Saturday, 16 December 2017

The paradox of the present

I've done a bit of head-scratching lately about the present, after reading a post on the  Secular Buddhist Association website. I'll pass on my confusions to you and see if they are at all useful. Which I doubt...

 For a good few years now I've done what I understand most meditators do, those who've come to it via the 8-week mindulfness course, anyway.

I let my awareness stay with my breath, or other bits of the body if I'm doing a body scan, and when my thoughts drift off into narratives, worries, memories etc, I gently bring my awareness back to the breath, or my left foot, or whatever. This I do to stay right where I am - in the present moment.

But. Does the present moment exist? I certainly don't seem to be able to stay in it for long, though after even a succession of brief visits to what I could call "presentmomentness", I feel...better? Calmer? Broader? Freer from conditioned responses, compulsive thinking.

If we imagine the present as moving forward perpetually, leaving the past behind  and not fussing about the future until the present reaches the future and turns into it, as it were, then what is it, this present moment? How big is a moment? 

Is it like a straight line - the shortest distance between two points, we remember from school, not the mark you make with a ruler and a pencil on paper - simply, the thing itself, the conceptual entity. 

.                                              . 

The shortest distance between those two full stops is a straight line. How wide is it? It doesn't have width.  It need have no dimension, thickness, physical presence itself.

Like the present, it's entirely a concept. A pencil mark simply represent it.

 (are they doing what they think they're doing? Where and when are they?)

Next: the neuroscientists tell us that we are always about 1/10th of a second behind the actual occurence of any event, due to the time our senses take, however keen they are, to process the information and respond to it. The fastest sprinter in the world (Mr. Bolt himself) cannot be less than 1/10th of a second off the blocks when he hears the gun. (False starts excepted, of course!)

 Does this insubantiality of the present moment matter? Well, it might, to meditators. 

One trap for meditators is striving to stay in the present, berating ourselves for drifting off, feeling we've had an unsatisfactory meditation. No matter how often we may be told that drifting off and coming back to the breath (or body scan, whatever) is part of meditating, it's hard not to evaluate a meditation as you go along, or afterwards. Hard not to grumble at yourself for not staying in the present.

Which is an impossibility.

But if the present doesn't exist, in other than an unreachable, theoretical sense, then where do I live?

Not in the past, clearly, however nostalgic I may be, because the memory reconstructs and changes the past, and that can only happen in the present. 

Nor in the future, obviously, because whatever plans or fantasies that may be runing through my mind, they are not happening at the moment, and they or may not happen in the future.

So where do I live? The present is only a theoretical point in time, the past and the present no longer exist or don't yet exist.

Where I live isn't a fixed point in time that is succeeded by the next fixed point in time - the present like frames of an old-fashioned film, a succession of fixed points in the movie of my perceptions -  is it 8mm, 16mm, 32mm? The present has no dimensions. 

Where I live, what I am, is continuous, a collection of processes, part of the collection of processes we call this planet, this universe.

I'm not a fixed point. I don't exist at all. I am a socially neccessary construct. But in the freedom that comes from meditation/cultivation, I more and more understand this.

I am flow, change, processes, nothing else.

As freedom often is, that realisation - I don't exist - is pretty frightening, until  that fear, that striving, is simply let go of.

 Let go. That's an invitation, not an imperative. We can't nag ourselves or each other into liberations.