Suffering in the Here and Now

I am a breath breathing in the breeze. I am one.

I am a drop of water falling into the ocean. I am many.

I am a ray of sunlight traveling through a flower stem. I am energy.

I am a flame burning on the surface of the sun. I am my own shadow.

I am a grain of sand buried in… Oh blast, my left leg has gone asleep! Focus on the pain. Just acknowledge it and let it go. Rise above the sensation of… Sod it!

I am a breath breathing in the breeze (Image copyright: Padraig Hanratty)

I am a breath breathing in the breeze (Image copyright: Padraig Hanratty)

Into a new year and trying to restart all those good things I forgot to keep doing in 2012. Such as dieting in moderation. Exercising every few days. Writing every day. Thinking before blurting out. And meditating.

The previous blog post looked at the past. And the one before that focused on the future. This one concentrates on the tiny sliver between the past and future: the present.

Every time I sit/lie/lotus down to try to meditate on the present moment, Van Morrison’s “Enlightenment” inevitably pops unbidden into my emptied mind. This song wonderfully encapsulates what is so attractive about meditating. And also hints at its limits.

It was the title song on Morrison’s 1990 Enlightenment album and was released as a single. (The album ended with “Memories”, a song examined in the previous post. The album also included the hit single “Real Real Gone”. I was lucky enough to see Morrison perform a gloriously ramshackle version of “Real Real Gone” with Bob Dylan in Dublin back in 1995.)

Mindfulness meditation has become very popular in recent years, mainly through the works of Jon Kabat-Zinn. This is a specific form of meditation that focuses on being mindful of the present moment, fully living in the here and now. It can trace its origins back to Buddhism and the Noble Eightfold Path. The Buddha advised, “Do not dwell on the past; do not dream of the future; concentrate the mind on the present moment.”   

This form of meditation often centres on being aware of your breathing or your body. However, it can also take place during everyday activities such as walking or eating. It involves being fully aware of and engaged in whatever your current activity is. Rather than remembering what you’ve done already or fretting about what you have to do later, you simply live in the present, doing what you’re doing now. This is alluded to in the song’s opening words:

Chop that wood. Carry water.

So, in other words, mindfulness doesn’t just occur on the yoga mat. It happens any time you’re mindful of what you’re doing. You may be a monk raking leaves in a garden. You may be painting a canvas or a back wall. You may be listening to your favourite piece of music. In Dimestore Avenue Blues, Jesse’s world stops when he listens to a blues song. For the duration of the song, all that exists for him is that song in that moment. He’s listening mindfully.

Another tool sometimes used in meditation is the zen koan. This can be understood as a riddle that cannot be answered by conventional thinking. Koans aim to bring you beyond thoughts of opposites and duality towards intuition, unity and enlightenment, no less.  The song refers to one of the most famous koans:

What’s the sound of one hand clapping?

However, rather than spending an entire song trying to recreate the sound of one hand clapping, Morrison admits:

Enlightenment, don’t know what it is.

Another aim of meditation is to make us aware of the transience of existence. Our time is limited and our life is constantly changing in that time. By fully living the moment, ironically you become aware that this present moment is different from the previous present moment. You can never step into the same river twice; the flowing river is never the same again and neither are you. As Morrison puts it:

Every second, every minute,
It keeps changing to something different.

One of the stepping stones on the path to enlightenment is non-attachment. This stems from the idea that unhappiness is caused by desire. You are unhappy because you do not have what you desire. However, no desire can ever be fully satisfied. No matter how nice and filling our meal today is, we’ll get hungry again. We will always want more, no matter what we get.

Non-attachment is a means of escaping the circle of desire and satisfaction. It is not just about denying yourself the things you desire. It’s even more than moving beyond frivolous attachments. Instead, you detach yourself from desire itself. Not an easy task, as Morrison indicates:

Enlightenment, don’t know what it is.
It says it’s non-attachment.

So if you really master meditation and live fully in the present moment, freed from desire, you’ll achieve perpetual happiness. Right? Wrong.

I’m in the here and now,
And I’m meditating,
And still I’m suffering,
But that’s my problem.

The Buddha reminds us that “life is suffering”. In this life, we cannot forever escape suffering because we are all mortal beings: “When I was a young man, near the beginning of my life, I looked around with true mindfulness and saw that all things are subject to decay. Thus all things are subject to death, sorrow and suffering.”

Meditation can make us more aware of ourselves and of the world around us. It can help us calm down the chaos of whirling thoughts, emotions, opinions, noise and information that assaults us every minute of the day. It can help us sort out the passing irritations and transient pleasures from the lasting concerns and timeless values. We become more willing to take time out and question what our senses are telling us. As Morrison puts it:

Enlightenment says the world is nothing,
Nothing but a dream,
Everything’s an illusion
And nothing is real.

This isn’t quite as nihilistic as it might first sound. If you’re willing to question your reality, you’re better equipped to change your reality. The self-help movement is based on the premise that people can change their lives; we may not be able to change what has happened to us, but we can change how we react to what has happened to us. We can change our perceptions of our reality. In Morrison’s words:

Good or bad, baby,
You can change it any way you want.

Indeed, the Buddha implies that we are ultimately responsible for our reality because we are responsible for our own thoughts: “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.”

And with our thoughts, we can change the world. Well, our world anyway.

All around, baby, you can see
You’re making your own reality every day.

Of course, meditation, mindfulness and non-attachment all have their limits. We can’t always live solely in the present moment. We need to learn from past actions and we need to consider the future consequences of our current actions.

And it’s not easy detaching ourselves from desire. Not all desires are bad in themselves or even in their consequences. After all, it’s our desires that spur us to action. Our desires may not always lead us on the good path, but, until we can escape the circle of desire, all we can do is try our best. Every second, every minute. Will that lead to enlightenment? Don’t know what it is.

Anyway, back to my meditation. I might just stumble on to enlightenment this time.

Empty the mind of all thoughts and distractions.

I’m breathing in.

I’m breathing out.

My breath is breathing me.

I am living in the present moment, silent on to myself.

All communication lines have been closed for now because… Oh damn it, I’ve forgotten to pay the phone bill! Better go do that now before it goes out of my mind again.

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