Buddhism 101: Living in the Moment—Not

Buddhism in Sri Lanka

Buddhism in Sri Lanka

Ignorance is bliss”; “knowledge is power.” “The only moment is the present;” “Those who forget the lessons of the past are condemned to repeat it.” Competing cliches and proverbs compete for our attention, loyalties and commitment, knowing that they can’t all be true, mutually exclusive options negating all opposing viewpoints. So what’s a mother to do?

Back in the old days—a couple generations ago—you’d just go to Padre Magnago or Preacher Watson and make your amends and ask his advice; chances are you’d survive. Now it’s not so easy. For one thing the problems are more complex. Instead of merely lusting after your neighbor’s wife, you might be lusting after his daughter—or son (not to mention his property)! It gets worse, of course: war, dictatorships, famine, and pestilence; ISIS, Kim Jong-un, Eritrea, and Ebola.

Modern times have no shortage of modern problems (thank you, Chaplin), and no shortage of paths to redemption. But of course it’s not cast as redemption any more, more like self-fulfillment—assuming you’re healthy, and can actually engage in rational thought and rational argument, the dialogue of contradictions, the dialectic of competing ideologies and the reconciliation of opposites.

‘Living in the moment’ is for us modern western ‘over-30’s’ what ‘awesomeness’ is for the under-30 (years old) age group. It explains everything, or is supposed to, anyway. In fact it explains little or nothing, except the age we live in, our zeitgeist, our times; i.e. everything, not just the phrase itself, but the actual living that it describes—the hedonism, the myopia, the short-sightedness, the antithesis of everything that got us where we are today. Life is full of contradictions.

Nice work if you can get it—being a ‘life coach’, that is, since that’s what passes for religion in the West these days, beyond Christianity, beyond psychotherapy, beyond self-fulfillment and into the heady realms of paid enlightenment. We can conquer the world, we can understand reams of science, but we can’t even begin to understand ourselves. We’re willing to pay others to tell us what it is we’re missing, in the hope that there’s nothing left out. This is the myth of ‘everything everywhere’, that we can experience it all if only we find the right app, the right program, the right teacher to show us the way.

It’s impossible, of course, and as illusory as ‘being in the moment’, a sentiment that makes us feel good, promising something that it maybe can’t deliver, but that’s not what’s important. What’s important is that we made it through another day, moderately happy and productive, and willing to get up tomorrow and do it all over again, mini-snippets of what Joseph Campbell once called ‘myths to live by’.

Now I’m not sure how ‘living in the moment’ graduated from pop Buddhism into New Age spirituality and into ‘life coaching’, but I’m pretty sure the Buddha never said anything like that, and as you probably realize by now: I don’t buy it. This is the product of an affluent society, and the parallels with the ‘carpe diem’ philosophy of ancient Rome (which ‘fell’, if I remember correctly) are ominous. It’s no accident that the phrase appeared in 23 B.C. in Horace’s ‘Odes’, the same era that produced you-know-who on the cusp of what was largely perceived at the time as the world’s ‘last days’.

Now I certainly believe in the Democracy of religion—that’s why we’re here now—but that by its very nature should limit the excesses and dangers of unwarranted conclusions. In fact ‘living in the moment’ demands its own negation, because to talk about it is to not do it. We have the power of rational thought, and it should be used—logic, proportion, and all that rap.

Buddhism is all about the Middle Path, between extremes and hasty conclusions. Watch. Pray. Meditate. Have faith. Believe in something larger than yourself. That is all that religion demands IMHO, nothing more and nothing less.