Healthy Contact with the Present Moment
by Michael W. Taft
These are terrifying and triggering times. Most sane commenters and political analysts, as well as futurists, climate scientists, and visionaries are converging on one obvious conclusion: we as a species are in deep shit. We are likely headed towards a social, economic, and ecological collapse of epic proportions, including war, famine, plague, and the death of billions of human beings. Furthermore, there’s probably little we can do to stop it at this point. I believe it is an important part of meditation practice to look at this possibility very squarely in the face, in a sober and clear-headed manner.
When I witness the violence and abuse happening daily in my neighborhood, the starvation, homelessness, untreated madness, and ubiquitous, pointless cruelty, and read about it or see it happening worldwide, I am filled with sadness and compassion. The suffering of all animals, including human beings, feels unbearable and cuts me to the core. I can’t predict the future, but knowing that our world may get much worse, I feel powerless, outraged, terrified not only for the present, but for the pain that is to come, perhaps for billions of individuals. So many beautiful, fresh, alive beings, and so much suffering that could have been avoided. Sometimes it feels like I could just cry until I die. Or sink into despair.
Looking Reality Square in the Face
My understanding of the teachings of the Buddha is that we are to look reality square in the face. He often used a phrase, yathābhūtañāṇadassanaṃ, which is usually translated as “seeing things as they really are.” We are not to avoid reality, nor tell a pretty story about it, but see it for what it is. It’s the core of the dharma to engage with the reality of old age, sickness, and death in an honest manner. Only from that solid foundation can we make a sane response; sane in the sense that it is based in what actually is. When I encounter things that are different than I would like them to be, the awakened response is to remember that they are as they are. They cannot be different than they are in this moment, regardless of how I would like them to be. “It’s like this now.”
The fulcrum of practice, then, is to face the reality of things as they are, and to know that much of my own suffering is caused by the fact that I want them to be different. When I allow the situation to be exactly as it is, the pain is still there, but it greatly reduced. By meeting the present moment with compassion and kindness, we can both honor our desires for a better world, and understand that we have to accept the reality of the situation at the moment. This is the only sane basis from which we can work to change it.
When this practice goes bad, it can lapse into a gritty, rubbing-your-nose-in-it, “reality sandwich” mood. A cruel-to-be-kind justification for what boils down to just inflicting more suffering. Other times it can become an anchor for despair, inaction, and giving up. A third reaction is to unhook from reality and check out into fantasies of reincarnation, perfect Buddha worlds, or other eternalist delusions.
All of these reactions, or “failure modes” as we might call them, can be remedied by being kind to yourself. You don’t have to spend every moment dwelling on the darkness, staring into the ravening maw of the Abyss. There are, of course, many good things, many beautiful things, many uplifting things that actually exist and that we can focus on. Paying attention to them raises up the heart, brings relief, brightens the spirit. This is not some kind of Pollyannaish distraction—a making up of illusory vagaries—but a close engagement with the beauty of the world that is actually existing.
Not Knowing It All
Furthermore, there is indeterminacy. The fact of the matter is that we don’t know what the future will bring, but only what is currently arising. While we must plan as effectively as possible for the future, there will always be unpredictable occurrences and contingencies that throw off our speculations. Perhaps the wisest words attributed to Jesus are those of Matthew 6:34, where he says (I paraphrase) to not worry about tomorrow, for there’s enough to engage with today.
A different but related point is that we can never actually see the world as it is. There is often a fantastical assertion in meditation communities that through the “naked seeing” of things “as they really are” we will arrive at some sort of Deep Truth. That if we are just clear enough in our meditation, in our contacting of sensory experience, there is the possibility of contacting unmediated Reality. But the fact is that all perception is conditioned by our expectations, our concepts, even our biology. Perhaps all we’re ever seeing is our own paranoia and neediness, our own fears and projections, as our brains struggle to construct a model of the world around us from the patchy and inconsistent signals from our senses. This may be the one truth available from meditating with great clarity on the senses: we are mediated beings, whether we like it or not.
The point here is not that we can disappear into a murky cloud of “Mystery” and call it a day, which would just be high-falutin’ escapism. Rather, it’s important to always maintain humility and clarity that we don’t know the final word about what is happening, but merely our current best guesses. That includes our understanding of the way it “really is” and our ideas about what is actually happening right now. There’s always a little gap, or wiggle room, between our concepts and models of reality and that unknowable reality itself.
Rather than upsetting or destabilizing, this unknowability can be a source of relief and succor to a certain extent. It represents the proverbial “something bigger than ourself” and brings humility, groundedness, healthy ego-deflation, and—most important of all—an openness and curiosity to the new arising moment. It is the beginner’s mind which allows us to start fresh and new in each instant. Curious exploration of each new day, each arising moment of our lives—even or perhaps especially when those moments are extremely challenging—is the powerful gift of our practice; a gift which brings resilience, joy, and creative engagement with the world as it is.
photo by Jeff Houze
I found this a nice overview and introduction to the basic tenants of mindfulness Michael. A couple comments:
1) “A third reaction is to unhook from reality and check out into fantasies of reincarnation, perfect Buddha worlds, or other eternalist delusions”. Are you saying that these can be indulged in as ways of unhooking from reality or are you saying that these ideas are delusional constructs with no basis in reality (I assume being part of the traditional cultural baggage that needs to be jettisoned from Buddhism)? If its the former I agree, its is the latter I would just say I have enough personal experiences (non-drug or substance induced) to belief these constructs point to very real aspects of the Kosmos and believe your statement negating those realities or even the possibility of those realities goes against centuries of experiences of enlightened masters.
It is also inconsistent with the statement you make later in the blog where you say “we can never actually see the world as it is” and yet you are making a very bold statement about the way the world is. (I realize I am pulling your statement a bit out of context but I don’t think I am distorting your perspective). My suggestion to any material reductionist, if that is your position, is that until they can explain where and when the Big bang and all matter occurred or how something came from nothing, you are still making up stories about reality that includes ideas not much different than theism, magic and fairy tales. You actually point to this when you say later in your article: “The point here is not that we can disappear into a murky cloud of “Mystery” and call it a day, which would just be high-falutin’ escapism . Rather, it’s important to always maintain humility and clarity that we don’t know the final word about what is happening”
And speaking of seeing the world as it is or not
2) you state: “But the fact is that all perception is conditioned by our expectations, our concepts, even our biology”. I basically agree with you but I think I see at least two exceptions. One is the notion of what Culadasa calls the enlightenment experience of consciousness without an object, where, as I paraphrase him “””one deconstructs and calms the mind to the point were eventually none of the sub-minds offers an object into consciousness, including the notion of the “I” existing, and you experience consciousness without an object “”” The experience is basically “experienced”/ assimilated/ conceptualized after you come out of it, as a gap in “your” existence, but with the strong experience that there was not a loss of consciousness (as in went to sleep or anything”. I would say that is pure unconditioned experience. The other is on the path to that place, where one sits and watches the formations of thoughts and such, aware of the gentle volcanic activity of thought fragments in the soup of consciousness, but “you” can “choose” to think them or not, by shifting energetic attention to them, or not. And it you don’t they just die off as half primed neural activity of the unconscious mind. So it seems there are at least two places where one can see reality without conditioning, though I get that watching the activity of the mind creating the world may not be in the spirit of what you meant where you made the statement. 😉
3) And yes. totally agree with this “It is the beginner’s mind which allows us to start fresh and new in each instant. Curious exploration of each new day, each arising moment of our lives—even or perhaps especially when those moments are extremely challenging—is the powerful gift of our practice”. Yes. lose as many of the structures of perception and conceptualization as you can in any given context, and keep whatever structures of conceptualization to the minimum needed to perceive and function in the “reality” you are in, with as little distortion as possible and be ready to drop those structures when they no longer serve the moment and as you develop deeper more inclusive structures. Its the only way forward.
Thanks for your writings and your gentle and loving approach to transmitting the Dharma Michael, its great stuff.
Thanks for your comments, Doug.
As you say, I cover this question later in the piece. As an additional comment to your comment, however, I would say that the typical Buddhist eternalist fantasies (i.e. reincarnation, karma, etc.) may or may not be true. We cannot know for sure. Invoking the “centuries of experience of enlightened masters” doesn’t really change that. The interesting question, to me, is why you (or anybody) needs it to be true and gets defensive about it. Any belief at all is surely obviously a mental construct, and requires no defense. They are, as you say, simply the gentle volcanic activity… etc. I’m not sure you’re exactly saying this, so apologies if I’m getting it wrong, but you seem to be working hard to point out the indeterminacy of science—-which I grant you–while somehow attempting to assert that reincarnation (or whatever) must be true. Which is fine, but not my cup of tea. It’s all indeterminate, as far as I’m concerned.
We don’t agree completely, which is fine.