What Does It Mean to Be Present

"Brotherhood" by Ning Yeh from his book An Album of Chinese Brush Painting: 80 Paintings and Ideas.

Originally Posted: June 16, 2021

When You've Heard Something Many Times, It is Time to Understand More Deeply

Before I get into a discussion about what it means to "be present," I want to discuss a phenomenon that I have experience with myself and other people I have met. Often times we do not understand or apply very key wisdom because we have heard it too many times without understanding it or applying it. This is true with the idea of "being present." If you have an interest in meditation or Eastern teachings you have hear this phrase many times. So what is happening when you tell someone to "be present," and they say "yeah, I know, I am being present but I can't stop stressing out about having to go to the DMV tomorrow!"

We haven't really talked about what it means to be present yet so maybe this is putting the cart before the horse but I wanted to address this phenomenon beforehand because I think, for many of us, the trick is not about getting new information but actually stopping to consider, understand and apply critical wisdom that we have heard before. In case you did not understand the irony of the exchange above, it is that the person above thinks that they are being present but in actuality they are thinking about something in the near future and not being present (focusing on the here and now). When we stop to consider, understand and apply information, that information becomes knowledge and as the old adage says "knowledge is power."

What Does It Mean to "Be Present"

When I think about the phrase "be present," I am reminded of Chinese phrase 现在 (Xiànzài). This is not a fancy or poetic phrase. It is literally translated as "right now." What I like about this phrase is that is that if you examine the words separately, we have 现 (Xiàn) which speaks to being present more as an element of time paired with 在 (zài) which speaks to being present more as an element of space like when a child responds to their name being called in roll call by saying "here!" So together, we have this idea of being here in this present time and also here in this present space.

How Chinese Brush Painting Can Help You Be Present

The spontaneous style of Chinese Brush Painting comes from the practice of Chinese Calligraphy. Practicing Chinese Calligraphy is a wonderful way to meditate on an idea and to ponder that idea more deeply as you practice writing. Calligraphy is unique as an art form in its singular focus. One word, one brush, one color, one stroke at a time.

This singular, meditative focus is carried over into the spontaneous style of Chinese painting with its emphasis on capturing the spiritual essence of a subject. Try this as an exercise in your spontaneous style painting. Clear your mind and set your focus on one idea that you believe embodies the spiritual essence of your subject. For example, when painting a bird, try freedom. Bamboo, think strength through flexibility. Orchid, delicate beauty.

The sheer spontaneity of Chinese Brush Painting can help you be in the present moment. When we hold expectations we are really thinking about the future. Use the spontaneity of rice paper and the Chinese brush as an exercise to paint without expectations. Instead do a stroke and see what happened, then do another stroke. Feel the difference when you delight in the unexpected occurrence of the present moment rather than judging something as correct or incorrect based on how the moment measured up to your previous expectation. Be present, and paint!

We invite you to discover the beauty and serenity of 现在 (Xiànzài). The glorious feeling of connection we you focus completely on this present time and this present space. Happy painting indeed!

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