What’s so special about the present moment?

(This is an article published in the summer 2016 issue of Chan Magazine.  It was transcribed by Buffe Laffey from a Dharma talk given in the Beginner’s Mind Retreat at Dharma Drum Retreat Center in 2013.)

This is the time of the retreat that was set aside for a Dharma talk. First I want to ask whether anyone has a question about the practice, about what we are doing here? [No one asks a question.] Perhaps there is a question but everyone is too polite to ask. This question may have arisen in your mind in one form or the other but maybe you feel “I shouldn’t ask that; maybe I’m the only one who doesn’t know.” The question will be something like this: Why is it so important to stay in the present moment? What is so special? You keep talking about it over and over again, why is it so imperative?” We ask ourselves, if we truly believe and accept that being in the present moment is important, why is it so hard? Why do we keep dwelling on the past or fantasizing about the future? Have you asked yourself this question? We would do anything but be in the present. Interesting, huh?

This is not mentioned to be accusing of anybody. It’s just kind of funny that we hear it’s theoretically a really good thing to stay in the present, but we simply can’t, or won’t, (or both)? So perhaps it’s helpful for us to look into this a little bit to see what’s really going on, instead of assuming that we really want to but we just forget. There might be a real reason why we prefer to be in the past or in the future, rather than to be in the present. So let’s take a look. What do we usually do when we are not in the present moment? Is the mind usually thinking about the future? What’s going to happen next? What food will be served for dinner? Some of you may be planning what you are going to do when you get home tomorrow. Some other thoughts may be worries, for example: What if this doesn’t work out? What if I spend all this time on this retreat and meditate every day but I never can calm my mind?

Scrapbooks and Memories

[A student asks about scrapbooking; in trying to stay in the present, how should she approach making a scrapbook with photos of her grandchildren?]

If I understand your question correctly, you are asking if you’re supposed to be in the present, how are you to deal with business that has to do with the past, such as your grandchildren’s precious photographs? These things, the scrapbook and the memories, are not two things. In this moment you are making a scrapbook, looking at photographs which may remind you of a happy time. These remembered thoughts and feelings are replaying in your mind in the present, are they not? There is no real conflict. There’s nothing wrong with having memories. We all have memories of the past. The question is: do we know what we are doing in the mind with these memories? Are we replaying memories and mistaking them for something that is happening now? Or do we know clearly that this is the past? Can we tell the difference?

Some of you might know people who live in their past. Maybe you have seen movies that portray someone who was a beautiful, successful actress but now she’s no longer a famous movie star, yet she walks around her house in her glamorous dress still acting as if she was in her star days, still living in that dream and refusing to see what is reality now. This sounds very extreme; a portrayal like this, there is something seriously wrong with this person. But we all do this from time to time, don’t we? We go into a memory and we want to relive it. But we don’t recognize it. When we see someone else do this, we think that person really needs to see a doctor. But when we do it from time to time, we don’t recognize it.

The question is, do we know what we are doing with the past? When you’re doing a scrapbook you have this moment from the past. You are organizing in the present moment, touching these photographs and focusing on the task at hand. You know clearly that you are handling these pieces of memory which is different from invoking the past over and over again at the expense of what is really right here and now. But the question is, are we aware that we are doing that? Sometimes it’s hard to tell because very often our mind is simply too scattered and confused to be able to discern what really is going on. Is our mental representation of what happened in the past the same thing as the actual event?

When that event was happening, in that moment it actually took place. Now, our memory brings back the image of what happened and also invokes the emotion that comes with it. But is our image in memory actually what happened at that time? If we really think about it, it’s kind of impossible because when something is happening we are only able to perceive part of what’s going on. Ours can only be a very partial representation; it is not possible for it to be exactly what happened. That past event is already gone but we may not be able to see that our image of what happened is not really the whole picture. Or to put it another way it is a distorted image of what happened.

Dwelling in Past Happiness

We choose to remember what we want to remember. We may dwell on something that’s very happy; a family reunion, we love our family, everyone having so much fun. This is something that has already passed, it is not happening now, but we replay it over and over again in our mind, maybe because we savor the happy feeling that it brings up in us. Now that is one reason why we don’t want to be in the present; we want to visit past happy memories. What is your experience? Does that ultimately make us happy?

Maybe you have had this experience: you play back some video of happy times with family members who you don’t see very often. You play that video, revisit that happy feeling, and then you feel sad afterwards because you wish they didn’t live so far away from you, or you wish that vacation never had to end. It’s quite interesting. We dwell in past memory believing that we find happiness there. That’s why we sacrifice being in the present, so we might have a fleeting moment of happy feeling. But then we end up feeling something amiss because the past is gone. There is this feeling of dissatisfaction, a sense that something is lacking in the present. Why do we emphasize so much about being in the present moment? The answer is – when we are not in the present moment we look to the past believing we can find happiness there. But what we end up with is suffering, in the form of feeling that we are separated from those we love, or that we have lost what we really like.

Fantasizing the Future

How about fantasizing about great things that can happen in the future? Maybe there is a fun thing you have planned for next week and you think about how great it’s going to turn out. Or maybe you are about to graduate college and you’re thinking you’re going to get your dream job and then you will become successful and make a lot of money. Fantasy can happen in a moment when you meet with some success; for example if you are working in academia and you get a positive comment on a paper. You fantasize that you’re going to get promoted and become an important person in your field. You can go on and on fantasizing about a bright, wonderful, future; we all have done that. Is that pleasant?

Maybe you met someone and just can’t stop thinking about that person. You start imagining that person will love you back and you’re going to get married and have this great family and will live ever after this beautiful full life together. Have we all done this kind of fantasizing? What happened after that? Disappointment? We may not need to wait that long to experience disappointment. When we fantasize about future success in anything – love, relations, career – maybe the next thought will be, what if I publish this paper but people think it’s stupid? What if I go out with this guy and he turns out to be a really mean person? What if we get married and we can’t agree on whether we should have children? What if after graduating I get this job and really hate it, after investing all these years in education? The “what if’s” begin to creep in maybe?

We might try to find happiness in fantasizing about the future; that’s why we do it! Again, we do it at the expense of being in the present moment. But if we really look at our experience we may see that fantasizing about the future like that often leaves us with anxiety, worry, and fear. So that’s a great price to pay. But we believe that’s where to find happiness; dwelling on pleasant past memory, or fantasizing about a bright future. Where else can we find happiness? The idea of finding happiness in the present might have never crossed our mind.

I teach college, and one thing that I hear students say a lot is “Oh, I’m in college just so I can get it over with.” Does that sound familiar: to get it over with? As if whatever I’m doing now, something better is waiting for me. So we’re sitting here on the meditation cushion, at some level thinking “Oh I’m waiting for the bell to ring.” So that, what? I can move my legs? I can get to breakfast? Whatever is going to happen in the future is better than now. It’s quite funny, huh? We have this way of thinking. We are not used to the idea that we can find fulfillment, contentment, peace, and joy in the present. We have conditioned ourselves to look for it in the past and the future; ignoring time after time that this actually brings us suffering.


Don’t Believe Anything I Say

Now this is the time when I like to remind you that you should not believe anything I say. I don’t want you to believe me. Whatever I say, take it with a gigantic grain of salt, don’t just take my word for it. You should take it back and test it with your own experience. Examine it, investigate it, find out for yourself if I am making this up. Is there any time at all, when you dwell in the past or fantasize about the future, that you find ultimate happiness? Don’t be so ready to answer. This is a project I’d like you to undertake for days and weeks and months after this retreat. I’d like you to investigate this.

Why do we not want to be in the present moment? It is not an accident, our very entrenched habit of going to the past and going to the future. There is a real reason why we do what we do: we are simply not convinced that fulfillment can be found in the present. We genuinely believe that happiness is somewhere else. And because of that our mind behaves accordingly, moment after moment after moment after moment. Occasionally we can be in the present moment, we can feel the joy and happiness in it, and then we go back to the past because we believe that deeply. Now again, don’t just believe me. Look at your own mind and see if that’s really what’s going on. It’s going to take some time, I guarantee you. But question yourself “Do I actually believe that being in the present moment is what I want to do?”

Do We Know That We Suffer?

This is why we emphasize the importance of being in the present moment. Outside of the present moment, in the past, in the future, there is suffering. You may have heard that suffering is the first noble truth of Shakyamuni Buddha; if you have studied any Buddhadharma you may have heard this. And usually, we think “Okay, the first noble truth: suffering. I got it, what’s next?” And then we don’t think about it again. There is a reason why this is the first noble truth. The Buddha, after attaining enlightenment, the first thing he wanted to tell people was: there is suffering. Can we understand how important this is? Do we bother to really understand it? Do we know that we suffer? Or do we do things we believe bring us happiness, but actually cause us suffering and we don’t even know it?

We are not aware of our suffering. If we are not aware that we are suffering, chances are we are not going to do anything about it. You may have heard that Shakyamuni Buddha is like a doctor, and it’s a good analogy. What he’s trying to help people see is that we are quite sick. And only when we realize we are sick will we understand the importance of seeking treatment, of taking medicine. If we think “I’m not sick, I’m fine!” will we take medicine? No. Shakyamuni Buddha said we’re all quite sick. But we are not convinced. When we are not convinced, when we don’t believe we suffer, then of course we won’t take the medicine. We won’t practice. We won’t make the effort to stay in the present moment. We won’t remember to follow the method, which is your medicine. We think “I’m not sick. The doctor said I have to take this. I’ll take a little bit of it, just to make you happy, but I don’t really need it.” Many people are like that. I know I’m like that from time to time; do you know you’re like that? Are we aware of our suffering?

Shaking the Mind

When we are cultivating this awareness, when we do sitting meditation to concentrate the mind, what we are doing really is to get our mind less confused for long enough so that we can take a look at it. Because most of the time we don’t know what’s going on in there, we’re simply too scattered, too distracted, too confused. When we have the method to anchor our mind — the breath, the counting — it allows this confusion to settle down. Think about a bottle of water with a lot of silt in it. If you shake it up, it’s all murky and you can’t see through it. How do you go about trying to see through the water in a bottle with a lot of silt in it? Stop shaking it.

You may think “I’m not shaking my mind.” But every time you hear a sound and think, “Hey what’s that? Who’s out there? What’s that bug?” – that’s shaking the mind. When a pleasant memory comes through and we follow and try to hold onto it, that’s shaking the mind. Or a thought about someone who said something offensive to us; we replay it over and over thinking “How dare that person treat me like that!” We are shaking our mind. There is no problem inherently in doing this; you just need to know what you are doing – you are keeping your mind murky and confused. If that is what you want you’re doing a great job. If what you want is a calmer mind, so you can see what’s in it and perhaps understand why you’re doing what you are doing, then keeping the mind murky is not going to help. It is totally your choice. All I’m asking of you is to discern clearly what decision you are making. If you decide to follow a past memory when it arises that’s not a problem. Just know you are shaking up your mind.

Maybe a pleasant sensation arises, such as “I am feeling so calm, and so relaxed, this is great! If I keep sitting this way I think I’m going to be enlightened tomorrow. Because it’s going to get calmer and calmer…” Now we’re fantasizing about the future. We follow this thought and we’re not here in the present any more. Fantasizing about the future is not inherently a problem. But know that when you make that decision, you are choosing to shake up your mind and keep it murky. Every time there is movement in the mind, you have a choice. You can keep the mind quiet and still so that you can see through the water and be able to understand what’s going on in the mind, or you can stir it up and keep your mind obscured.

Do You Want to Know Your Mind?

Maybe you don’t really want to see what’s in your mind. You don’t know what you’re going to find, maybe you don’t really want to see it. Ask yourself, do I want to understand my mind? If you don’t want to know your mind, what are you doing here? There are a lot more fun things to do than this; go to the beach, go to a picnic, watch a movie. Why are you making your legs hurt sitting on this cushion? Ultimately you need to ask yourself these hard questions. You read books, you listen to Dharma talks, you listen to teachers, and you exhaustively tell yourself you need “to stay in the present moment.” But you don’t believe it. You need to practice, to cultivate this clarity of the mind, but you don’t buy it. Ask yourself that question; what am I doing here? Why? That’s why we asked you this question on the first night, what brought you here? What are you looking for? Maybe you didn’t give it very much thought, but if you put yourself through all this pain in the legs and the back, and if you want to establish a meditation practice and do this, you might want to ask yourself why.

The reason why I bring this up is that I have worked with people who have been doing this for thirty years and they don’t know why. They would go to a seven or ten day retreat, two or three times a year, even though every single time their body has intense pain from doing this, and they don’t realize that deep down they don’t believe in the importance of the present moment. They are just hoping that if they sit their butt on this cushion long enough, something is bound to happen.

We need to investigate our mind. Ask ourselves hard questions. Now, I am very sorry to be disturbing your peace like this because some of you might think that you all came here to be peaceful, to be happy and relaxed. Well, there are many things we can do to relax. How about getting a massage? You pay someone, you don’t need to do anything, and they massage you all over. Oh, so relaxed! Go to the spa, if that is all we’re looking for. There is more than that; we are looking for more than that. Do we know? Is it clear in our mind? It takes time, and actual effort, a willingness to ask ourselves challenging questions especially for some of us who have been doing the practice for some time. We may not want to find out, “Oh, I don’t know what I’m doing!” because it’s kind of embarrassing. So we shy away from asking, but we need to ask ourselves hard questions.

“Chan is Not Supposed to be Comfortable”

A very dear teacher of mine, John Crook, who has since passed away, was Master Sheng Yen’s first European Dharma heir. I often remember something he said; “Chan is not supposed to be comfortable.” We investigate things in our mind that we have been running away from, avoiding. So if all you want to do is to run away and avoid, I think there are many ways in this world to do that: television, smart phones, video games, movies, books, and so on. There’s no shortage at all. We don’t need to do this retreat; we have a lot of options. We are here. Do we still want to hide and run away from these tough questions we’ve been avoiding?

We practice on the cushion to establish the technique of anchoring our mind using the method. When I say “anchor the mind”, that means our mind always knows where to go. So in our sitting meditation when some very disturbing memory or emotion comes up, what do we do? We come back to the breath. We will have lost count, so we go back to one. If we have been overtaken by this upsetting memory; if we went back and relived all the trauma and pain – “one” is the anchor of our life, always return there. That’s why we teach the breath method; is there any time you have been without your breath? That’s the great thing about this method; our breath is always, always there.

When we practice and get better at this technique of anchoring the mind, then this bottle becomes more still. We will still stir it up when we follow these memories and fantasies, but we bring our self back and we stop shaking the bottle. Then the silt has a chance to settle down. If you are not convinced and you really need a visual demonstration, when you go back home get a bottle of water and put some silt in it and shake it up, and then shake it less, and see what happens. Really try it, it’s kind of fun. It happens slowly, it’s not like you sit in meditation and suddenly it’s all clear, of course not. But if we shake the mind up less, it’s a little less murky and we can see through a little bit more than before. That’s when we are able to see what’s going on in the mind, discern our motivation and our intention.

Becoming Who We Want to Be

Why are we doing this? We may say, “Sometimes I’m just kind of mean, I say things that are passive aggressive to people, I don’t know why it just happens.” It doesn’t just happen; we’ve been thinking those thoughts a lot, so when we open our mouth it comes out. When we shake that bottle of murky water less we may see “Oh, I think I’m jealous of that person, that’s why I’m kind of cold to her.” Then we can choose what to do, rather than thinking “I have no idea why I don’t like her.” If we really look at our mind, we begin to understand why we do what we do.

What we are doing in sitting meditation is to practice stabilizing the mind. Remember that the anchor of the mind is “one”; it’s pretty simple, right? We go back to one, and as the mind stabilizes we naturally have more clarity, we don’t need to look for additional clarity. When we stop shaking the bottle the water will become clearer, our mind will be less confused. We naturally will have more insight into why we are the way we are. We also will be more able to pay attention because we’re not so confused and preoccupied. Then we can be the person we want to be.

Everyone wants to be a good person, kind and considerate. But a confused mind makes it difficult. When we know what’s going on in our mind, we can stop saying things that we really regret afterwards. We can be happier with who we are. We also truly see our suffering; then maybe we will finally be convinced that Shakyamuni Buddha was right. I think maybe he knew something. Maybe we should really look at how much we cause our own suffering, creating anxiety, worries, and fear while believing we are getting happiness. That’s a pretty big mistake. We are getting the opposite of what we thought we were doing. When we truly see how much we suffer we will naturally remember to come back to one, to come back to the present moment.

Don’t believe me, don’t. Don’t just treat this as something someone said and store it away. Question it. Test it out. Use it to look at your own experience. Meanwhile, here in this retreat use this opportunity, this environment that’s been set up to help us remember the anchor of our mind. During the sitting meditation, use the meditation method, return to the breath, and count “one”. When we are off the meditation cushion, while walking, doing work practice, body in movement, when standing in line waiting for food, taking our food, eating –  at all times keep the mind with what the body is doing. Stay with the changing sensations of what the body is experiencing. Whenever we notice “I don’t want to do this, this is boring, this is dumb,” say “Hmmm, this is interesting; what’s going on?” Allow yourself to question the method. Maybe you can find out what’s in your mind.

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