Letting in the Sun: The Power of Present-Moment Awareness

About nine years ago, I had solar panels installed on my house. At the time, I was concerned that the amount of shading from nearby trees would eventually start to block the sun. Sure enough, the trees have grown and the efficiency of the whole system has diminished. 

So I wonder, if I want to maximize the availability of light, what is the best course of action: Should I just live with it as it is? Should I spend a lot of money and time to have the trees cut back, and then do this again in a number of years down the road, or have a selective tree or two cut down? Thus far, I have done nothing, but I know that the power I am receiving from this natural, abundant source is slowly diminishing.

This story serves as a metaphor for the power of present-moment awareness, the nature of the forces that block it, and the strategies we can employ to keep this natural source of renewal alive and our connection to it unblocked.

Simply learning to pay attention to the present moment, through paying attention to the breath or our senses, can provide a powerful source of energy for our lives. Like the sun, this source is renewable, as long as we maintain our ability to be present and nourished by the things that touch us in life. The branches and leaves that block the sun are like the thoughts, judgments, opinions, worries, and other preoccupations that take us out of being fully present in our lives.

Let’s say you are watching a sunset and your mind is elsewhere, and then you beat yourself up about not being present for it. Or you’re having a wonderful meal with a partner or friend, and then you find that you’re obsessing about dessert, or spending so much time judging the food that you don’t really taste it. Our habits of mind are deeply conditioned to comment on or manipulate experience in our search for happiness. If only we, or others, or the political situations in the world were different, then we could be happy, then we could be truly present.  Or, if we are really happy and connected, nourished in the moment, then we think we have to capture the experience, bottle it, and this will bring us true lasting happiness.

Ajahn Chah, the Thai monk and meditation master, points out that the nature of all of life is to change, and it is not in our control in all the ways we would like it to be. When we don’t see this, we suffer.

Insight Meditation has a twofold way to address this unnecessary suffering and bring us to a place of more reliable happiness. Our power of renewal comes from training in simple present-moment experience, outside of all of the drama-creating habits of the mind: the nourishment of a breath, a fully-experienced sip of tea (one of my favorites), a felt footstep, a sunset seen with full care and attention. This is the power of the sunlight in our metaphor.

The second aspect is to shine the light of this present-moment awareness on all of our experiences, including thoughts, emotions, images, whether pleasure or pleasant. Insight meditation (or vipassana) means “clear seeing” or special seeing. We are intimate with—but don’t feed or reject—our experience. It is a wonderful state of mind. Experiences come and go, and we remain steady, alert, relaxed.

When we grow this skill set, it shifts our relationships: We listen more fully, eat more fully, sleep, make love, grieve, laugh, all with more natural awareness and connection. We see the mind’s temptation to impose on experience, but we don’t. To go back to the metaphor: When we stop judging and trying to manipulate our experience, the roots of the tree no longer receive the nourishment they need to grow, so the tree—this tree of not seeing clearly or ignorance—is weakened. The branches don’t grow and the leaves fall. In time, without sufficient nutrition, the tree may even fall, opening an unimpeded potential to receive the sun’s rays. The solar panels can now be fully charged.

You may ask, why not just cut down the tree? In the physical world, this can be done, but in our inner life, it cannot. (If you disagree, please go ahead and try.) Instead, we train in the mindfulness practices of calming and steadying our attention and seeing clearly into experience.  As this capacity matures, we see that, like the leaves falling, the things that obscure clarity reveal their impermanent nature. When their energy is expended, they naturally fall away. What’s left is the power of our present-moment awareness, which was there all along, just like the sun.

Find out about Matthew Daniell's Kripalu program on Insight Meditation.