How awareness can balance thoughts of the past and the future and help us be in the present
The two arms, legs, eyes, and ears add to symmetry to the external appearance of the body. Such physical symmetry imparts a beautiful appearance to the body and has functional significance. For instance, legs work in tandem so we can walk efficiently, and two eyes create binocular vision. Furthermore, the workload gets evenly distributed on the two sides of the body held together by the spine in the center. An airplane cannot have wings of different shape and dimensions. The plane will not be able to fly. Similarly, if the body loses its inherent symmetry, it cannot function optimally. Just as the body is divided into two halves, the mind is divided into two parts, one representing the past and the other the future. Awareness is the ‘spine’ to which the two parts of the mind, past and the future, are attached. When we are centered on awareness, we can quite easily balance the pull of the past and the future.
The present moment is ‘whole’
Imagine if one half of the body outgrew the other half. Life would indeed be a tremendous challenge. We would not be able to walk, work as we usually do, and internal organs would be pulled in different directions. Similarly, the mind will not be able to function efficiently if we are continually dwelling on either the past or the future. Our attention and identification with thoughts enhance the growth of the mind. In any given moment, our awareness is usually on thoughts, which are ultimately linked to some event in the past or imagination regarding the future. A moment becomes ‘whole’ when awareness is not in movement with either thought of the past or the future. Such ‘whole’ moments can be called the present. When there is no movement of awareness, it becomes concentrated and effortlessly one-pointed.
Awareness supports the mind and not the other way around
The mind’s existence depends on the movement of awareness. When awareness does not move from thought to thought, it has a chance of becoming stable and grounded. The mind can continue to exist, but we will not be troubled by its movement. Awareness is like the sturdy trunk of a tree which supports big and bulky branches. Different thought streams related to the past and the future are like the branches and leaves of a tree. Without a trunk serving as a conduit for nutrition from the roots to reach every leaf, the branches and leaves cannot survive. Similarly, awareness is rooted in the deeper inner ground which cannot be easily shaken by external happenings, and it supports the projection of transient experiences playing out in the mind.
Individual thoughts may be compared to the leaves of a large tree. A single thought may not weigh us down, but collectively they can. For thoughts to continue to remain in the mind, they need ‘branches’ in the form of a past or future context. Just as leaves fan out so they can gain exposure to sunlight, thoughts also fan out. No matter how expansive a tree’s branches are, they are supported by one major trunk. Similarly, the entire expanse of the mind is supported by awareness. Just as we don’t water leaves but the roots that lie underground below the trunk of a tree, if we focus on the one who is aware rather than what is contained in the field of awareness both in our thoughts and our perception of the external world, we will be ‘watering’ the roots of our inner being.
Past and Future - The ‘seasons’ of the mind
Unlike the mind, awareness can it stand on its own. Through awareness, we gain the ability to watch the mind without being affected by its contents. As seasons change, leaves fall, and new ones sprout. Seasons are predictable and are influenced by the movement of the earth around its axis and its rotation around the sun. In the mind, there are two ‘seasons,’ past and future, and both depend on the movement of time. There is interdependence between the past and the future, and awareness can shift between the two unpredictably. We cannot easily control the movement of awareness between the past and the future, and we are accustomed to thinking of life in terms of the past and the future. Life in the present is an ‘afterthought.’
As time moves forward, it creates more space for the contents of the past to grow and accumulate. While the capacity to hold the past increases, the size of the future diminishes. We can fill less and less into the future as we age. Awareness, however, remains unaffected by the changing proportions of the past and the future. This example may illustrate the relationship between unchanging awareness and the changing past and future.
As a statue in the middle of a field casts a long shadow on one side at sunrise, and the shadow moves to the opposite side as the sun sets. The past and the future are like shadows that change in size, shape, and location in relation to a fixed object as the sun moves across the sky. But the object casting the shadow, the statue in this example, remains fixed. The movement of time, which creates the past and the future, is like the transit of the sun across the sky. The changing thoughts of the past and future are like the shadows which change. Awareness is like a statue that is fixed in one place.
Balancing the past and the future
When our awareness is kept equidistant from thoughts of the past and the future, it brings in perspective and balance into the mind. What has happened and what may happen is best understood in light of what is happening. When our focus is on ‘what is,’ it becomes easier to shed the dead weight of ‘what was’ and the imaginary weight of ‘what may come.’ As we enter the past, if we maintain some degree of awareness, which may be in the form of remaining watchful of our interaction with thoughts of the past, that awareness will serve as a lifeline that prevents us from drifting too far and drowning in the depth of the past. The same goes for the future.
The mind is an intricate web of thoughts and experiences. However sophisticated the design may be, as long as we know its center point, it becomes easy to understand the design and even recreate it if we wish. By being in awareness, we arrive at the central point from which the mind sprouts and we also gain a broader and more encompassing view of the mind as a whole which puts thoughts into a more realistic and manageable perspective.
Awareness is one, and it is like the map that shows all our identities and related thoughts
If there is no distance between awareness and the mind, we may not be able to see any pattern in the complex web of ideas, thoughts, memories, and impressions that comprise the mind. Consequently, it becomes harder to navigate the mind. Awareness is like looking at the map of a large city. It becomes easier to understand how to get from one part a city to another, which main roads to take, etc. when we see the overall map unlike driving at street level which does not give us that overview.
If we take a step back from the mind, we may then become aware of the different identities we carry. Each is like a different road in a city. Each path may lead to a different place, but ultimately through all streets, the city is interconnected. Similarly, each personal identity leads us to a different place in the mind. For example, we may carry identity as a parent. This identity connects to all thoughts related to parenthood. Work identity connects to thoughts related to work and so on. Ultimately all these identities are linked to one central one, which is the ‘I.’ The ‘I’ is like the city center.
When awareness becomes the central core of our being, the changing patterns in the mind will be seen revolving around that centered awareness. Consequently, we will remain unaffected by the happenings in the mind. Past and the future create their unique patterns, and they come and go. When awareness is fixed, the background on which the past and the future is projected also remains fixed. The past may illuminate the background from one side and the future from another side. As they intersect, come closer, or move away from their shifting patterns which will not create deep grooves on the mind as long as awareness continues to remain fixed.
As our life moves through time, centered awareness will help in the symmetric growth of the mind, always keeping the past and future in perspective in relation to our awareness. Just as a shadow cannot get up and reach the object casting it, the shadows of the past and the future cannot become one with awareness. They will always remain separate from one another like the wings of an airplane. Like wings which serve the function of giving stability and lift to an aircraft, the two aspects of the mind which are the past and the future when in balance around awareness in the middle, we lift ourselves into the present moment.