The first realization is that the present is the only reality. “Duh!” you may well say. Of course much of what I had come to realize, essentially the emptiness of all five skandhas, leads inexorably to this realization, and yet I had not connected the dots in that manner. There is no reality in thoughts of the past, because it’s all learned experience. And there’s no reality in thoughts of the future because it can’t be known and is often constructed from one’s fantasies. The only reality is what exists right now, at this moment.
It therefore follows that if one wants to find peace, one can only find it in the present. If one wants contentment, one must find it in the present. If one wants happiness one must find it in the present. The past may supply pleasant memories, but it cannot bring you peace, contentment, or happiness. And any thoughts about the future, obsessive or not, may provide the illusion of future peace, contentment, or happiness, but they mostly lead to great frustration with the present, with what you don’t have now. You may plan for the future (as indeed a layperson must, as I’ve noted in my books and posts), but it is only in the reality of the present that you can find true peace, contentment, and happiness and see yourself and the world around you clearly.
And if you do see yourself and the world around you clearly, if you perceive the emptiness of all five skandhas, if you are at one with yourself and all things and are able to experience and observe without the intervention of thought, then all the obstructions ... fear, anger, anxiety, insecurity, greed, all labels ... that prevent you from experiencing peace, contentment, and happiness in the present cease to be. Indeed, all suffering and doubt cease. That is the lesson of the Heart Sutra.
The second realization is that the present is not static. It is part of the forward moving essence of all life.
So often when we read or are taught about being present or accepting our lives and the world around us as it is at this moment, it sounds like we are talking about a static moment, even as we learn that all things are impermanent and changeable. And that creates a barrier for many people trying to walk the path because thinking of their lives as being static, even for a moment (moments do build on each other), is not acceptable.
But the moment, the present, is not static. Both within us and around us, the world is a perpetual motion machine; everything is constantly in movement, changing, both at the microscopic level and the macro. Even deterioration and death can be seen in this light as forward movement. But our fears, our learned experience, our anxiety, our insecurity, our greed place obstructions between that fact and our realization of it.
Whether those obstructions make it impossible for us to see the forward movement in the present ... e.g. “How can the mundane things I’m doing each day move me forward; they’re boring! Nothing changes!” ... or whether those obstructions trap us in inertia, or whether they focus us on obsessive thoughts of the future as we try to run from what is, the result is the same. They make it impossible for us to experience the forward movement of our lives. And when we are unable to feel forward movement in our lives, when we are separated from the flow of nature, we become very frustrated and agitated.
And so, being present in the moment is to experience the essence of life. It is the source of clarity; it is the source of peace, contentment, and happiness; it is the source of growth/change; it is the source of conscious contact with our true Buddha nature. It is only in the present that we can truly live and walk the path.