The Present Moment: An Ineffable Truth
Friday, March 10, 2017
Such an unbelievable cliche, I know. Traveling up here to visit my youngest, now age 26, brings it front and center. I am freaking at the rapid passage of time. I brought with me a recent English translation of the Tao Te Ching. I find myself venturing into what may be the only inarguable truth:
All we have is this moment.
In fact, it’s already gone. It passed when you read that sentence. It might exist, if you are mentally present, right now as you read this one. Behind me, the sun sets beneath the Puget Sound. I randomly opened the book to this passage, number 23, which begins, prophetically:
Express yourself completely,
then keep quiet.
Be like the forces of nature:
when it blows, there is only wind;
when it rains, there is only rain;
when the clouds pass, the sun shines through.
I feel pulled, as I imagine you do, by images of the past. I recall the closest I ever felt to two human beings — when I swam in a pool in Flagstaff, Arizona when my daughters were both under five. They clung to my neck. It was foolish. We swam during an active, angry rainstorm. I remember, ever so clearly, how I had absolutely none, zero, zip self-consciousness despite their little cherubic faces bobbing millimeters from my face. I had no fear of the lightning. No fears of bad breath. No concerns of which side of my face looks better. The nearly half-century since that time vanished like the thunder passing through the pool and the three of us that hot August day.
My thoughts turn to the week ahead, patient sessions set, meetings scheduled, lunch dates made. More anticipatory than gravitational, the future beckons in a different way. It elicits mental images, worries, excitement, uncertainty. Forensic cases have deadlines pending. Taxes must be paid. It holds arrangements, plans, reservations, commitments, schedules, projects, and propositions.
The Buddhists recommend, as I also posted recently, we continually polish our minds — like mirrors. It keeps us tuned to the present, reflective, immediate. The luster will always be imperfect. Dust will gather, like my memory of the Flagstaff pool, or my anticipation of a difficult session this coming week. No one can shine the mirror perfectly. But the imperfection does not detract from seems an ineffable truth:
The moment is all there is.
Sometimes I will imagine celebrities, Madonna, for example, or Sean Penn, Matt Damon, Scarlett Johaansen or Nancy Pelosi. I wonder what they are up right this second. The obvious truth always surprises me: They only have this exact moment themselves! They may be driving, or walking, or speaking. Perhaps they are showering, or making love, or weeping alone in their bathrooms. Perhaps they are urinating or defecating. Maybe they argue with a spouse or other loved one. Who knows?
Can you appreciate the strange truth here? Whatever you imagined them doing one second ago has passed anyway. They’ve moved on to some other experience. We tend to convert persons into nouns while they are really verbs. Persons are never nouns. Nouns don’t exist. Nouns are lies. It suggests a stillness that cannot possibly exist. I often joke about my chronic anxiety just before I give a lecture: I’m anxious because I’m so sensitive I can feel the motion of the earth around the sun.
It’s moving at 19 miles per second.
Why don’t we all fly off? You know why.
I feel myself nearing the end of this post, and so I randomly open the Tao Te Ching again. I hit section 67 which reads, in part:
I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These are your greatest treasures.
I fear it misses the thesis of this post on the mysterious, ineffable truth of the present moment. It does not. Simplicity, patience, compassion, for example, may only be applied in any particular moment in time. You cannot apply them to the younger man in the pool with the little angels; you cannot use them to soothe the anxieties of the coming week. They can be used, however, towards a gentle, loving polishing of the mirror, making it sparkle, causing me to stand up from the laptop and look out the hotel-room window, watching the sun setting over the Olympic mountains, moving from red to orange to purple to blue, feeling my mood darken, thinking of mortality, wondering when my daughter will arrive, hearing the sirens from the street below and the wind on the tall buildings.
Can we doubt the veracity of the truth of the present moment?
I think not.
Metaphysics is not required. We don’t care what things are made of or how they got here. Ethics remains relevant. How should I act? But little immediate energy need go to how I acted, or how I will act. Aesthetics, the beautiful, well, it exists now. Watching a sunset, feeling the cool air on your skin, enjoying a conversation with someone you love. Nietzsche thought the moment reflects the Dionysian beauty of nature, the chaos, the dynamism.
I think the present moment constitutes one of the rare truths with a capital T. Memories consist of fantasies, often mixed with emotion and imagery, but clearly of moments gone, done, past. Imaginary futures constitute similar fantastic images, perhaps visual, perhaps using other senses, but not yet here. We bring our imaginations to the present. Like the dust of which the Buddhist speak, it risks contaminating the present. And yet, interestingly, it is not the present. Can we imagine the present? Or can we only be present to it, or be avoiding it using our imaginations.
The sun has set. It just got suddenly darker. I felt my mood darken with it. Could my daughter have gotten kidnapped? She’s kind of old for that. She went out shopping, alone. Perhaps I will text her. Oh well. I think I need a nap.
I send you wishes of striving to live in the moment yourselves. I could always describe it better than I could do it, but I’m trying. I hope I at least got you thinking, about the immediate versus the imaginary. I hope I brought you into the moment, even if for a second.
Sending my best wishes as always, and my appreciation for your interest,
Mitchell, S. (1988). Tao Te Ching. New York: Harper.
Nietzsche, F. (1928/2013). The Dionysian vision of the world. Trans. I. Allen. Minneapolis: Univocal.
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