I have been wrestling lately with “the present moment” versus planning for the future, or maybe it is “spontaneity” versus “discipline.”
My stumbling block is McMindfulness, where the focus is incessantly on the present and the pretense (perhaps “pretense” comes from the same root as “present”, just as “shrub” and “bush” and “brush” seem to have the same letters rearranged to give a final similar result) that this moment is all there really is. I understand that if you don’t use the present moment well, odds are that your future won’t be that great, either. I see that every day in the people I know. To some degree, the focus needs to be on what you can accomplish today with the resources currently at your disposal.
However, our sensory-overloaded culture keeps saying, “Relax. Enjoy the moment. What’s all the fuss about?” There is a word for that: ignorance. It is rightly called a “poison” by Buddhists everywhere.
Ironies abound here. I was looking at an article on Buddhism Now regarding the Dalai Lama focusing on the present moment, saying that there is no future or past without the present. It seems that the people pushing this “present moment living” are also the people who have consciously, deliberately developed vast reservoirs of spiritual discipline. Another example is the Taoists out there, memorizing vast quantities of their scriptures so that they can “spontaneously” respond to a given situation properly. That’s not “spontaneity.” That’s called “training.” Any HR manager will tell you that. All HR professionals know, through experience, that people do not rise to the level of expectations placed on them. Rather, people fall to the level of their training. Martial arts are also built upon the same unfathomable depths of discipline to enable their practitioners to respond properly in stressful situations. The only way to behave harmoniously in a variety of circumstances is to have already made a strong, conscious choice to behave according to previously-chosen principles. This is hardly my definition of “spontaneity.”
I have some of the same misgivings relating to spiritual experiences that people attribute to The Universe, God, or whatever. Let’s just be honest. Most spiritual environments are designed to invoke certain feelings, such as beauty, clarity, holiness, warmth, community, peace, etc. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. Who wouldn’t rather be in a clean, beautiful, warm room/building/whatever (as opposed to a dirty, cold, ugly place)? I, for one, am always trying to declutter my house and clean it better to make it more inviting. I am only advocating truth-in-advertising. As an Orthodox Christian, I could look up whatever Sunday it was (such as the fourth Sunday of John, e.g.) and know precisely what scriptures would be read and what the hymns of the day would be. It was no secret, and there you go. However, in the Protestant world, there was a huge pretense of spontaneity and everything being a “move of God”—even as absolutely every detail was orchestrated and choreographed within an inch of its life. All details were manipulated and canned. The artificiality was palpable. I actually found the in-your-face predictability of orthodoxy refreshing and, uh, unpretentious.
My point is that I feel a certain confusion when I hear about how primary this moment is, as compared to all other moments, and then turn around to find my current choices being constrained by prior, poor choices I made years ago. My future choices are, likewise, being constrained by the quality of my current decisions. Maybe my issue is simply the fact that I am middle-aged now and routinely live with the good and bad consequences of previous choices. I want to take young people by the collars and try to communicate somehow to them that they will eventually have to live with the consequences of their choices from today. I have seen, personally, how a time comes to us all when we can no longer make choices. We have to accept the fallout or fruits of previous attitudes and actions. Our ability to make new choices has passed and we are left with what we did or didn’t do years ago.
There is a very steep price to be paid for stupid spontaneity. My friends and I are all paying it. This is the amount due for living a life with the attitude of Alfred E. Neumann: “What? Me worry?”
“Time for the Buddhist is flow; the past flows through the present and into the future. Time is also singular; the present contains the past and the future is necessitated on the present. That is not to say the past determines the present or the present determines the future; but that the past provides the condition for the present to be effected and the present influences the outcome of the future. Nor do I intend to present time as divided into three distinct and easily distinguishable parts. There is no such thing as Past, Present, and Future; for the Buddhist there is only flow of time. The Buddhist would also say that time has always existed and all pasts, presents, and futures are part of a single cosmic (or atomic) moment.”
The Buddhist Concept of Time in Depictions of Parinirvana
I have always been fascinated with the concept of “flow,” even reading books by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. There exists a state in which knowledge comes fluidly and efficiency increases exponentially. It is beyond description. I do not understand it. I have experienced it a few times.
At the same time, I don’t think this reality is related to some of the “eternal now” psychobabble so popular these days. The idea that this moment is all there is is the essential problem of our culture today. One can easily live on Facebook, always posting and awaiting responses from one’s friends and family. The “eternal now” philosophy dovetails nicely with unending entertainment, ceaseless TV viewing, and the illusion of accomplishment. We sit in front of a glowing screen for hours a day while our productive years slip away. (And the planet heats up and the oceans rise, etc.)
I try to imagine Kwan Yin putting up her feet, reclining, eating a bacon double cheeseburger, and saying, “Live for the moment for that is all there is.”
Most religions have some sense of urgency. It might come in the Christian form of the one-life-to-live model or the Buddhist every-human-birth-is-a-great-opportunity model.
The issue is one of where the sense of urgency comes from. Some companies violate the principle greatly by having every task deemed “urgent.” The result is what you see in emergency rooms: only the person passing out or bleeding the hardest gets any attention at all. Not everything is an emergency and artificially manufacturing a sense of urgency only proves to everyone that nothing truly urgent was ever occurring in the first place. Urgency cannot ever be manufactured convincingly. It makes even the most severe situations look like nothing more than ploys for attention.
So where the heck does real urgency come from? Zen masters will tell people to meditate as if their hair were on fire. This urgency is reinforced with meditations on the fact that we all are of the nature to grow sick and die.
But I’m unsure that that is sufficient. Death is inevitable. How can the inevitable motivate anyone?
I am finding the ongoingness of life to be a much greater threat. The question isn’t, “OMG. What if I die?” The real issue is, “Oh, shit. What if I live? What if I outlive my income? Then what?” I thought Barry would die a few years ago—and made plans accordingly. Oops. He’s still alive and I am still stuck in Michigan. I am now trying to figure out how exactly to move with no help from an invalid husband, a situation I never planned on. Another example is a friend’s roommate, who is living in my friend’s basement, which is a huge step up from being homeless (her previous condition). She said she thought she was too old to go back to school. My response? “What if you’re still working thirty years from now? How is now too late?” We had all just gone out to eat for her fiftieth birthday. Dead people don’t require food, clothing, and housing. The living do.
I don’t understand time, but I do understand that this moment is not the only one that exists. Later does come eventually. The choices we make now determine the choices we even have later. To me, the sense of urgency comes from knowing that, one day, we will no longer have choices available to us and will have to passively accept the consequences of our previous choices. This is not a pretty picture for many people.
“Marooned in the present, we are progressively blinded to the sheer ongoingness of time….For us as agents of change, this can’t be easy, because to intervene in the Industrial Growth Society, we can’t avoid falling into its tempo. We race to find and pull the levers before it is too late to save this forest or stop that weapons program. Nonetheless, we can learn to drink at deeper wells.” Joanna Macy and Molly Brown, “Coming Back to Life,” P. 171
I don’t think that being “marooned in the present” is the Buddhist concept of intimacy with the moment. But that’s what I’ve been living. I have failed to “drink at deeper wells.” I threw away my oars out of sheer exhaustion and paid a steep price.
Being marooned in the present includes:
- Watching TV to kill time
- Listening to “talking heads” (like preachers or TV personalities) without scrutinizing their words, opinions, and/or beliefs as to the effect they have on oneself and others
- Wandering aimlessly on the internet, going from one link to another without a particular purpose or conscious intent.
I have been simply trying to cope. Coping is woefully insufficient to give me a reason to live. I do not possess a strong will to live and never have. Coping is having one foot in the grave. Coping is biding time that one may not actually have.
I had taken my focus off the present moment and have started thinking long-term once more. What I do in the present needs to be a positive investment in the future, not a mindless continuation of the past. It’s kind of like walking to the store: you try not to trip on the way and you try to enjoy the journey, but the point is that you have a particular destination in mind. You are not taking random steps, hoping to wind up somewhere pleasant. It is called “taking responsibility” and the people that do it have mucho better outcomes than those taking random steps.
There is so much I have no control over: Barry’s health, Michigan’s crappy weather, Sallie Mae, etc. Being honest about these things keeps me from being delusional.
The flip side is what I can do. I have a new laptop, loaded with Rosetta Stone Latin American Spanish. I went to the doctor a couple days ago, for the first time in ten years. Other than high triglycerides, I am in decent health. I have ditched so many books that I noticed that I can see the back of my bookshelf, for the first time in probably more than a decade. Also, I have made a call to have someone shovel my sidewalk. Who knows what February will bring snow-wise? Last winter just about killed me. (On the upside, the Great Lakes are back up to normal levels now, for the first time in probably thirty years. It took a mind-boggling amount of snow to achieve that, and, yes, we got it last year.)
Being marooned in the present is the easiest thing in the world. And the most destructive.
“We venerate, not sages or men of wisdom, but pop, TV and sports stars, people whose job it is — and a very well-paid job too — to divert us from, rather than alert us to the realities of our predicament. We’ve made a virtual religion of triviality. And yet we wonder why a gnawing sense of unease haunts our days and nights, and why our children, complaining of boredom, rebel.” Dark Side of Life, by John Snelling http://buddhismnow.com/2014/12/31/dark-side-of-life-by-john-snelling/
This quote is by John Snelling from buddhismnow.com. Now that I actually have a real computer (as opposed to a tablet), I can write documents and do all sorts of things. However, to get to this point, I had to start crawling out of the emotional pit I had fallen into, without even realizing it.
Buddhismnow did a whole series under the heading of “tolerance.” I have come to the conclusion that tolerance is not the solution, but rather the fundamental problem. People (I am totally included in this category) learn to tolerate pretty much anything with the false idea that, “Well, that’s just the way life is.” No, honey, it’s not.
You never get out of life one iota more than you are willing to settle for. Period. You will never get paid what you deserve if you passively accept minimum wage for a paycheck. It comes down to what skills you bring to the table and what employers in your area are willing to pay for said skills. If they do not pay a living wage, move. Can’t afford to move? Split the expenses with others who are mobile. Get creative.
I feel like I am surrounded by two types of people: people making the effort to improve their lots in life and those who make excuses as to why they can’t do so. I manage to belong to both categories, sometimes simultaneously.
Leave it to me to find a way to use mindfulness and “present moment living” to avoid reality. I managed to abuse the concept of “intimacy with the moment and all things” into justification for not taking steps forward.
All I knew was that I felt overwhelmed. I can’t fix Barry’s health. The weather is downright arctic. The word “stuck” is inadequate to describe how I was feeling.
What if Barry lives another couple years? I couldn’t handle the idea of, essentially, waiting for him to die to move forward in my life. I was praying that God, if such a being exists, would off one of us and I reached a point where I did not care which one of us died, just so I could be out of this never-ending, mind-numbing caretaking. That is one serious low point. And it came upon me so slowly that I didn’t even recognize it.
I will have to make all the preparations to move. It will be neither quick nor easy, but I already do everything now without assistance. This is something that will benefit me. In Barry’s mind, there will never be a good time to move. For me, staying put long-term is suicidal-tendency inducing. Place matters, I have come to realize. Lansing has the stink of desperation. People have resigned themselves to the current reality. People with educations and options are still fleeing. Many of the remaining people simply declare bankruptcy every seven years because, that way, “at least we can keep the house.” Poverty and resignation go hand-in-hand.
Part of what drives me crazy is the superficiality and triviality of TV. TV and religion truly are the “opiates of the people.” Karl Marx really hit the nail on the head with that one. He was so correct, it is scary. They are diversions to ensure that people are sufficiently pacified that they never question (let alone alter) the way things are. I’ve understood this about Christianity for a few years, but I really hope that I have deeply misunderstood the Buddha’s message. So far, I have managed to take Buddhism and use it as an excuse for a lack of self-development (and bored myself silly in the process). Boredom is that gap between what one is capable of versus the activities one is engaged in. Any young person not rebelling is either overly-medicated or mentally handicapped. No kidding.
I don’t want to be intimate with stuckness. Stuckness is a red flag, meant not to be embraced but heeded. I’ve started my Rosetta Stone program.
Many, many things have stopped mattering to me: how many people “like” me, what’s on TV, the opinions of religious leaders, Barry’s wanting to stay in Michigan, etc. I have put my life on hold for years. I would rather move him unhappily with me to Virginia than stay here in Siberia and wish one or both of us dead. Yes, it really has come down to that. And I didn’t even know it until last week.
I just got a new computer. I am not used to it yet.
I have been all about conserving resources lately. Why spend money you don’t have to?
I forgot about one little resource: my mind. If I lose that, I don’t have much left. Winning the lottery wouldn’t help if I lost my sanity to do it.
My world has been shrinking. This past fall was awful. Doctor appointments, Barry’s losing weight, getting an advance directive, doing a will for him, and the sewage backup in the basement. I haven’t been going anywhere or doing anything “unnecessary.”
I have just redefined “necessary.” When Barry pushed me and I told him to slow down because watching TV was one my few pleasures left, I was stunned. I don’t even like TV in general.
I have been tying so hard to have compassion on Barry and trying not to traumatize him by forcing him to move that my world shrank to the point of implosion. (Think black hole.) I forgot about myself. When I stopped having compassion for myself, I stopped having it for him. I was basically waiting for him to die. That’s not the kind of life I want to live.
I have stopped caring what anyone thinks about anything. No amount of approval means anything if I am wishing that either of us were dead.
I have started to pack away a few clothes. I purchased this new computer. I will get Rosetta Stone. If Barry continues to live, we will move, whether he likes it or not. Losing my mind won’t do either of us any good and neither will another Michigan winter.
Earlier today, my husband and I got into a minor disagreement. I felt hurried and said that watching TV was one of my few pleasures left. I was horrified. No more pathetic words have ever escaped my lips.
I think I will get a computer in a few weeks. And then perhaps purchase a Spanish or Russian language package.
I’ve been taking minimalism to a weird extreme, I’ve concluded. This past autumn was one of the hardest ever, dealing with Barry and his declining health, getting an advance directive, starting the will, and, oh yeah, the sewage backup in the basement. I needed to relax and recover, but it will be a cold day in hell before I let TV be the high point of my life. Barry has no choice. He is capable of nothing more. I refuse to live the life of an eighty year old at 47. I have been trying to conserve my resources by not going out, not to mention that the temps haven’t been out of the single digits for a few days.
It may be time to expend a few resources on myself, carefully and strategically. I hate it, but the alternative is to passively wait for Barry to die, resenting his very existence. I believe that this is referred to as caregiver burnout. It is not pretty.
I’ve heard that habits are character. I believe it. Everyone wants to do something with their life, but few develop the habits that would make their dreams into reality.
That is why I like Zenhabits.net so much. Babauta takes life in bite size pieces. Right now, I cannot handle anything more.
There is also the admiration factor. My advice is simple. Look at the people in your life. If they are older than you, ask yourself if you want to be like them at their age. If not, flee. Do not allow other people’s disapproval stop you from having and using your common sense. Having sound judgment is actually a good thing.
My goal in life right now is to become someone I would have admired when I was younger.
Buddhism offers the twin foundations of renunciation and compassion. I believe it is best for the renunciation to be voluntary, but, at the very least, I can try not to resist the renunciation life is calling for. I can develop positive habits that will serve me well for the long haul.