Living in the present there is often a sense of all time compressed in the instant of reflection. Sometimes the supporting background erupts into the moment with the relevant associations to whatever is attended to in the present. The richness of the background experience presses into the moment. The many fascinating discussions about art I’ve had with classes over time are not “back there” but unfolding within the current moment, fueling it, prompting connections and ideas that weave the new classes into the fabric of the whole. The accumulation of points-of-view enriches current discussions and the growing duration of the moment includes more with every passing year. Standing on top of so much past experience, I can see farther and have more choices about what to offer the current groups. Their ideas open areas I haven’t thought of before and stimulate more thinking while expanding my territory.
How big the present moment is can only be experienced with full attention. When distracted it runs like water through fingers. If you watch a digital clock with full attention for an entire minute it seems to last forever, almost feels like time stops before the numbers finally turn. Unless your mind wanders. Then it may slip by barely noticed along with two or three more. A happiness expert on Ted radio named Dan Gilbert said the most consistent cause of unhappiness is mind-wandering. In a systematic study monitoring moods throughout the day, it was the one consistent yes answer when a person reported being unhappy. Whatever they reported they were doing at the time, if they weren’t paying attention they weren’t enjoying it. The Zen saying that the secret to happiness is to live your life as though you are interested in it underscores the aspect of choice. To notice where attention is opens a choice, a control that isn’t there when the mind is wandering without direction. So, having a goal is one good way to keep focus. The goal organizes mental energy and the accompanying sense of control improves the mood with better brain chemistry. Since the stress hormone cortisol goes up when we are lower on the pecking order and have less control, we reduce it and raise testosterone when we’re acting on our own choices.
When Blake said see the universe in a grain of sand he invited reflection that isn’t going anywhere else but where you are, that’s tunneling into the vast space within the moment unclouded by all the ideas we project on experience. There may be no better object of contemplation for going nowhere but inward than an image. Mandalas and sacred art were traditional tools, visual structures that focused attention on order and unity in the universe. Looking a painting can be even better. If an image draws you to it, then there’s a psychological connection already, you’re already seeing something within ready to unfurl in relation to circumstances in the present moment.