By Amanda Moreno
I sat down to write about being present, and you know what happened? I had a hard time being present. I would try to return my focus to my breathing, and that would last for about two breaths, and then five minutes later I’d come back into the room, realizing I’d just thought about a whole world of things rather than writing about being present.
I definitely have a history with Buddhism, although I’d never call myself Buddhist or even one who uses many Buddhist practices. I think it’s a beautiful spiritual system, and one I’m certainly glad many people benefit from. I also love the focus on presence.
When I started my graduate studies, I was initially drawn to Tibetan Buddhism and gained some exposure to its mysticism and ‘shamanic’ themes. I had to bookmark those studies to come back to later, but was always intrigued.
I also came across a body of ideas that proclaimed, in general, that Buddhist practice doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in Western culture, particularly as a way to deal with our inner demons. Because our culture is so different, particularly in its focus on individuality, it does not make sense to think that Buddhism can be used appropriately. At first my feathers were ruffled, but then I began to find some credence in the theory, even if I tend to avoid thinking or believing in absolutes.
I began to notice a few things that made me think about Buddhist practice on Western ground. For example, I’d hear friends respond to world crises, using their ideas about “attachment” to justify not getting attached to thinking about, paying attention to or caring about what is going on in the world. I began to see interpretations of doctrine that were clearly based on headlines and catch phrases rather than knowledge about some really profound and deep teachings.
I started to realize that we do live in an ego-centric culture, and that ‘ways to wholeness’ in a culture like ours might need to address the ego differently than would a culture that is not so geared toward the individual. While I could see some people truly benefiting from Buddhist practices, I was also aware of a tendency I saw in others who would use Buddhism as an excuse to disengage or avoid, to compound their dissociation, or to justify spending on more stuff — a different colored yoga mat or yoga pants or cushions.
For myself, I always bristled at the idea that we are here to get rid of desire. I love desire! It fuels me! And more than that, I love feeling! But then I realized…desire begets more desire, potentially putting a person in a state of perpetual longing. I also began to realize it’s not about detachment in that we are just supposed to not feel anything; we’re just not supposed to get attached to the feelings. To feel anger while not becoming an angry person. To let the emotion flow through, experience it and then let it go.
Then the whole ‘being present’ thing comes to mind. My mind can be so undisciplined, and I’m pretty sure that the more I try to discipline it the more undisciplined it gets. Not that I ever get too far in my attempts, because, well, I have a hard time being present.
My first ‘shamanic’ teacher taught that Buddhist meditation doesn’t make sense for a lot of Westerners because our minds are going all the time and it’s just futile to try to change that. She then taught a series of ‘active’ meditation techniques, full of visualizations. I still use many of them, six years later, and continue to find value in them for myself, my friends and my clients. I tend to avoid sweeping generalizations like she made, but it made sense for me.
I also wonder, however, whether I’m missing something by avoiding Buddhist meditation practices. I bet they might help me with the presence thing.
You know what doesn’t help? Cell phones. I am shocked at how often I’m walking through the city, and am compelled to take out my cell phone while waiting at a stoplight. Even worse when I’m half way through a block and have the instinct to pull the thing out to see if something has changed in the two minutes since I left the stop light. It’s insidious.
I’ve had a lot of conversations lately with some lady friends, all of whom (myself included) have been really looking at our attachment patterns. A common thread that tends to get amped up as we engage our relationships is ‘future tripping’, or rehashing the past, and other patterns of fixation. Several have said something along the lines of, “I don’t understand why I can’t just be present.”
It’s clear that there isn’t a simple answer, and that there are so many ways to think about this. But our culture hasn’t really been geared towards being present for several hundred years now. Technology, in many ways, seems to be geared towards keeping us out of the present.
It also makes me think about the resurgence of the divine feminine, especially as I talk to the women in my life. Perhaps it’s just our age and hormonal shifts, but I tend to lean towards more mystical explanations much of the time, and I do give some credence to the idea, which is knowledge for many of us, that Gaia is waking up — and along with her so is the feminine energy surging through each of us.
There seems to be an influx of anger as of late, as we become more moody — and I mean that in the most non-qualitative way, in that we are becoming aligned with our cycles and [trying to] respond accordingly. As we become more at home in our bodies and with our sexualities and desires, needs and wants we’re understanding how much of this has been repressed for a very long time. It feels like we’re channeling an influx of energy that none of us really knows what to do with, and so we’re experimenting with it all (when we’re not just reacting to it, that is), and hopefully learning about how to use it consciously in the process.
Being present while the divine feminine is waking up within you is…well, to me it feels awe-inspiring in a really exhaustingly complex and sometimes just obnoxious way. I suppose it’s happening within all of us. I’ve found myself increasingly relying on breathing and stretching.
Of course, all of a sudden, Tibetan-Shamanic-Esoteric texts, practices and images are showing up in my life everywhere I go. So perhaps it is time to re-engage the Buddhism thing as I begin to focus on being here now (or at least more often). Time will tell.
Great piece, Amanda! I’ve often written here about how much my Buddhist practice has helped me – indeed, totally transformed me over a period of many years. However, I’m not a Buddhist, and totally agree with you, people can also use it as a pretext to not get caughr up in the world. I really recommend reading Eckhart Tolle’s the Power of Now, if you haven’t already, and at the moment I’m working a lot with the talks and meditations of the brilliant “Direct Path” teacher Rupert Spira, who claims that people see enlightenment as something exotic because of all the Far East religions and philosophies. He explains how our original state is one of conscious awareness, that is covered up by our strong identification with our thought processes and emotions. But I haven’t summarised these teachings very well.
People often think that being present means not being caught up in ones thoughts – but, the process of being in present time means seeing exactly how caught up we are in our minds ALL the time. When starting meditation at first it can feel like we’re going nuts – cos for the firt time ever (usually), when we sit in stillness, we are able to see how or minds run the show. Being present means opening up to that crazy mind, our feelings and desires, and all that surrounds us in the outside world. One of my meditation teachers once said that our mnds our made for thinking – that’ s what they do – it was so liberating for me. But once we are able to let these thoughts etc be – we are also able to perceive and cultivate the inherent deep stillness that resides in all of us. Though it’s not an easy task!
Sorry – got carried away – better get off to work! ((())))
Desire is the nature of our existence as human beings. It is transcended but not left behind, as a more Western notion of transcendence might suggest. One becomes intimate with oneself through paying attention to desire, and in fact, one learns that all alike share the same desires for happiness, comfort, and freedom from stress and pain. This realization may in turn genuinely motivate one to greater concern for all human beings, and greater sensitivity to the oppression of others.
To the first comment I would add that being present to one’s anger with curiosity, exploring it, getting underneath it to the vulnerability that it may mask, affords one an expanded ability to choose wisely a course of action when one is aggrieved.
Well said indeed. I often wonder just where it is we all think we’re going when we step out of the present. I don’t think it is ever EASY to be in the now but over time it does become the only place you truly want to be, warts and all. There are many ways to get there and the big thing is being open to trying them all, if need be.
So agree with all you say, Elisa “.It’s an investigative journey into oneself- which helps to soften and eventually lose one’s knee-jerk reaction to everything that happens to us.
It’s so wonderful when I can have a spirit of curiosity into the “investigative journey” into myself. Every once in a while, though…I just want a break.
Kelley, your comment reminds me of the soul retrieval work I do, as well as theories on trauma and fragmentation (both the academic-psychological and the mystical-spiritual). I was shocked to recently realize that perhaps death is not the unitive experience I thought it was – a return to source. Rather, it seems that fragmentation or separation are the norm in many cycles of existence, and the transition between the physical plane and whatever happens when we die seems to mirror that.
What’s the relevance here? Well, just pondering. But also wanting to mention that sometimes we aren’t all that “here and now” because parts of us have gone somewhere else. Or maybe that’s just a myth/story that’s been constructed. In any case, my guess is that that theme will be a big one for me in the months/years (lives?) to come.
And a hearty “YES!” to openness to trying.
Amanda, it is true in my experience that we don’t have access to who we are in the sense of all that we feel or believe or want in the present moment. Meditation is one tool to help us shed layers of false self but there are many other tools as well. Yoga appeals to me as it gently makes me aware of self-critical beliefs I hold and comedy does, too, as it examines popular assumptions in a non-threatening way.
The soul retrieval aspect is REALLY interesting, Amanda. I’m starting to think more and more that, in fact, “we” may not always BE “present” in one time and space and not just because there may be pieces that got stuck or lost someplace (thus needing retrieval, and there’s a LOT of interesting work to be done on the physical body in that regard). In fact there are so many dimensions and things going on all the time that even simple focus finds itself shifting to encompass this larger…entourage? that turns out to be “us”. Now, to keep everybody quiet at nap time……