Practicing the Present: The Art of Being Self-Conscious

Before we had to put her down, my dog, Gidget, never seemed to worry about the future. She did have a sense of time—or at least she seemed to know when I was due home from work. If she thought at all about the future, it was never very far into the future. And she didn’t worry about death. Right up to her last breath, she never gave it a thought. When we took her to the vet to have her put down, she had no clue what was coming. I don’t know if that made it easier or harder for us.

Many of us live in a world of strategies, five-year-plans, and future goals. My dog’s life was lived entirely in the present. If she had a sense of the future, it extended only as far as the next few moments. She looked forward to the cookie that I tossed her when she came in from outside. But she didn’t wake up in the morning and think about what she was going to do that evening. Even if she could, she would not have asked me to mark an important date on the calendar. As far as I could tell, she existed entirely in the present tense.

Yet her experience is not what I mean by living life in the now. Practicing the present doesn’t mean that we live our lives with a kind of animal immediacy, thinking only of what we need or desire in the moment. It is not reactive living that responds to whatever stimulus I happen to be experiencing in the moment without reflection. Christian living in the present tense demands a kind of self-consciousness that is guided by the Holy Spirit and filtered by the truth of God’s Word. It is a reflection of our capacity to act as a volitional being created in the image of God.

We don’t usually think of self-consciousness as a virtue. It is a trait of an awkward soul. Our image of the self-conscious person is one of shuffling timidity. It is the aspect of someone who has no confidence but is nevertheless self-absorbed. The self-conscious person is one who is continually engaging hand wringing and apology. Even worse, self-consciousness seems to us to be the path that leads to unhealthy introspection, if not to outright narcissism.

We are suspicious of introspection because we associate it with the kind of navel gazing that is characteristic of eastern mysticism. Are we really supposed to sit on a mat and think about ourselves? Such an approach seems to be looking in the wrong direction, especially for Christians who are oriented toward doing. We suspect it would be better to turn the focus away from ourselves. We would prefer to be busy rather than spending extended periods of time thinking about ourselves.

We are right to be suspicious of morbid introspection. Any practice of self-conscious introspection that is not informed by both the truth of God’s Word and the hope of the gospel can only move in two directions. Either it will lead us in the direction of denial, so that we persuade ourselves that we are better than we really are. Or it will move in the direction of shame and despair. Introspection alone does not necessarily lead to a genuine self-understanding. Genuine self-understanding in turn does not always lead to hope.

When we stop and engage in self-conscious introspection we continue to feel the momentum of all that preceded that moment. This is why our initial experience may be unsettling instead of peaceful. In a sense, our minds and our lives are still in motion. The jumble of thoughts, worries, that have been stirred up by the turbulence of our lives comes rushing into that quiet space and we can’t help feeling like we should move with it. We may be distracted at first and agitated. We feel like we should do something. If we are determined to be still and wait for the disorder to settle down, we soon discover something else. We have been in motion because we have been busy but that is not the only reason. Those who wait out the initial storm often realize that they have been in motion because we have been in flight. Perhaps it is a flight from ourselves. It may be a flight from God. Usually, it is a combination of both. As the dust settles in that quiet space of reflection, we begin to see those aspects of ourselves and our lives that we have been trying to keep at bay.

For me, this usually happens at night, when I am forced to stop moving. I lie down to sleep, but the momentum of the day continues. I rewind the events of the past day and watch them again, evaluating my performance. I am like an athlete watching a video of the game that just ended. I criticize my actions. I replay my conversations, improving my responses with all the things I should have said when I had the chance. After I have sorted through all the remains of the day, I turn my attention to the more distant past and begin to sift through my memories like an archaeologist looking for clues. From there, I project into the future with the past as my template. Will it get better? Will it be worse?

I am not alone in this. The intersection of the past and future at the point of the present is a pattern we often find in the Psalms. But the psalmist does more than simply review the past and speculate about the future. The psalmist ponders the reality of God’s presence. When you read the Psalms you discover that The psalmist intentionally directs his gaze toward God. This is an exercise of the intellect. It is an exercise in reasoning. He doesn’t blank his mind in an effort to unite with God’s essence. He argues with himself and takes stock of the facts. “This is what my situation is,” he says. “This is what God has done in the past. Is it really possible that He will deal differently with me in the future?” The implied answer to the psalmist’s question is no. This sounds like it could be a pep talk, and in a way, it is. But it is more. It is the psalmist’s attempt to detect God’s presence on the landscape.

Several years ago, I visited the Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. As I walked the grounds, I noticed that there were photographs displayed throughout the park. Some things had changed. The people in the pictures were gone. They had died long ago. But the basic features of the landscape were still the same. I recognized the same rolling hills and the same great boulders portrayed in the faded photographs. The recognition sent shivers down me. Suddenly this historic battle no longer seemed like an artifact of history. It was as if what was past had somehow been transported into the present. Something similar happens for the psalmist as he traces the lines of God’s faithfulness onto the landscape of his present experience. As he surveys the future, he expects those features to remain. The circumstances may change, but God’s presence will remain the same. When we engage in this kind of introspection, we are trying to do the same. We are examining the landscape of the present to find the recognizable features of God’s presence in our lives.

In contemplation, we do not try to work ourselves into a state of spiritual bliss. We do not need to elevate our feelings or put a good face on our bad mood. We do not need to be spiritual giants to practice the present. Is it the spiritual work of ordinary people. It is a discipline that helps me to align my perspective with God’s by tracing His presence on the landscape of the past, present and future.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now: will be released by Moody Publishers in June and is now available for pre-order from Amazon.com. Order your copy today.