The Use of the Present
We focus on the body in and of itself, feelings in and of themselves, mind states in and of themselves, but we don’t make them the goal in and of themselves. We’re trying to take them apart to see what they’re made of, because we’ve been putting them together in all kinds of strange ways, ways that lead to suffering. They’re like raw materials. We’ve been creating weapons out of them: weapons that harm other people, weapons that harm ourselves. But they don’t have to be weapons. We can take the weapons apart and reassemble the parts into something actually beneficial.
See what we’ve got right here. We’ve got the body breathing. It has different postures. And it has different elements inside: earth, water, wind, and fire. There are 32 parts—and 32 is just the beginning. There are lots more little parts in there, too. So you want to be with these aspects of the body as they’re happening. The same with feelings as they arise; the same with mind states. We make them mean something. In the past, the meanings have been unskillful, but now we’re going to learn how to put them together in a more skillful way. So we take them apart to reassemble them for a good purpose. We don’t take them as ends in and of themselves.
There’s that tendency to fetishize the present moment. “If you can be in the present moment, everything’s going to be okay”: That’s the mantra of the mindfulness movement. But there are times when you’re tempted to say, “Let’s just disown mindfulness entirely,” at least in the way it’s been turned into a business here in the States. It’s a shame, because “mindfulness” is a perfect word for what the Buddha was talking about: keeping something in mind.
We’re not here with the present moment just to accept the present moment, because that’s not going to solve all our problems. We’re here to see what we’ve got here in the present moment, the basic building blocks, and to see if we can turn them into a path: a path to the end of suffering—because, after all, the path we’re following is something you put together.
Even the way you breathe is something you put together. You have an image in the mind of how the breath should be, but sometimes that image may be harmful. It’s going to have an impact on how you actually breathe. If you change the image, it’ll change the way you breathe. You can experiment, say, emphasizing the out-breath. Without paying much attention to the in-breath, be more careful to breathe out, to get all the unhealthy air out of your lungs: See what holding that idea of the breath in mind does. Or you can experiment the other way around. See what works best right now.
Or with your feelings, how you relate to pains in the body: You may have some old, unskillful ways of fabricating pains. There is a physical cause for most pains—the body’s ready to create pains in all kinds of ways—but particular pains come up and we tend to try to trap them in a particular way, or move them around in a particular way, or we picture them to ourselves in a particular way, and that’s going to have an impact on how we actually experience them.
The same with mind states: Things come up in the mind. Some things come up and it’s very easy to let them go. Other things come up and they’re bristling with Velcro, or with bigger hooks than Velcro. They dig right in. There’s a fascination with them. And we can fabricate those thoughts into all kinds of worlds.
So the solution is to take these things apart and then learn how to fabricate them in good ways. Fabricate the breath. Fabricate your feelings into a state of concentration. Fabricate your thoughts into questions you might ask about where the stress is: What can you do to understand it? What can you do to figure out the cause? What can you do to abandon the cause? Those are useful questions. That’s a good use of your directed thought and evaluation: the way the mind talks to itself.
So the present moment is not an absolute. It’s something you’re always fabricating, and the strategy of the path is to learn how to fabricate it in a new direction, toward the end of suffering. This means that you’re using everything that comes up in the present as a means to a larger end. You’ve already been using it as a means in the past, but this time you’re going to use it with more knowledge—and hopefully with some more skill—as a means to a better end. The more knowledge you bring to these processes, the less you’ll suffer.
There’s an interesting piece I saw today in The New York Times, complaining about the mindfulness movement and its tendency to fetishize the present. The author’s complaint was that people don’t really get happy because of what they do. People get happy because of circumstances. And the solution to the problem is that we’ve got to change the society so that people will be happy. However, the mindfulness movement is opposed to changing society, or is an obstacle to that change: That was the author’s take.
Yet this is one of those arguments where both sides are wrong. In other words, simply being in the present moment is not going to make you happy. But then trying to create a perfect society is not going to make you happy, either.
Look at the Buddha. If anybody could have created a perfect society, it would have been him. But he saw that it was useless. There was a time when Mara came to him. The question had arisen in the Buddha’s mind, “Could it be possible to rule in such a way that you wouldn’t have to create bad kamma and that you could do nothing but good for all beings?” Mara shows up, and says, “Ah, yes, do that.” And the Buddha realizes that this idea of creating a perfect society is all a trick of Mara, because you’re using people for ends. And how skillful are those ends? Even if the ends are good, there’s a tendency to try to attain them in unskillful ways, to impose them on people. If you tell people that things will be good and they’ll be happy only if society is perfect, people would die before they could find true happiness.
On the other hand, the solution is not a matter of simply accepting things as they are. It’s learning how to reshape them in a skillful way, starting with learning how to reshape things skillfully within yourself and, at the same time, being generous and virtuous. Generosity and virtue are probably the two best things for improving society. We’re never going to get a perfect society, but you find that the wiser you are in your generosity, the more consistent you are in your virtue, then the better the world you create around you. And it can be done without force, without imposing your will on other people.
Generosity and virtue are the yeast that gets into a society and makes it human, regardless of what the structure or system may be. If people were more virtuous and more generous, things would be a lot less oppressive. And the people who are virtuous and generous are also finding that they create happiness for themselves. It’s to their benefit. That goes together with the practice of meditation.
In the Buddha’s image, virtue cleans your discernment, and discernment cleans your virtue. And under the term “virtue” in that passage, the Buddha included the practice of the jhanas and the knowledges you can gain based on jhana. As virtue and discernment clean each other, he said, it’s like one hand washing another hand or one foot washing another foot. Both sides benefit. And you’re shaping the present moment in a new way. We’re not here just to accept things. We do have to figure out what we have and to accept what we’ve got, as raw materials, but then we have to figure out what’s the best thing to do with those materials. That’s what the path is all about.
The present moment is a path. It’s leading someplace. The question is, “What kind of path is it? Where does the particular path you’re on right now lead?” If your mind wanders off to thoughts of sensuality, thoughts of lust, thoughts of anger, it is a path, but it’s a path in a downward direction.
If you can develop thoughts of renunciation, compassion, and goodwill, that’s a path leading upward. If you can take your thoughts and talk to yourself about the breath, get more settled in the present moment, that leads even higher. So we’ve got the raw materials here. The problem is, as I said, that we’ve been turning them into weapons and using them to harm ourselves and harm others.
But you can grind those same raw materials down and turn them into medicine. That’s one of the Buddha’s images: The Dhamma is like medicine. He’s like a doctor. And here you are, learning to be a doctor yourself, taking the things that you used to use to poison yourself and figuring out how, if you mix them in a different way, they can actually become medicines.
So the present is here to be used. And the teachings are here to teach us how to use it wisely.