There’s an often quoted statement in Buddhist writings about “Being in the Moment” and encouragement about the freedom that arises from just being in the moment. In Buddhism, we are taught that being fully present is the doorway to true freedom, to deep happiness, not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, not acting out of conditioned habits. But what does that really mean?
There is a wide spectrum of interpretations to “being in the moment.” One extreme is to use it as an excuse for bad habits. Haven’t we all had those moments where we tell ourselves that we just want to “be in the moment”; we don’t want hassle with changing our bad habits; we don’t want to think about the consequences of our actions. We’re having fun, or we just want the relief that comes from acting in old, comfortable ways. And yet, from a Buddhist perspective, this is NOT what being in the moment is about at all. In Buddhism, being in the moment is about being compassionately aware of what’s happening, and open to fresh ways of responding.
We all struggle against dogma, that tendency to want everyone and everything and every situation to fit into some nice little box, where one size fits all, one rule fits all. How easy life would be if there was one rule that fit all situations. The Buddhist precept of not killing seems so straightforward, but if you were in a situation where you could kill one person and save the lives of a thousand people, what would you do? The world is far too complicated to have any rule that would work in that way. So, in each situation, to be truly deeply happy, we must ask ourselves, “What is the most compassionate action in this moment?”
There was a quote from Noah Levine in Tricycle Magazine about transforming our survival instinct. We have been conditioned to care about ourselves and our families first. But in Buddhism, we’re asked to look from a higher level at the survival instinct, to a compassionate awareness for all. Noah suggests that being in the moment AND our long-term survival is about asking ourselves, “How can I use my life’s energy to benefit all living beings?”
Okay, that might be a bit of stretch to begin with, but I would offer a baby step of “How can I act without harming myself or others?” It might seem counter-intuitive, but it has been proven to be true. Taking a larger perspective would bring us more joy and more happiness versus continuing to focus solely on our own needs and concerns.
Noah Levine is speaking from experience. In his book, Dharma Punx, he talks honestly about his own addictions, living on the street, doing drugs, getting to a point where he cared only about his own obsessive needs, even stealing from his family and friends to feed his short-term happiness. This is the extreme of selfishly being in the moment. For Noah, He was able to finally drop these horrible habits by first forcing himself to sit in the moment with each thought of wanting to do drugs, without acting on his desire to do drugs. Just sitting, just being, not acting upon, not knee-jerk doing, but holding back, examining, asking ourselves deeper questions. And he knows the pain in the moment, the frustration that arises when we try to hold back from reacting in our conditional ways. Just sitting with that frustration is about being fully present in the moment.
Each of us has habits that we know are not serving us, that have captured us and taken away some of our freedom. Think for a moment about those habits in your life that are ultimately causing you pain, even if they might be pleasant in the moment. The Buddhist path is at its essence solely about waking up in this moment in order to stop doing what is ultimately causing us or others pain.
The Zen Master Dogen describes enjoying momentary pleasures like licking honey from a razor’s edge! To be fully aware of the dangers that come from being addicted to something that doesn’t last. I would add that if the consequences of our actions were that immediate, like licking honey from a razor’s edge, most of us would stop doing them immediately! But since it’s usually not that immediate, we need some supporting tools to change.
The practice of “being in the moment” is a tool to help us stop reacting in old, conditioned ways. STOP! Wait for a moment. Wake up to those thoughts and emotions that are trying to lure us into old unskillful habits. The practice of mindfulness is about creating a gap between stimulus and response, buying ourselves some time to reflect on our options.
George Santayana said that “Knowledge of what is possible is the beginning of happiness.
Waking up to what we are really thinking and really feeling and really doing is the first step in radically changing the way we live our lives. And, it seems that is often the biggest obstacle to starting a meditation practice. When we first start to really listen and observe what we are thinking and what we are doing, it can be very discouraging. We all have thoughts that we think and things that we do that we know are not serving us. The paradox is that the practice of mindfulness, of waking up in this moment is the ONLY way that we can get beyond these obstacles to happiness. To support our practice of staying present, we can remind ourselves that the possibility exists for a deeper long-term happiness that is there in each moment, just waiting for us. All we need to do is try to stay compassionately present. Each moment is an opportunity to begin again, to try anew. To Start over. To start fresh. Thank goodness for each new moment to begin again.
We may not get it right every time, but the teachers are telling us to just continue trying, to make being present/being mindful/being compassionately aware a priority, and soon it will work a little , and the more we keep trying, the more often we will succeed.
So, perhaps this week, each of us can look at some thoughts or actions in our lives that are not serving us in the long-term. Identify what it is that is not serving the greater good. And see what happens when we just be in the moment with that old habit, with the desire to just be with, not to immediately act on, but to create a gap that can help uncover all the new possibilities.