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Overcoming the cult of the present moment

By Keith Morrison

I have long been discontent with the cultishness that surrounds the notion of the present moment but have had trouble trying to put my dissatisfaction into words. One can hardly speak openly of an unsatisfactory experience without being unthinkingly advised to reside in the now and thereby lessen one’s attachment to perceived unpleasantness. There are a variety of spins on the cult of the present moment that are meant to draw one’s focus away from temporal constructs of the imagination towards the “utterly real” present. My fear is that seeing as how themes such as Zen Buddism, satori, enlightenment, and “being here now” are marketed so widely—be it on yogurt containers, beverages, or television shows—the actual content of this pointed mystical realization is becoming a reified sign pointing nowhere instead of a numinous revelation of a truth momentarily perceived by so many across a wide array of traditions and practices.

One common reification of this revelation is the notion that one should not spend time focusing on regrets or plan too fully for the future because all that exists is this moment and thereby all other points in time are relegated to the house of illusion. Once one encounters this type of thinking it is quite difficult to deny its intuitive logic. All experience occurs in the present moment. Traumas that naturally arise throughout the course of lived life are detached from the present moment because of their placedness in time. One is led—through superficial thinking—to believe that one’s past has no bearing on one’s present. All of one’s memories and ambitions are simply mental constructs tied to a particular moment in a nonexistent past, or illusory future. Hopes and fears are all seen to be conditioned by the moment in which they arise. The connection with the deeper roots of the self wherein traumatic past events continually play out is cut away with the dull knife edge of the once potent but now empty appellation to the now.

The resultant ideology that arises with the cult of the now is that the present moment should be experienced as disconnected from one’s fantasies about the past or future, which inherently contain no content in the present moment. The process of removing oneself from such fantasies contributes to the elimination of what one may call temporal anxiety, or the feeling that moments other than this particular one are invading one’s mental space and thereby contributing to the feeling of increased anxiety and attachment. Attuning to the razor’s edge of now, whether it be through a focus on breath or a deep attention to immediate undertakings, one is able to sidestep the ever-present force of the expansive temporal stream which pushes from behind and pulls ever toward the future.

Given my own background as a scholar of phenomenologically based depth psychology and as a lay Zen monk, I would even go so far as to say that this is practical and useful advice for one who is just beginning to examine the practice of now-ness. Despite loves lost or loves yet to be gained; regretted actions or projections towards a possible future, action can only be taken in this very moment. Looking in on my own experience, I can easily see that a state of restfulness is brought about when I am not caught up in day dreams connected to my ambitions or fears.

Everyone somewhere within the stream of their education or participation in the work force has experienced this phenomena: The clock on the wall informs you that there are precisely 7 minutes left before ‘quitting-time’ and as soon as the wall of those seven tiny minutes breach your consciousness, you are also overhwhelmed with a torrent of thoughts regarding how one will spend one’s time 7 minutes from now. Each of those four hundred twenty seconds becomes a torturous wall that stands between where one presently is and where one wishes to be. In those moments, one experiences time as the succession of torturous ‘nows’. The cult of the now would inform said individual that if he or she were to dwell in the present moment, such torture would not arise. One would be free to act with purpose in each of those moments and thus avoid the swelling of a temporal anxiety by simply forgetting time. My experience indicates that this is in part the true way of things if not a little misunderstood, but we’ll come back to that in a moment. If one is able to separate oneself from each mountainous second that stands in between the way of Reality and an alternate desired reality the tension induced by such moments is also greatly reduced. The individual who tends to the task at hand has more energy to direct to whatever the world is asking of them in that moment.

Despite the phenomenological evidence for the truth of said thought experiment, I am of the opinion that the way that now is commonly referenced is actually a misunderstanding of several fundamental elements of this mystical truth. My own experience of these superficial moments occurs when individuals wear the ‘now’ as a slogan. The effectiveness of the true message offered by mystics across generations and cultural boundaries is neatly stylized, printed and placed upon one’s mental space like a bumper sticker. It may operate to some degree of effectiveness the first few times it is rotely evoked, however it will collect dust and dander, tear, crinkle and fade with time as all bumper stickers do. One must look more deeply at the origin of said bumper sticker, investigate their precise experience of now, and also tend to the malleability of such a commonly uttered noun for this moment is not reified bit of language. The enormity of what is meant by the now in Zen Buddhism, which Zen Master Dogen Zenji equates with Total Existence is ineffable and unquantifiable. One is only able to “effe” Reality with degrees of measure.

One may ask how it is possible to misunderstand such a ‘simple’ concept as now, but Dogen elucidates this potential in chapter twenty-two of the Shobogenzo by stating that, “Total Existence is not smashed into bits and pieces, and Total Existence is not a single rail of iron.” The implication here is threefold. First of all, True Total Existence is not equal to our standard measurements and estimations of it. Standards and measurements are all well and good in given contexts, however one should not “Mistake the finger for the Moon” so to speak. Dogen is warning us against atomistic thinking here, there is not a succession of isolated nows measured out by our waking breaths. Total Existence does not exist in fragments.

The second half of the sentence warns us against what often appears in philosophy as the opposition to atomism: idealism. Reality does not exist in a compartmentalized successions of nows, but neither does it extend out as a linear span from past to future. The meaning here is that there is no weight to time without our continued perception of it. There is no objectivity dwelling beyond our perception of what sometimes appears to us as individual and successive moments.

Perhaps, as my early practice led me to conclude, the reader has jumped to the conclusion that this problem is solved by adding the two concepts of time together to create a line of single moment experiences that are all and eternally adding up to the now. As a tidal wave, we are pushed by the undercurrents of our experience into an unknown, but intuited future. We can guess the general location of the touchdown of a wave just as we can readily assume that tomorrow will be much like today or conclude that our vocational endeavors will lead to a paycheck at the end of the week.

This too seems to be a sensible view of reality which one can readily gather by observing one’s life up till this very moment. Is is common-sensical, however it fails to reach the mystical depths which Dogen was referring us to. Dogen has left us with a pertinent question regarding the nature of Total Existence which at the very least, suggests that the commonly used noun ‘now’ is a shallow and insufficient word for getting at the actual phenomena of one’s total experience. Unfortunately for the lay person, the mystical truths of Zen and other traditions are not easily explicated through linguistic approaches. Once such a realization has been had, it must be integrated and thus limited through the lens of language and thus substantially reduced in impact when compared to the actual moment of revelation. Fortunately for us, in the years that have passed since Dogen composed the weighty, and at timesm indecipherable Shobogenzo the Western philosophical tradition has seen the flourishing of process philosophy which uses language that is quite applicable to our current dilemma.

In order to begin bridging the two traditions one must also understand the Buddhist concept of interdependent origination which means that each and every individual event influences all others arising within connected contextual zones. All moments, rise and fall together in a way, thus there is no succession of moments only a perpetual and persistent now that is entangled with both past and future through its contextual extension into such conceptual realms. Subscription to the Cult of the Now often causes a bifurcation between mind and body because of the admonishment that we should fully dwell in this moment. By applying the notion in such a way we disregard the content of present memories and present intentions. The imaginal contents of our thought process affect the presence we bring to our present moment-ness.

As process-relational philosopher C. Robert Mesle informs us, “The whole universe of space, energy, mass, and time is one vast network of events—of actual entities. Similarly, your personal experience does not happen in your mind; your mind simply is the flow of experience.” There is nothing that occurs between the so-called “events” of our experience. The now then, is one continual event flowing from birth to death. It is neither “smashed up into bits and pieces” nor is it a single “rail of iron”, it is a perpetual present-moment-ing. When understood in this context, ‘now’ becomes a near eternal (so far as the event of our subjective life can be considered eternal in that we are unable to subjectively experience a precise beginning or end) in-forming verb rather than an isolated noun which is continually repeated.

To conclude I will refer the reader once more to another somewhat baffling passage from Dogen, “Total Existence is beyond originally-existing existence; for it pervades the eternal past and pervades the eternal present. It is beyond newly-appearing existence; for it does not accept a single molecule. It is beyond separate instances of existence; for it is inclusive perception. It is beyond the existence of beginningless existence; for it is something ineffable…When understanding of Total Existence is like this, Total Existence is the state of penetrating to the substance and getting free.”

One comment

  1. This author’s reflection of “Overcoming the Cult of the Present Moment” brings to the forefront on how much the present moment can be influenced by the past and future moments of out lives. It gives me hope for the future of our world when I see films such as, “Gravity” are recognized (Just finished watching the Academy Awards). More and more people are recognizing the connection of nature and the existence of human beings.

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