From a Western perspective, the Present Moment is probably the ultimate conundrum (“…a question or problem having only a conjectural answer…”). What is the Present Moment? Where is it in our experience or awareness? We certainly seem to have a base-level familiarity with it, but Buddhism challenges us to know it, and that’s where the journey and the struggles begin—at least for me. Like all worthwhile struggles, it is a rewarding struggle. Nevertheless, it is a struggle—a daunting one. That seems counterintuitive for something so intimately and relentlessly part of being human and aware. Why it that?
It is not a rhetorical question: unlike ultimate questions, the Buddha was not silent about the present moment. This is significant. The present moment is not an ultimate question. Yet we can understand the Buddha’s words but not really understand the present moment. Why is that? Probably because like much of Buddhist wisdom, it is not conducive to language. That doesn’t preclude understanding.
It may be more productive to explore the atmosphere, the psychic neighborhood in which the present moment occurs than to try to pin down on the present moment itself. It is a neighborhood of impermanence. It is also a neighborhood of no self. The philosophical term “solipsism” fits these conditions perfectly. Another definition: solipsism is “…a theory holding that a self can know nothing but its own changes, and that changing self is the only thing that truly exists.” Now we’re getting somewhere. The present moment is like something you can only see in your peripheral vision; or like the keen vision of a hawk or an owl which cannot see things clearly but can detect a very slight motion from a long distance.
What about the experiential neighborhood around the present moment? How can we sensitize our mental “peripheral vision” so we can find the elusive ghost in the dance of things as they change? We all know it needs quiet and calm; and patience; and a healthy desire untainted by expectation or want. It is an excruciatingly gentle touch or maybe not so much a touch as a release. A touch would be to look for the present moment along a trajectory that starts from the past and proceeds toward the future. We cannot find it on that path. It is somewhere else—it is here. Unlike the past and the future it is always here, which is why it does not—it cannot—exist along the time continuum. The present moment does not belong to time. It was us that made it a member of that family, not the Dhamma.
We can also awaken our willingness to accept understanding without direct knowledge. Another word for that is faith which is not blind faith—well actually it sort of is—but not groundless or hopeful faith. It is familiarity built on a foundation of mindfulness. This is the experiential neighborhood. Spending time there, it becomes familiar.