In praise of the present moment

One of the things that helped me realize the need for self-improvement by not-self-improvement was regular practice with the excellent Headspace meditation app, created by a former Tibetan monk named Andy Puddicombe. Headspace is at the epicenter of “McMindfulness”: the app normally charges for access but I get it for free as a work wellness benefit, and this arrangement has made Puddicombe millions of dollars. In turn, the app is a big reason I defend McMindfulness – especially through John Dunne’s hugely helpful distinction between “classical” and “nondual” mindfulness.

That is to say: the core practice in Headspace is noticing your emotions, positive and negative, as they arise, and reacting to them with nonjudgemental acceptance. And you do so, yes, in the present moment. Critics like Ron Purser correctly note that that present-moment focus is not found in classical Indian texts like the Pali suttas or Śāntideva – but Dunne notes that it is found in other premodern Buddhist traditions, like the Tibetan writings of Wangchuk Dorje. And I dare say that that present-moment technique is an improvement: one that does a better job than the classical tradition’s techniques at their shared goal of reducing our suffering.

What I’ve found exciting about Headspace meditation practice is its core lesson that once you’re in the moment, you’re in the moment. In meditation we notice our minds spiralling out of control all the time. But Headspace’s key point is this: no matter how frustrating it’s been that your mind has been out of control, and no matter how much it has been out of control, in the moment you notice that, you can return your mind to the object of concentration and be in that moment – even if the next moment takes you away again!

Indeed there is an increasing amount of scientific psychological evidence, even if it is sometimes overstated, that modern mindfulness meditation practice like Headspace works: that it “is an effective treatment for a variety of psychological problems, and is especially effective for reducing anxiety, depression, and stress.” That point in turn complicates my rant of eight years ago where I said that scientists and not Daoists are “into practices that work.” For these practices, which scientists have found to work, are derived from East Asian and Tibetan rather than Indian forms of Buddhism – forms of Buddhism which get a lot of their ideas from Daoism, perhaps especially the idea of acceptance in the present moment.

As Goethe said, only the present is our happiness. If you’re going to be happy you need to be able to be happy now. In some moments, there’s only so happy you can get, and you’ll make yourself less happy by beating yourself up for not being happy enough. Still, in any given moment, you can ask: what is the happiest I can be right now? And you can be that.

This has been a particularly valuable insight amid some difficulties I’ve faced recently, which indicate dangers ahead and injustices around me – but which actually affect relatively few moments of my life directly. Most of the time I’m doing something not directly related to those difficulties; when I keep thinking about the bad stuff in those moments then they still affect me, but if I just look to that present moment itself – the walking I’m doing to work, the email I’m answering right now – they’re not such a problem.

Śāntideva tells us that we are at war with the kleśas, the mental afflictions like anger and craving. And military metaphors can be helpful in reminding us to be strong, courageous. But it seems to me that, just as Donald Trump thrived so much on the daily outrage that educated Americans had against him, the kleśas are the sorts of entities which are only strengthened by war. Being angry at my anger – as Śāntideva advises us to do – only served to fuel it. What has helped me much more than Śāntideva’s approach is the Headspace method: learn to notice your anger in the present moment, acknowledge that it exists, and return your attention to whatever else you were trying to focus on. You can’t stop your anger from arising – and contra Śāntideva I would even say there are times when you shouldn’t. What you can do is stop it from multiplying, compounding, feeding on itself – and you do that through the paradoxical attitude of acceptance. Once you do that, as often as not, the anger fades away. That doesn’t stop the anger from returning, not at all, but it stops it in the moment.

As I understand it, that’s how sudden liberation is supposed to work in Daoist-influenced East Asian Buddhist traditions: you can get it for a moment and then lose it – but once you’ve got it once, it’s easier to get it again. And what I’ve seen of those traditions takes up this critique of the war model – while still drawing on the Indian sources. In his wonderful Emptiness and Omnipresence, introducing the Chinese Buddhist philosopher Zhiyi and his Tiantai tradition, Brook Ziporyn reminds us how even in the Pali texts, the Saccavibhaṅga Sutta proclaims the Third Noble Truth “is the remainderless fading away and ceasing, the giving up, relinquishing, letting go and rejecting of that same craving.” And, Ziporyn points out, when we give up something or relinquish it or let it go, it doesn’t disappear. So it’s not a rejection or fighting but a letting go. So, Ziporyn says:

When a desire is “let go of,” when it is released from our control, when it is liberated into free fall, what it does is fade away. It mutates through time. It frays, it unravels, it continues to change, like all impermanent things. Finally it fades out and ceases. It is our “holding on to” that replenishes, feeds, perpetuates, and renews our desires. This is true whether we are holding on in the “indulge” form or the “suppress” form. It is by trying to eliminate our desires, whether by suppressing them or satisfying them, that we perpetuate them! (20, emphasis in original)

My ayahuasca trip firmed up Ziporyn’s lesson. The guides instructed us to come in with a question we wanted help with, and I asked how I might let go of my kleśas, my fear and shame and anger and self-pity. And the response that came to me was to let go – in the sense of being at peace with my flaws and imperfections. I could not have done that, and probably should not have done that, back in 2015. But by 2022 I had done enough work on myself to make it a path forward. It becomes a possibility to just let go in the moment and return to the moment itself.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

3 Replies to “In praise of the present moment”

  1. I love this analysis/recipe! Yes, attachment is attachment. And pursuit of desire/anger is pursuit, regardless of what form that pursuit appears to take. When we are caught up in the pursuit, we are enslaved by that which we are chasing. Ceasing control and concern by positioning oneself as a simple watcher of the present moment is the key, I think.

    Yet, I wonder, is happiness the goal? Or is it more appropriate to seek something else, such as detachment?

    • Thanks. Yeah, I didn’t mean to imply that happiness as such was the sole or even primary goal – but there are a lot of related goals (peace, nonsuffering) that you could substitute for “happiness” in the Goethe quote and end up in the same place.

  2. There are different names for this, and Goethe’s assessment was spot on: happy is now, not yesterday (anymore) or, tomorrow (maybe). Mindfulness; presence-of-mind; being in the moment—all these seek to capture something like nirvana. So, right—and, no, I am no authority here. Certain things work for me. Years ago, a friend talked about presence-of-mind. I thought a lot about what he meant and asked questions. Much later, as recently as ten years ago, I watched the regressive effects of information technology, generally.
    People, now, have so much access to “friends” they will never meet, their personal relationships, finally, evaporate.

    We are no longer responsibly conscious. In point of fact, we are barely conscious at all. Not something to be happy about.

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