“Be mindful.” “Stay in the present.” “Bare attention.” We’ve all heard one of these phrases. And if you’re more experienced in insight practice, these may be the watchwords that chime in the back of consciousness from morning till night, reminding you that everything genuine in the spiritual path is to be found in the now.

But then one day you’re sitting in meditation, trying to observe the rise and fall of the abdomen, or a thought, or pain, and it all seems terribly dreary. Suddenly a question floats like a bubble to the surface of your mind: “What’s so great about the present moment, anyway?”

Casting about for an answer, you think vaguely of seeing the beauty you’ve been missing (although nothing seems beautiful right now), or enlightenment (which is what, exactly?) or simply gaining more peace and happiness. You’re not sure how those good things occur as a result of staying in the now—here you squirm a bit—and yet, imagining some golden light in the distance, you feel that if only your mind could stay in the present, things would get better. Better how? Well, just . . . better. Happier.

Alas. Although we may be thoroughly versed in the method of mindfulness practice, our clarity sometimes fails when it comes to stating why the now is worthwhile. Yet we needn’t sweep the issue under the rug or be satisfied with a vague answer. It warrants serious thought because, unless we’re clear about what the present is, it will be easy to abandon the practice of mindfulness when experience doesn’t match expectation.

Fourteen years ago, during my first meditation retreat with Achan Sobin Namto, this question came up full force. I was a new student, in the first week of a three-and-a-half-month retreat. Achan Sobin, a Thai Buddhist teacher, had more than thirty years’ experience teaching meditation.

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