A Single Excellent Night
Let not a person revive the past
Or on the future build his hopes;
For the past has been left behind
And the future has not been reached.
Instead with insight let him see
Each presently arisen state;
Let him know that and be sure of it,
Today the effort must be made;
Tomorrow Death may come, who knows?
No bargain with Mortality
Can keep him and his hordes away,
But one who dwells thus ardently,
Relentlessly, by day, by night –
It is he, the Peaceful Sage [the Buddha] has said,
Who has had a single excellent night.
— from MN 131, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi
Now we come to the heart of the matter. Once we’ve recognized our obsession with past and future, we turn our attention to the thing that is neither, i.e., the present. The entire cryptic instruction is to “know each presently arisen state”. This is quite a challenge; it requires leaving behind any storyline we can construct, our preferences, our whole history and context. It is possible, but nothing else in our experience has trained us to be fully, completely, irrevocably present. The invitation is to investigate each sensory input, as it comes in, and discover it as if it were an entirely new experience, which it is. Sayadaw U Tejaniya once said we should imagine ourselves to be a satellite dish; accepting all data from our sense gates (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touch) but not analyzing it; allowing our inner wisdom to know what’s important and what’s not and to assemble meaning as needed. I’ve found this to be a useful image.
There are a few things we can try, to help focus our attention on the present. One is to simply be aware of what position our bodies are in: upright? walking? sitting? lying down? moving? Tracking this dimension of our experience can bring mindfulness to each moment.
Another possibility is to focus on the sense of touch, that is, any physical sensation we have through our skin, muscle, or internal happenings. The classical elements of sensation are: hard/soft (earth), wet/dry (water), cold/hot (fire), expansive/contractive movement (air).
Another approach is to track each in-breath and out-breath from beginning to end, including any gaps in between. If other sensory inputs become dominant, we allow them, attend to them fully, and when they fade, return to the breathing. As we discover again and again, this takes deep and sustained concentration, which we can develop over time.
The remainder of the verse is an exhortation to apply ourselves right now, with all our energy. It’s true that we can’t know when our death will come, so we ought to feel some sense of urgency if we intend to develop the Buddha’s path. And if we do practice mindfulness in this fully embodied way, persistently, relentlessly, we can be satisfied that we are doing something the Buddha would call excellent.