A friend of mine was recently describing how he tends to make a mental graph with the label “how are things going?” and project it forward in time; if the trendline is down, he can get depressed, even though this whole thing is often based, in his own words, on a mostly imaginary projection into an imaginary future. That phenomenon (”how are things going?”) is the crux of a huge complex of almost entirely useless cognition. Often when thinking about doing some sort of contemplative practice, meditation, Zen, etc., people think the ultimate goal is finding some vast cosmic awareness or something like that — which isn’t to say vast cosmic awareness isn’t accessible in some sense. But really, from the point of view of what’s really at issue with the teachings of schools like Zen or other contemplative traditions I’ve practiced for many years, it’s far more just about making room for what is present in our lives, directly, which has a lot to do with just relaxing this one habit, the habit of thinking about “how are things going?”
Some people like to talk about this subject in terms of emphasizing the “here and now” over things far away. But I think, while that’s a decent rule of thumb, it’s also misleading. There’s nothing particularly special about “now” as a moment in some sort of imaginary timeline. What’s good about the “be here now” idea isn’t the idea of “here and now” — it’s letting go of the unnecessary habit of thinking about things in terms of “how are things going?”
The “how are things going?” thoughts can have the appearance of attending to things that aren’t in the “here and now”, but in in reality they’re pulling us away from awareness of what is happening in our lives, both here and now and far away in time and space. All these thoughts do is reinforce various judgements and projections which are simply distracting us from our lives, whether we’re talking about the here and now or any other aspect of our lives.
For example, even if we’re supposedly focused on the “here and now”, we might be thinking “oh, I’m really screwed right now, things are going badly” or even “things are going really well” — either one is a mistake, a distraction, unnecessary and pointless. These thoughts pull us away from our lives precisely because they collapse everything down to a single dimension of good versus bad. But such a judgement cannot possibly capture the richness of what is going on. It closes off real thought about our lives — and thought, even about things that aren’t “here and now”, can be helpful, illuminating, incisive, and insightful. Getting stuck in a one dimensional world of “doing well” or “not doing so well” and either one is a narrow, ridiculously compromised and unnecessary way of thinking. Such thoughts simply crowd out our ability to be really present and aware of the true dimensionality of our lives. To really work with our lives, with the world, requires being open to every aspect of it, rather than labelling things “good” or “bad” and thereby turning them into unworkable cartoons. How can you work with “it’s a disaster!” or even “things are great!” Either judgement is a turning away from reality in its richness. There’s no content in these sorts of judgements, nothing to actually work with.
The problem isn’t whether the subject matter is here and now or elsewhere. It’s perfectly fine to think about the past and the future, etc.; the problem is collapsing all that into a cartoon judgement, letting our flattened idea of the world replace openness to the radical unknowability of the world, the universe; to the unexpected, as well as even to what we know about but don’t want to face, accept, or work with. An excess of judgement gets into the way of a direct, open participation in presence with the entire context of our lives whether it is “here and now” or anything else.
Luckily even when we’re involving ourselves in these thoughts our larger being is still functioning in a larger context (our unconscious, our physical bodies, etc.) But our conscious involvement with a narrow view nevertheless causes us a lot of unnecessary suffering and grinding of gears, even if, thankfully, that’s not all that’s going on (so of course it’s a good idea not to turn “am I worrying about how things are going?” into yet another occasion for self-recrimination… ha). Simply dropping this pointless habit is all it takes to open out to something radical and present and only partially knowable: our actual lives.permalink |