Each week, spiritual teacher Deepak Chopra responds to Oprah.com users' questions with enlightening advice to help them live their best lives.
Q: I am struggling with being present throughout the day. When I recognize that I am not, I try to bring myself back to the present moment for as long as I can. And I think I understand the concept of being aware of our awareness, but are they the same? Can you be present without being aware of that presence? Sometimes I am totally immersed in an activity, meaning not thinking about past events or future activities. But does this mean I am present? Even watching a movie, I'm present and involved in the story but can't really say I'm conscious of awareness the entire time I'm watching the movie. So I guess my question is: Can you be present with an activity and not be conscious of that presence?
— Nancy S., Jacksonville, Florida
Dear Nancy, 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.
There are essentially only two ways to be present. The first way is to notice when you aren't present...and then bring yourself back. All of us know how to do this. When we notice we aren't paying attention in a conversation, we say, "Oh, my mind was elsewhere. Can you repeat that?" This first way becomes more difficult, however, when you have to bring yourself back dozens of times an hour. The practice can be very fatiguing, and then one must consider those distractions—like strong fear, anger, guilt, shame, past traumas and depression—that aren't at all easy to come out of when you want to. So the first way—although deeply embedded in Eastern traditions of mindfulness—can be slow and discouraging.
The second way to be present takes advantage of the river metaphor, which notes that every level of the river is the same water, which means the turbulent surface is always in touch with the still bottom. Therefore, if we transpose this to the mind, even in activity the mind can be still. It sounds like a paradox, but haven't you ever had the experience of watching yourself as you do something? At one level, you may be driving the car, cooking supper or watching the sunset, while at another level you are observing yourself simply being. This state is often described as first attention and second attention. First attention is doing the cooking; second attention is only watching. A beautiful image from the Upanishads says two birds sit in the tree, and while one eats, the other looks on lovingly.
As different as they feel, first and second attention are mated for life, like two birds. But of course the one that eats gets all the attention. To know the silent partner, you must take time to notice it on its own, without the active partner. This is where meditation comes in. By going beyond the active mind, you become acquainted with the silent mind, which is awareness itself. The more time you spend in the silent state, the more it will become available in the present moment, no matter what else you are doing. The paradox of the mind being silent and active at the same time isn't really a mystery. A gold ring, a gold watch and a gold tooth all look different, but the same gold permeates them. So even when your mind is shaping itself into thoughts, the basic raw material remains consciousness itself.
I have achieved good results, and seen them in others, through the two methods just described. Yet the most effective and least discouraging is meditation. The process of going beyond is the same as transcendence. You take your mind from the field of mental objects to the field of awareness itself. Some mental objects are pleasant: nice memories, eager expectation, thoughts of love and affection. No one is here to judge against them. But they, too, are distractions, which is why you have to transcend them, in order to arrive at the stillness of the river where it doesn't flow.
Unless you learn to transcend the active mind, being present will be nearly impossible as a steady state. You will always be distracted and then bringing yourself back. Or else, if you are a determined type, you will keep struggling to master something that gets more elusive the harder you try. Let second attention blossom on its own. It's a natural aspect of yourself and needs only to be remembered, not mastered. That's the key. In a way, being present is like having someone fall in love with you. No amount of force and effort will work, but of its own accord life comes when it is meant to. Silence is better than that, because silence is never fickle: It merges with anyone when given half a chance.
We owe a debt of gratitude to the world's wisdom traditions for explaining these subtle facts of the mind because without such knowledge, we would all be overshadowed by constant stress and worry. The best thing you can possibly do for yourself is to escape the tyranny of mental pain, and the way is always open. I hope this helps.