— Nancy S., Jacksonville, Florida
Being present in the spiritual sense is different from being absorbed in a movie. That kind of absorption is a distraction, an escape from your awareness. Being present needs to be in a highly aware state. Otherwise, we'd say two people having a violent argument are present—after all, they are certainly absorbed in their dispute. Whatever overshadows your awareness pulls it out of the present. These overshadowing qualities can be many: anger, anxiety, fantasy, daydreaming, expectation, memory, habit and old conditioning. As you can see, if you had to solve each one on its own, the task would be nearly impossible. The mind is multifaceted and unpredictable. You never know what will crop up next.
Fortunately, it isn't necessary to know anything in advance. When you say you find yourself struggling to be present, I'm afraid this effort is also a distraction like any other. What the Buddhists call mindfulness has to become a natural state. You can't struggle to attain it, but you can learn to go deeper than the superficial mind, with its constant activity and its need to escape. The simplest metaphor would be a river, which is turbulent on the surface but becomes more still the deeper you go, until at the very bottom there is no current at all. Yet, notice the river is made of the same water at every level. The same is true of the mind. Whether turbulent or still, it is made only of awareness.
Everyone is used to the various levels of the mind. This has to be so, because you can't be a stranger to such an intimate aspect of yourself. The experience of a calm, still mind has happened to everyone, and even the most profound state of knowingness has visited you at least once in your life. But you cannot summon awareness simply by asking it to come. If you are agitated, for example, you are swimming in the strong currents of the mind. Only by becoming familiar with the deeper levels will they be accessible. It's rather like developing a big vocabulary or the ability to multiply numbers in your head. Once you gain these abilities, they hide away in silence, but when you want them to appear, they do, without any effort. You can't say to a friend, "I'm struggling to remember the word rhinoceros." It's either there or it isn't.
A single vocabulary word is not the same as summoning awareness itself, for a word is a mental object. True, we don't know how we think of words. The process is something we do every day, but how we do it remains a mystery. Awareness is a field, not an object. So to be present means you enter a complete area of consciousness, a field that is subtly different from your normal waking state. Here I am not extolling the field or offering incentives for why you should go there. Let's be totally practical and treat it as a skill you want to master.
3 methods to help you really be present