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Friday, August 8, 2014
Zen ...

I’ve been sitting for meditation with a Zen sangha in the White Plum lineage for a little over 4 years now, and in that time I’ve listened to quite a few talks by various teachers about “the Zen way” (they usually don’t use that expression, but that’s what it amounts to). One important aspect of the Zen-life (you might even call it a philosophy, although they don’t) is “living in the moment”. The Buddha allegedly said that “the secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, nor to worry about the future, but to live the present moment wisely and earnestly.”

A recent article found on a British news site says that “emphasis on the present moment is perhaps Zen’s most distinctive characteristic”. And that Sounds groovy, despite the fact that the Buddha may not have really said that the present moment is so great.

As I’ve said before, I am something of a Zen critic despite my loyal participation at zazen every week. I love to meditate, but I’ve come to conclude that “the present moment” is over-rated. To be honest, I believe that modern Zen teachers’ fixation on “the moment” represents another example of a modern group trying to gain credibility with some “greater tradition” (real or imagined) by defending the relevance of its ancient and outmoded writings and concepts, doing as much bending and contorting of logic as needed to accomplish this. In this respect, Zen is about the same as most any other religion with an ancient scriptural legacy to defend, such as the New Testament, Torah, Quran, Vedas, et al.

As to the idea of “living in the present”, focusing your mind on the now: I think this philosophy is very good for driving, and for interacting with other people. We should keep our eyes and minds on the road, and we should give others our whole selves when talking or listening to them. But an exclusive focus on the present is not so great while being a pilot in a 787, or working as an investment adviser. People are betting their lives or fortunes on your knowing about the past and anticipating the future. There’s plenty of Buddhist double-talk which tip-toes around this quandary, an example of which we will examine in a moment. But why keep harping on a concept that requires a lot of double-talk to be taken seriously as a blanket rule for living?

Well, Zen people often aren’t big fans of God and theistic religion, but they still want their lives and their “practices” to have some greater relatedness to “the whole”. I guess that sex is the epitome (often more imagined than true) of living in the present while feeling a lot of cosmic relatedness. Many American Zennies seem to want life to be like sex (which makes sense given all the sex scandals involving Buddhist and Zen teacher-leaders). But life mostly isn’t like that.

Also, the modern students of the East like the idea that “the power of now” is a nostrum for anxiety, which there is plenty of in modern times. Just stay focused on the present, and forget about what bad stuff might happen down the road. Sounds great . . . until that bad stuff finally arrives.

According to Bodhipaksa, another American dude who gave himself an exotic Indian name as to make a living as a Buddhist wiseman, “living in the moment” is about not being a zombie, even while remembering the past or planning for the future. “Being in the moment does not mean that we are stuck in the moment. We can mindfully and creatively call to mind past events, or imagine what might happen in the future.” Thus, so long as you are mindful and creative, you can try to remember where you left your coat, or plan what you will have for breakfast tomorrow. Phew, what a relief!!! But wait, it doesn’t sound so easy to be mindful or creative when getting ready to shovel snow from the driveway on a cold winter morning.

According to Mr. B, “when we are thinking about the past or future while being in the moment, we are conscious that we are reflecting and we’re not lost in thought. We don’t confuse fantasy with reality. We don’t stray from thinking about the past in order to construct imaginary pasts in which we said or did the right thing – or if we do so then it’s part of a conscious thought experiment to see what we might learn from the experience. We think about the future, but rather than it being idle daydreaming we’re thinking about the consequences of our actions or otherwise reflecting on where we want to go in life.”

Hmm, so it’s as if we constantly need to have a therapist on our shoulders, prodding us back when we idly daydream or construct imaginary pasts. Well, actually, Bodhipaksa will allow us an occasional daydream. “But it’s generally far more useful to have a part of our conscious mind standing by, observing, watching for any sign that the creative expression of the unconscious is turning gray – turning into the repetitive and reactive expression of old and unhelpful emotional patterns. The conscious mind can intervene at such moments with a light touch, a gentle redirection of our mental energies so that we stay in the present; aware, mindful, and creative.” Sounds like he wants the “awareness police” to be ever vigilant!! But just how does this help to alleviate anxiety, if we have to be ever-anxious about becoming anxious about the past or future? Can’t we ever just relax with ourselves?

Eckhart Tolle’s bestselling “Power of Now” tries to help readers to apply “the moment” to overcome anxiety. Tolle’s book is a self-help guide for day-to-day living and stresses the importance of living in the present moment and avoiding thoughts of the past or future. Tolle basically says that an individual should be aware of their “present moment” instead of losing themselves in anxiety about the past or future. Interestingly, another famous white-boy guru, Ken Wilber, tries to piggyback on Tolle’s commercial success here by offering advice (for a price, after the “free preview”) on “getting to the now” even better by working against “the shadow”. According to Wilber, the shadow is something that was formed yesterday, and so it continually pulls you back into the past. You meet someone who reactivates your shadow and all of a sudden, you’re out of the now! Tolle alone doesn’t do enough to get you past “the shadow”, so that’s why you need Ken to complete your voyage to the present. Again, it sounds like it takes a lot of angst to get past the barriers of anxiety separating you from “the now”!

So you can see just how thick the layers of BS can become when trying to make literal sense out of the ancient (and possibly inaccurate) injunction from the East to “live in the moment”. IMHO, the “living in the moment” message could be better conveyed if bifurcated between two modern mental-psychological concepts: directing and focusing our attention when needed, and occasionally self-questioning ourselves. The two may sometimes be related, but sometimes aren’t. They are just guidelines, not strict rules for living. There doesn’t need to be any competitions to see who can better focus their attention and who can better self-question their inner motives, as seems to happen sometimes in Buddhist communities with regard to “living in the moment”.

We have the power to intentionally direct our attention, and to amp it up or tune it back towards a more sleepy state. Often the boosting of attention happens automatically, usually for a threat or other sudden change in one’s environment . This can be good, e.g. when driving and someone runs a stop sign in front of you or a kid juts out into the road on his bike; you stop listening to the radio or talking to your friend, and quickly focus on how to avoid a collision. (And hey, you shouldn’t have been on that smart phone in the first place – and those of you who text and drive can burn in hell!!). Sometimes our attention is also grabbed and kicked up a notch by the chance for a pleasurable “peak moment”, e.g. the smell of savory food. Depressed attention can occur because of depression itself, but can also happen because of a legitimate need for rest and sleep – the body does gets tired sometimes!!

But focus shifts can also be voluntary, of course. That’s where we have a choice, that’s what we have to think about – how our discretionary mental energy should best be used. Attention can be divided between outward attention on sensory input, and on inward attention from imagination, memories, and cogitation – i.e. stuff originating mostly in the brain. We need to strike a good balance between living in the world and living in our heads. And that balance won’t be the same for everyone, one size does not fit all.

As to questioning ourselves as to why we feel a certain way about someone or something — this can be both good and bad. We can’t constantly question ourselves regarding our subconscious motivations; we cant always have a therapist on our shoulders, as suggested by “teachers” like Bodhipaksa. Most of the time we just have to trust ourselves as we get thru the day. Real life is often “shoot first, ask questions later”.

But it is good sometimes to question our motives, to look for unhealthy hidden motivations and agendas. We should look back on our actions as to detect negativity, and thus try to change this and be less negative and more understanding in the future. We should also ponder the future, to see where we can eliminate negative agendas, better understand others, and try to make things better for ourselves and everyone else going forward. In doing all of this, however, we need to live in both the past and the future.

So much for pure “living in the moment”. I think it’s time for the Zen roshis, senseis and other self-proclaimed “teachers” to junk the simplistic and delusional preaching about “living in the moment”. Maybe Buddha, Dogen and the other old masters weren’t always as informed as we can be, with the benefit of centuries of accumulated knowledge about behavior, psychology and brain science. We definitely do need to think about how to best use our mental resources, and how to keep ourselves honest regarding our motivations and emotions. The two aren’t always the same, and aren’t always “right here in the present”. It’s time to put aside the “wise-sounding” doubletalk from an ancient millennium, for some good common-sense advice about getting by in the 21st Century — present AND future!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:50 pm      

  1. Jim, I can’t say that I’ve got a lot to add to this. You’ve about hit the nail on the head and said it all very well, indeed; so it seems to me.

    I had my period of time when I tried to live in the moment. Living in the moment lasted, now that I really think about it, only during the time I was meditating. Somehow I never managed the “living in the moment” at any other time; and I never really considered seriously living in the moment at any other time than meditation time. I would also try to “live in the moment” when life got too much to deal with and a “break” was required to reassess things. Then I would take some time out to “live in the moment”; but I wonder if I was; perhaps I simply was reassessing life.

    I’d say you’ve about explained completely and thoroughly why it was I (and likely many others) never have been able to live in the moment at any other time than when I was meditating. I think you’ve added and explained important element to the whole “living in the moment” thing, perhaps explained how it really works. Actually, it never really occurred to me that I was not “living the moment”; furthermore, it’s something I’ve never tho’t about until this post. Thank you. I think you’ve found the problem with Zen Buddhism as it “supposed” to be practiced and have clearly elucidated it.

    I also think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the point about the emphasis on sex by so many “Buddhist and Zen teachers-leaders”. I once walked out after a half a day’s meditation group; the last half seemed to be getting ridiculously silly with a growing emphasis on trying to arouse a sexual element among the attendees of the group. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out what that had to do with meditation.

    Now that I think about it, might just plain full concentration on whatever one is doing be similar to “living in the moment”? After all, when one is devoting 99.9% of one’s attention to concentration on what one is doing, how much more “living in the moment” can one get? But I doubt that’s counted as Buddhist. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — August 9, 2014 @ 9:24 am

  2. Jim, I no sooner left the above comment than I went to the “Humans of New York” blog and found this. What could be more “in the moment” but what also could be less conducive to the life those who talk about “living in the moment” want. So, herewith the quote from the traveler in Iran. (The author gives broad permission for “reposting”. Is a quote a “repost”? He speaks to the subject; I must say.)

    “I normally go into my conversations with a set of proven questions to ask, that I find will elicit a wide variety of anecdotes from people’s lives: happiest moment, saddest moment, things like that. But with people fleeing war, it is absolutely impossible to discuss anything beyond the present moment. Their circumstances are so overpowering, there is absolutely zero room in their minds for any other thoughts. The conversation immediately stalls, because any topic of conversation beyond their present despair seems grossly inappropriate. You realize that without physical security, no other layers of the human experience can exist. “All day they [the children pictured] do is cry for home,” she [the woman pictured] told me. (Dohuk, Iraq)” MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — August 9, 2014 @ 9:37 am

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