Assignment Week 4: Mindfulness in Waterstones and the Myth of the Present Moment

ASSIGNMENT – Session Two, Week 4, November 2013

TSK 139 says that we may try to break out of our sense of being trapped in ‘lower time’ by practicing meditation or other spiritual disciplines. You might have other ways of doing this as well: ways (as we discussed in the phone call) that help you contact the aliveness of time.

 WIR 41 adds: “If you have background in a meditative or spiritual tradition, you may want to reflect on this claim. . . . Would a different understanding of time change the way you approach such teachings?”

 Look into this question. Where does it lead you?

* * * * * * * *

Browsing in Waterstones bookstore the other day, I was stopped in my tracks by a display right in the centre of the aisle dedicated to ‘Mindfulness’. I noticed myself feeling a mixture of delight, triumph and a slightly cynical sadness. Delight that all the benefits of mindfulness are now in the mainstream (even Jon Kabat Zinn was among the books); triumph to recognise that this was down to the efforts of millions of meditators since the Buddha first taught the Satipatthana Sutra, not least to those of us in the UK since the 1950’s (and particularly since the 1970’s) who have added our flames to this mounting fire. So, why sadness? Well – I’ve noticed again and again that once a teaching or principle hits the public eye, it has already been distorted, corrupted or is out of date – it’s as though truth dives underground to refresh itself as soon as it’s been spoken – perhaps this is the first of Time’s little jokes to be noticed in this assignment.

“We are here to find the moment!” It was a cold winter’s day in 1980 in Buxton in Derbyshire and with this statement my teacher opened a week long retreat in mindfulness/insight. On hearing the words my whole being tightened and tears began to flow under the strain and constraint that I knew this admonishment conjured in me. For seven long years I had striven to find ‘the present moment’ – “when walking, sitting, standing, lying down, or attending to the needs of the body” – as Shakyamuni Buddha had recommended to his early band of followers. “Be mindful,” we are told he told them, and in this lineage I made much effort to practise.

 This had many positive results, but after seven years its limitations began to dawn and now, especially in the context of exploring TSK, are of much more interest to me. Those early years were characterised by striving and driven-ness  to improve and to achieve a future imagined goal, which I described to myself as ‘enlightenment’ and to become different in almost every way to how I currently perceived myself. This created enormous tension, self-judgement, disappointment, and separation – because there was always a ‘me’ watching ‘the breath’ or naming sensations, eating in slow motion, or whatever it was.

My efforts were often devoted to getting away from patterns, pain and suffering or straining towards my imagined idea of freedom from suffering (enlightenment, perfection). Of course, all this simply served to fuel frustration, solidify the patterns, and exacerbate the vicious circle.

Oddly, at times, when I did relax and the simple doing of whatever was happening took over, almost despite my efforts, enormous vistas of peace, spaciousness and insight revealed themselves, but, on reflection, rather than being ‘in the present moment’ (past as soon as recognised) I found myself in a new kind of time, a time beyond time, a time where the past-present-future structure no longer held me in its grip; a time best described experientially as time-less-ness.

 Could it be that at any moment it is seen that there actually is no self to make progress, or perhaps that the ‘fruits’ of any ‘progress’ are never gleaned by a self, that a second stage of time is making itself known?

Perhaps teachings which appear to originate from ‘the past’ are actually an expression of Great Time and in that carry, in their essence, though not necessarily in their form, a quality of timelessness.

 Exhausted by my efforts, disillusioned, and concluding that I was a failure at meditation, I gave it up – for years. During those early years of practice I had also turned a blind eye to unhealed aspects of myself and neglected much that required attention (as, indeed, I now see with hindsight, did several of my teachers). Perhaps blind to the blind side would be one definition of what is termed ‘the shadow’. It seems that being fully in time, such ignore-ance could never occur. The phrase being in time unveils a fuller significance.

 Returning tentatively to sitting quietly, as encouraged by TSK, I experience time as a fountain of refreshment which effervesces through my being and revitalises it. No need to look for a ‘present’ moment, or any other kind of ‘moment’ in any kind of conceptual way. No need to fix the attention so tightly.

 Advanced teachings often counsel that there is ‘nothing to do’. I’m beginning to get a flavour of that. To do is to make effort over time, rather than relaxing into being in time.

 The meditative inquiry-disciplines of TSK are hard work (sometimes I am tired and hungry after applying such effort); they are rather like ‘existential gym’. (It feels like learning to exercise atrophied spiritual muscles or even creating previously non-existent ones). I think, though, that this is partly because of their unfamiliarity and partly because of my habitual way of approaching things. Time will tell…!

 What I do know is that the practices affect the quality of simply sitting. There is much less sense of seeking and separation. It’s something like this: resting in the arms of Time, Space unites and Knowledge reveals.

 Time seems to be asking: what if there was no need to break out of something, or strive for anything? What if the completion, previously sought and strived for, were already here simply because Time is?

Caroline Sherwood


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