Sunday, March 16, 2008

3rd Thoughts on the Present Moment

Last week's post on the Present Moment and our Flood had a particular slant - at least for me. The basic assumption underlying that bit of reflection was that it is the unpredictable and difficult, even painful, events of life that pull you away from living in the present. True enough, as far as it goes, but some things have happened this week that have made me look at the other side of this particular dilemma.

To begin with, there is a sense in which I was, in fact, really focused on the present moment while I stood there watching rain water pour into the Church and soak into our hardwood floors. Standing there with mop and cloths, I had to be completely present to what the water was going to do next. I wasn't having any spiritual reflections, but I was certainly right there. And I watched this process with anger and exasperation and some grief, and I was completely aware of the emotions flowing through me, even though I wasn't really liking them.

It makes me think that I need to broaden my notion of what Awareness is, not to mention what Spirituality is. But is this not related to the power that some people find in difficult and dangerous tasks? I'm thinking of firefighting, and soldiering and EMS work to start with. These tasks require complete engagement and permit no drifting away. A moment's carelessness with our thought processes could mean the difference between life and death for them or for someone in their care. That kind of task requires a particular rootedness in the present moment. And when people who love doing these things talk about them, they often speak of an expanded sense of life, which certainly seems related to the spiritual dimension of things.

I was also aware this week of a quite different issue here, and that is the way in which pleasant stuff, or the memory of pleasant stuff, drags us away from the present moment. The Buddha, in fact, said that it was the pleasant things that were much more difficult to deal with than the unpleasant ones, because there is not much danger that we will want painful stuff to occupy our attention continuously, but there is a considerable risk that we will use pleasant experiences to insulate ourselves from what is going on around us.

I met this situation on Wednesday. This is a big week for me; yesterday was my 70th birthday. So of course there has been and will continue to be some celebrating. One of the big pieces of the celebration is going to be a trip: this summer I will be taking a journey to Greece and Turkey with some friends, and it is going to be a splendid time. On Wednesday two things about the trip happened. The first was that, after 6 months of poking, prodding, writing, calling, emailing, etc., I finally got official notification that I can be provided with gluten-free meals, which is a big part of knowing I can do this trip safely. So with one small email, the whole journey suddenly became more real. Then hard on the heels of that, I got in the mail a detailed itinerary of the journey, complete with photographs and enticing descriptions.

And I was off. I was not here at all, I was in the Aegean. I lived in next summer for quite a while and savored every instant of it. I got particularly aware of that on Wednesday night, because I went to my meditation group, and I spent the 45 minutes of our Sitting lost in ruminations of the coming travel delights. And this sort of distraction had, I discovered, a power that painful stuff doesn't usually have. I wasn't even slightly interested in the present moment, and not because I didn't want to be, either. I was just powerless before the distractive power of these rapturous feelings. I couldn't bring myself to the present, no matter how I tried, and I didn't even try very hard because I couldn't even manage to want to. I was gone. And I was delighted to be gone.

I've had some other moments, too. Reminiscing about the birthday dinner that our chef Edward fixed was another one. He is an artist in what he does, and his careful attention to the combination of flavors and foods in that meal made it a really grand experience that I've lived over again more than once. And more than once I lived it while I thought I should be doing something more related to the moment I was actually in. And there were other moments I was aware of chasing after the pleasant memories rather than being where I was.

Is this really such a problem? Shouldn't I be eagerly anticipating my trip. And what's wrong with grateful memories for a wonderful celebratory meal?

On the face of it, nothing is wrong with that. It's a wonderful part of life, and I am deliberately engaging in anticipating my journey, and in deepening my gratitude for Edward and his gifts. But there is an addictive edge here, too, and I met that edge very clearly on Wednesday evening when, not only did I not come back to the present from my pleasant reveries, I couldn't even make myself want to come back. My willingness to be present to my life was completely hijacked by the pleasure of memory and expectation.

Is this serious? Not this particular experience, no. We all laughed about it when I spoke to the meditation group about what was happening to me, and Jose, the teacher, spoke helpfully and wisely about the sorts of pleasure involved and the deeper and more subtle pleasure to be found in being where I am instead of where I am not. It was a learning experience.

But it is also true that this country is in serious economic straits right now because of a similar attraction - the attraction of the very pleasant fantasies of the easy money to be made in the housing market, to the detriment of our ability to pay attention to all the very clear warning signs that were there for a long time before the housing and mortgage bubble burst. People involved in Alcoholics Anonymous know this dynamic very, very well, and also know the ruin it can cause when pleasurable fantasy replaces the demands of the present moment.

I don't feel like moralizing about all of this. I am just saying what I have experienced this week. I watched my mind play its games and watched the results in my life, and my knowledge of my task in living is now larger than it was when I wrote my reflection last week. I'm no less involved with the recall of the pleasant moments of my life. But my conviction of the importance of living in the moment that I have right now is deeper than it was one week ago.

And after all, if I'm involved in spiritual exploration I have to hold at the center of my pilgrimage that it is the present moment where God lives. God isn't really found in my fantasy recalls, God is found where I am. So that really is the point of it all, anyway. I'd better be where I am.

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