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Present moment awareness
This piece aims to explore the practice of present moment awareness, and why it is key.
In the sutta The Destination, translated by Glen Wallis in the book The Basic Teachings Of the Buddha (Modern Library, New York, 2007) the Buddha states that the path leading to the destination is present moment awareness directed at the body, and urges the monks not to hesitate and to go meditate.
Present moment awareness directed at the body.
Why do we need to practice present moment awareness? Why can’t we just read the books, the suttas and learn that way? In fact why can’t we just read about the truth, believe it, apply it and voila!!? Happiness
Basically, the many reasons (even though we keep trying and trying) add up to one thing - It doesn’t work, does it? It works for some things - how to ride a bicycle, how to make scrambled eggs etc. practical things, doing things.
But how do I become and stay happy? How do I live with ease?…. maybe not so good.
Why is this so?
The answer to this question lies in the practice itself - meditation. No conceptual response to be ‘believed’ will satisfy. Only the experience of present moment awareness and the insight, wisdom, joy and tranquility that arises through the practice will suffice, and enable you to taste the dharma for yourself. As the Buddha instructed - Know it for yourself.
“And just as the great ocean has one taste, the taste of salt, so too the dharma has only one taste, the taste of freedom.” - the Buddha
The enigmatic Zen monk and teacher Shunryu Susuki Roshi, in his Book Zen Mind, Beginners Mind (Shambhala Publications, Boulder, Colorado 1970) states: The purpose of the study of Buddhism is to not study Buddhism at all, but to study oneself.
And as the Insight meditation teacher and author, Joseph Goldstein states In Mindfulness - A Practical Guide to Awakening (Sounds True, Boulder Colorado, 2013): Through present moment awareness we are not learning any doctrines, we are not conceptualising any teachings - but rather directing our attention onto the mind body process so that we can begin to experience how things are happening in us. So we can experience the nature of our mind body and how they are working.
And it is through this practice that wisdom and freedom arises.
Let me try to illustrate the difference between using the mind to understand reality and using present moment awareness to experience it.
Picture a house, a lovely earthen house with simple furnishings. And the house and everything in the house, for the purposes of this illustration, represents the universe, reality, the way things are. Are you with me so far?
Ok, so in the house there is a little clay bowl with some water in it, and the clay is like our body and the water is like our mind. The little bowl wants to understand and see the house. So it uses the water to reflect the house. But of course, the water can only reflect a small part of the internal room that it is in and depending on the conditions of the water and in the room the reflection will be limited, distorted, and sometimes not even there at all.
And other little bowls in other parts of the house and even in the same room will see a completely different aspect of the house and could be forgiven for arguing, sometimes quite vehemently, that their perspective is the right perspective.
But if we pan out to see the whole house with the contents, we can see that the little bowl is in fact an integral, albeit small, part of the house and remembering that the house is the universe, if the little bowl wasn’t there it would be a completely different universe, one we couldn’t possibly imagine. So, the bowl is an integral part of the universe, reality. And we can see that its strategy to understand the house through reflecting it in the water, is flawed and quite honestly, hopeless, and not what the water was there for in the first place. So what to do?
All the bowl needs to to do to understand the house is to understand itself. To become aware of what it is to be a bowl, the experience of being a moulded piece of clay, holding water, in this moment, and the next and the next. It just needs to ‘know’ its own nature and it will know reality. For it is as much a part of reality as anything else in the house.
So in meditation we are practicing the art of present moment awareness, we are dropping into the experience of this body/mind phenomena which is made up of the same elements that everything else is and is just as much a part of everything as anything else. And therefore will reveal the true nature of things to anyone that can experience it.
And present moment awareness has 2 qualities that keep it in balance.
One is concentration, and here, concentration means a one pointedness of mind, so all of the mind is gathered together. And at first, when we start meditating, we notice how fragmented the mind is. It can’t rest on the breath for 1 second before moving to something else completely different. And when you do start to notice the breath for more than a second the mind often starts to question you … why are you doing this? You can’t do this can you? Etc. I’m sure some will find that familiar.
So imagine a moment or few moments where all of the mind is gathered together in harmony and gently, but deeply focused on an object, such as the breath?
Concentration states where the mind becomes absorbed in the object of attention without any fragmentation are very very pleasant. And have wonderful benefits that ripple out into all aspects of day to day life. Concentration is part of the work we do in meditation as we systematically train attention.
But there’s more to it than that.
The other quality is mindfulness, this open, receptive, non judgemental quality that is able to see and be curious about what is happening now, and now, and now….
And these 2 qualities support each other and build each other and combine to give rise to wisdom, joy, tranquility, investigation, energy and equanimity.
The practice, is deceptively simple, sit and watch what is happening, sit and watch, sit and watch.
Become adept at concentration and cultivate mindfulness, both of which depend on and become present moment awareness.
As the insight teacher and Pali scholar Patrick Kearney reminds us (and I paraphrase): Don’t try to make anything happen, don’t resist anything from happening and stay aware.
Louise Taylor is an insight meditation teacher and dharma practitioner with over 20 years experience