Notes from the Discourse on Living Happily in the Present Moment

Our appointment with life is in the present moment. The place of our appointment is right here, in this very place.  – Thich Nhat Hanh

The Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone

Excerpt from Bhaddekaratta Suta (translated from Pali)

The Buddha taught:

Do not pursue the past.

Do not lose yourself in the future.

The past no longer is.

The future has not yet come.

Looking deeply at life as it is in the very here and now,

the practitioner dwells

in stability and freedom.

We must be diligent today.

To wait until tomorrow is too late.

Death comes unexpectedly.

How can we bargain with it?

The sage calls a person who knows

how to dwell in mindfulness

night and day

“one who knows

the better way to live alone.”


The Buddha said that living alone means living in the present moment deeply observing what is happening. If we do that we will not be dragged into the past or swept away into thoughts about the future. To be in touch with community is very important. To discover the way of being alone in a practice community is something we need to do. The monk Thera was part of a practice community but he was determined to live alone because he heard the Buddha once praise the practice of living alone but he was unable to mix with his fellow practitioners and they expressed their concern to the Buddha. If we practice “the better way of living alone,” and we spend most of our time quietly practicing walking and sitting meditation, our presence will make a real contribution to the community. Unlike the monk Thera every step we make adds to the quality and stability of the community.

To live alone means to live in mindfulness. It does not mean to isolate oneself from society. If we live in forgetfulness, if we lose ourselves to be tossed about by desires, anger, and ignorance, we will not be able to live each moment of our life deeply. When we are feeling hollow, exhausted, joyless and not our true selves we should stop trying to be in touch with society and come back to ourselves and practice conscious breathing, observing deeply what is going on inside and around us.

If we live in mindfulness we are no longer poor because our practice of living in the present moment makes us rich in joy, peace, understanding and love. Even when we encounter someone poor in spirit, we are able to look deeply and discover that person’s depths and help him or her in an effective way. If we watch an unwholesome movie or read a bad novel and we are already poor in heart and mind and weak in mindfulness, that movie or book may irritate us and make us even poorer. But if we are rich in mindfulness we will discover what lies in the depths of the film or novel. Maintaining full awareness of the present moment, we are able to profit from it. This is the better way to live alone.

Internal Formations

Buddha taught that we should not pursue the past because the past is no longer. When we are lost in thoughts about the past, we lose the present. Life only exists in the present moment; to lose the present is to lose life. Internal formations are mental factors that arise in us and bind us. Things we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, imagine, or think can all give rise to internal formations–desire, anger, irritation, confusion, fear, anxiety, suspicion, and so on. Internal formations are present in the depths of consciousness of each of us. Internal formations influence our consciousness and every day behavior; because they compel us in this way they are called fetters because they bind us to acting in certain ways. Commentaries usually mention 9 internal formations (desire, hatred, pride, ignorance, stubborn views, attachment, doubt, jealousy, selfishness) and ignorance is the fundamental internal formation, it is the raw material by which all other mental formations are formed. We have to learn to transform our internal formations so that we will be free to be attentive to the present moment.

The present is also made up of the past

The present contains the past. When we understand how our internal formations cause conflicts in us, we can see how the past is in the present moment, and we will no longer be overwhelmed by the past. When we review the pas and observe it deeply, if we are standing firmly in the present, we are not overwhelmed by it. This is called, “looking again at something old in order to learn something new.”

If we know that the past lies in the present we know that we are able to change the past by transforming the present. An important part of the work of observation meditation is to be able to recognize the latent tendencies, observe them deeply and transform them.

Do not lose yourself in the future

The reason we think about the future even when we do not want to is because of internal formations. The energies behind our thinking about the future are our hopes, dreams, and anxieties. Because the present doesn’t bring us happiness, we allow our minds to travel into the future. We all know that hope is necessary for life but in Buddhism hope can be an obstacle. If we invest our mind in the future we will not have enough mental energy to face and transform the present. Naturally we have to make plans for the future but this does not mean we should be swept up by day dreams. While we are making plans our feet are firmly planted in the present. We can only build the future from the raw materials in the present. The essential teaching of Buddhism is to be free of all desire for the future in order to come back with all our heart and mind into the present. Only the present moment is real.

The Past and Future Both Lie in the Present

When we think about the past, feelings of regret may arise. When we think about the future feelings of desire may come up but all of these feelings arise in the present moment and all of them affect the present moment. The main thing we have to remember is that the past and the future are both in the present, and if we take hold of the present moment, then we also transform the past and the future. If we observe the present deeply and take hold of unpleasant feelings about the past we can transform it. We do so by means of mindfulness, determination, and correct actions and speech. There is a gatha or repentance: “All wrongdoings arise because of mind. If mind is transformed, can any wrongdoing remain? After repentance, my heart is light like the cloud floating free in the sky.” Because of our lack of mindfulness, because our mind was obscured by desire, anger, jealousy, we acted wrongly. If the wrong doing arose from the mind, it can also be transformed within our mind. Such transformation is available if we know how to return to the present moment. If we can transform the past we can transform the future. Our anxieties and fears for the future make the present dark. Taking care of the present is the best way to take care of the future.

Buddhism talks about three poisons: desire, hatred, ignorance. To live in the present moment is to accept and face these poisons as they arise, manifest, and return to the unconscious, and to practice observation meditation in order to transform them. Happiness is the direct result of facing things and being in touch. That happiness is the material from which a beautiful future is manufactured.

Life is Found in the Present

Peace, joy, liberation, awakening, happiness, Buddhahood, the source–everything we long for and seek after can only be found in the present moment. Aimlessness in Buddhism is taught as a way to help the practitioner stop pursuing the future and remain in the present, it is also called wishlessness. To be able to stop pursuing the future allows us to realize that all the wonderful things we seek are present in us, in the present moment. Life is not a particular place or destination. Life is a path.

Buddhism teaches a way of breathing which gives us the capacity of making body and mind one in order to be face to face with life. Stability and freedom refer to the contentment and tranquility of not being carried away by anything whatsoever. Impermanence and selflessness are the foundations on which life is built. Impermanence is the constant transformation of things and selflessness is interdependence.

Suffering becomes the element which nourishes our love and compassion and so we are not afraid of it. When our heart is filled with love we will act in ways to help relieve the suffering of others.

A life of peace, freedom and joy

If we live observing everything deeply in the present moment, we learn to live in peace and joy with freedom and stability. If we continue to practice diligently in this way, peace, joy, and stability will grow every day until we realize complete liberation. Observation of impermanence can lead us to transcend the boundaries of birth and death. When we look at all that is in the universe and all those dear to us, we see that there is nothing eternal and unchanging that we can call “I” or “self.”

Transcending birth and death

The Buddha taught us to look directly into the elements which combine together to constitute our body, in order to see the nature of these elements and transcend the idea of “self.” The five elements which combine together to become the things we call self are form (body), feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. All five elements are constantly transforming.

The sutra refers to someone who practices according to the teachings of the Noble Ones which means someone who lives in the present and observes deeply in order to see life’s impermanent and selfless nature.