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Present Moment Awareness

“Present moment awareness” is one aspect of secular mindfulness that seems to get a lot of attention, to the degree that, for some people, it appears to be the essential essence of secular mindfulness. Why is this?

Perhaps, because it can be readily confused with the familiar quality of ‘now’, which pervades western culture: A hedonistic, adrenaline-buzz filled, living-for-the-moment sense of ‘now’. This ‘now’ involves abandoning any knowledge or wisdom that may come from past experiences, and, simultaneously disregarding any concerns or commitment to the future, lest either impinge on our total enjoyment of the present moment.

However, the ‘now’ we encounter with mindfulness has fundamentally different qualities, to the degree that it could be argued that secular mindfulness risks becoming devalued through a disconnection with past and future, if the focus on the present is too great. Writing on the subject of mindfulness in psychotherapy, Meg Barker [1] makes the point that mindfulness can also be applied to memories or plans, and thus the significance of present moment awareness may be over-emphasised in secular mindfulness. Indeed it has been argued that the secular mindfulness focus on the present moment may be misplaced, (the Pali word sati conveying a meaning of memory or remembrance). In a critique of mindfulness interventions in capitalist societies, Purser [2] describes Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), the pioneering mindfulness-based 8-session course, as having a fetishisation of the present moment.

I find these points most eloquently echoed in the words of Ken Holmes, director of Buddhist studies at the Samye Ling Tibetan Centre, [3]:

“Mindfulness could be taken very literally as the mind being full of, i.e. not forgetting, its purpose. In Buddhism, mindfulness is synonymous with remembering or, more precisely, not forgetting. The general outline is: being very aware of what is happening in the moment, one remembers wise council, because one cares deeply about the outcome.”

For me, this best captures the sense of ‘now’ in mindfulness; an awareness of the present moment that is not devoid of the wisdom of the past or a commitment to the future.

Worth remembering.

[1] Barker, M., (2013) Mindful Counselling and Psychotherapy. London: SAGE Publications.

[2] Purser, R., (2015) ‘Confessions of a mind-wandering MBSR student: remembering social amnesia’, Self & Society: An International Journal for Humanistic Psychology, 43:1, 6-14.

[3] Gilbert, P., Choden, (2014) Mindful Compassion. Oakland: New Harbinger Publication Inc. (p139).

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