the object is a thought, know whether it lingers on or disappears after you become aware of it. When you don’t know where to put your attention on, then you should notice that ‘doubt’ has arisen – that is the present object. If you feel bored reading all these, your attention should be on the ‘boredom’ that is present. You may switch attention to accompanying thought, like the wish to stop and walk away. Noticing each sensation may sound very mechanically. It feels like you are doing a drill, but practising this way will sharpen the mindfulness skill.
In conclusion, ‘being in the present moment’ is to be aware of the most prominent sensation at each moment, be it a physical sensation, an emotion or a thought.