Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Present Moment, Horrible Moment: When Mindfulness Becomes Idolatry

There was an opinion piece in last Sunday’s New York Times entitled “Actually, Let’s Not Be in the Moment.” Its author, Ruth Whippman, is critical of the modern mindfulness movement and suspicious of the fact that the practice of bringing one’s attention to the present moment is being promoted as some sort of miraculous cure-all, a remedy for all suffering, and that four billion dollars is said to be spent each year on “mindfulness products.” She’s not the first to regard the phenomenon with suspicion, and she rightly notes that mindfulness as it’s often presented is “a philosophy likely more rewarding for those whose lives contain more privileged moments than grinding, humiliating, or exhausting ones.” I take her point.

Mindfulness, as even those who don’t mention the fact mostly know, is a notion that comes from Buddhism. Right mindfulness (sammā-sati  in Sanskrit) is the seventh element of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path and the first factor in the Seven Factors of Enlightenment. It’s simply the practice of placing attention on what is before one in the present moment. It’s simple to describe, but due to our conditioning few of us can do it easily, and it’s a habit that’s developed through practice. Buddhists often reasonably complain when mindfulness gets taken out of the Buddha’s larger teaching to be presented as a stand-alone self-help method, and they lament when it ends up presented as what the Buddhist teaching is all about. By itself, it certainly isn’t.

That said, mindfulness is pretty wonderful, even worthy of being called a miracle, per the title of the famous Thich Nhat Hahn book.  But the miracle is much bigger than simply peace of mind or an improved golf game (two of the multitude of benefits said to be a result of it).  And the miraculous aspect of mindfulness needs to be understood even when neither peace of mind nor a hole-in-one is the result. The present moment is indeed the only one in which one can honestly live, and ignoring this moment in order to daydream of the past or project ourselves into a nonexistent future wastes something precious. Discipline and practice are required to develop the habit of living in the present. But to separate out mindfulness from all the other aspects of wisdom and to give it precedence skews things, making something quite wonderful into something less so. “Mindfulness alone” practice makes mindfulness into a magic trick and the present moment into something very much like an idol.  And an idol is always, it seems to me, a concept set up to stand in for something that doesn’t really exist. It may be this species of idolatry that causes Ms. Whippman’s bullshit detector to go off.   

To cling to the present moment against all other moments is to but on blinders. If you scorned all past moments you’d also reject everything you learned from your birth on.  You wouldn’t have the language skills even to describe the present moment or to relate your experience of it to others. Let alone to go to the bathroom by yourself if that’s what the present moment required. Mindfulness of the present moment has nothing to do with dismissing past or future moments as unimportant or nonexistent. To cling to the present moment against all other moments can in fact be seen as a kind of sickness. This sickness can be observed in extreme form in the mental illnesses called narcissistic personality disorder--with which our president-elect can be diagnosed--and borderline personality disorder--a condition with which I have some personal experience and on which I’ve read a good deal of the popular literature. People with these disorders can be said to live in the present moment nearly exclusively while disregarding all other moments, and that makes the present moment often quite horrible for them. Thus they can love you one second and detest you the next based on whatever you do in a particular moment--for, as the present moment is the only one they occupy, every difficulty or slight is perceived as the end of the world. These folks, who suffer greatly, provide a particularly powerful testimony to the fact that awakening isn’t accessed by living in the present moment at the exclusion of other moments. 

I believe there’s a temptation to replace mindfulness of the moment with what might be called clinging to the moment, and that clinging solidifies the moment as an idol, for the present moment as concept can’t withstand scrutiny: each moment has the habit of disappearing into the next moment, and that process continues eternally.  And each moment itself can be divided infinitely, it turns out, down to the nanosecond and then way beyond. Where is it?  It’s a moving target. Those who blithely claim to be resting in the bliss of the present moment are generally faking that I think.

But hold the moment lightly and you do begin to see that this moment before us is the only one we’ve got in terms of living our lives. It’s not that mindfulness makes all other moments cease to exist; rather such mindfulness reveals the line between this moment and any other moment to be insubstantial. And once it becomes hard to locate a boundary between this moment and the ones immediately preceding and following it, that lack of distinction turns out also to be true of this moment in relation to the moment of the Earth’s creation as well as to the moment of the Earth’s ultimate destruction in our sun’s red giant phase--and all moments in between. Though that’s really only the beginning of the disappearing boundaries. You might even be compelled say all moments coexist, if you were compelled to say anything. But you would more likely be inclined to remain silent.   

And though mindfulness of this moment can indeed be source of joy (or even, indeed, of an improved golf game), it can also be about sadness and pain.  When the present moment you occupy comes to include someone who’s suffering, there turns out to be no other choice than to share that suffering. Peaceful feeling or not. But if you’re practicing mindfulness of the moment, you see that there’s still no better place to be, for it’s the only place from which you can truly offer compassion.

Perhaps, concludes Ms. Whippman, “rather than expending our energy struggling to stay in the Moment, we should simply be grateful that our brains allow us to be elsewhere.” I take her point.  The ability not to be in the moment can be a skill that helps us survive. There’s something to agree with there, especially if one looks at mindfulness, as she does,   as “struggling” to stay in the moment in hope of some reward.  But if you touch the moment lightly, not assigning this touching a particularly exalted status, not expecting too much, not expecting anything really, the present moment is indeed sometimes revealed as the best possible of all places to be. You might even sometimes weep with gratitude.

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