Thursday, January 20, 2011

Cult of the Present Moment

Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.

James Baldwin

Continuing the romp through 20th century writers, I stumbled on this quote today and thought: yes!

Unlike Ayn Rand,James Baldwin is an author whose work I continue to love. There is a quality of fearlessness in his writing that matched the way he tried to live his life. He tenaciously dug into the racial dynamics of mid-20th century America. He openly wrote about gay and bi-sexuality at a time when doing so was basically taboo. His early deep commitment to the Pentecostal Church eventually bled into complex considerations of Christianity and Islam, which often clanged heads during in the Civil Rights era. People often underestimate the power and importance of the arts created during periods of great change. The way I see it, those artists and writers are often mapping the new terrain, sometimes without even knowing it. Baldwin was one of those people.

Yesterday, I had a conversation with a friend of mine about practice. Buddhist. Yogic. The blur of the two, which has always been the case for me, even though I write primarily on the Buddhist end of things. Anyway, one of her favorite phrases is "accept what is." It's a great reminder when you are swamped in aversion or grasping for something that you don't have. Acceptance has to do with paying attention, seeing what's present, and not flinching away from it.

The present is IT, right? This where life is; past and future are just that.

That's a nice, tidy summary, but it's kind of indicative with what I will call the Cult of the Present Moment.

In the Tenzo Kyokun, Dogen wrote the following:

When you have finished, think about the ingredients for the next day's meals. First, pick over the rice. If there are any insects, green beans, hulls or pebbles, carefully pick them out. While picking over the rice and vegetables, the postulants should chant sutras and dedicate the merit to the kitchen god. Next, select the ingredients for the vegetables and soup and cook them. Do not argue with the store officers over the amount of ingredients you have received. Without worrying about their quality, simply make the best of what you have. It is prohibited to show your feelings or say anything about the amount of ingredients.

During the day and through the night, whether things come and dwell in your mind or your mind turns and dwells on things, put yourself on a par with them and diligently pursue the way. Prior to the third watch take stock of the next morning's tasks; after the third watch take charge of making the morning gruel.

Notice the ease with which Dogen's sentences flow between contemplation of the future, and action. Be fully present without judgment. Envision the future. Be fully present without judgment. Envision the future.

I see a lot of writing and hear a lot of talking about being fully present, but envisioning the future - not as much. This particular passage of Dogen is fairly practical oriented, where contemplation leads to setting intentions about how to function the next day. In other words, it's pretty contained, but there are other places in Dogen's writing where this envisioning is expanded beyond any concept of space and time we might have.

If your only focused on paying attention to the present moment, what happens when the breakup of the world as one has always known it comes? Certainly, envisioning and intention setting can be part of one's present, but Dogen's own emphasis on shikantaza, or just sitting, has perhaps led some folks astray. And I don't think this is just a Soto Zen issue; I'm just more able to speak of Soto since I've been a student of the school.

Even a non-Buddhist like James Baldwin understood the power of paying attention and facing what's present.

"Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."

However, he also recognized the great importance of imagination, of envisioning a more just and lively future.

"You write in order to change the world ... if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it."

Given a society where sexual diversity was shunned and oppressed, Baldwin created a literary world where same-sex love might breathe for awhile. Given a society where the majority white population couldn't conceive of the depth of suffering endured by African-Americans, Baldwin offered stories like Sonny's Blues as an attempt not only to show that suffering, but also to demonstrate the power of artistic expression as a means to transcending suffering.

I disagree with Baldwin's insistence that writing is about changing the world. I see it more as a diving into a new incarnation of the world, and offering that to yourself and others. It may or may not end up "coming true," but the act of envisioning it, of setting your internal compass towards it, is, itself, a transformation.

Zazen and the other formal forms of practice are often considered to the platforms from which our true, complete lives may spring forth. They act as containers, locations that hold our various horses while they buck and kick and huff. In the same way, envisioning - when done with a spirit of non-attachment to outcome - is a kind of container from with individual and collective futures can spring forth.

Somehow, I think these words about Noh theater from Algernon's blog offer a different, but similar outlook.

As an actor you look at every aspect of yourself (thought, emotion, movement) from the inside, but at the same time you look at your image from the outside. Then you can act. When you do this something emerges, a strange psychological state. This phenomenon is beyond logical explanation. It has no logic, no words, no intelligence, but with experience you will start to understand.

Deep paying attention to who you are is merged with envisioning the life and circumstances of who you are being asked to be on stage. I like the phrase "strange psychological state" because I think this is how the merger is experienced, at least in the beginning. Some of us are really good at paying attention to the present. Others really good at dreaming about the future. But not too many are good at riding the waves that come when two come together.

Baldwin's phrase "the loss of all that gave one an identity" fits in here. Although I'd elaborate here that it's not necessarily that everything familiar is lost, but more that everything that made things familiar is lost. Do you see the difference there?

I'll leave you with this, from Zen poet Ikkyu, who seems to have been good at riding the merger waves.

Form in Void

The tree is stripped,
All color, fragrance gone,
Yet already on the bough,
Uncaring spring!


Algernon said...

"Everything that made things familiar," beautiful distinction.

dragonfly said...

I had a yoga teacher once talk about past, present and future in relation to the Warrior II pose. You need to be grounded in the center of your pose (the present) in order to find the balance of your energy reaching back (into the past) and forward (into the future). I like this image of the body in Warrior as a way of feeling my way into these concepts of past, present, and future. We do need a solid grounding in the present - and I think there's so much focus on that because it is the most challenging place for many people to be - but also that cannot mean complete neglect of past or future. But also, if you lean too far back or forward in your Warrior, your balance will be off and the pose will feel awkward and difficult. The trick is to reach from the present. Nice post, Nathan. Namaste.

Nathan said...

Ah, I love that about Warrior II. That's one of the beautiful things about a pose like that - anything more than very slightly off balance and you fall over. There's not much wiggle room, which is quite helpful.