Present (not) Tense

Present moment awareness, being present, being in the moment, all of these are pretty common mindfulness buzzwords, and it is so easy to habituate to hearing them that we can lose all sense of what they actually mean. We can even become so tired of hearing them that our minds can associate them with a particular type of wellbeing approach, and dismiss them as soon as anyone makes the merest mention of the word ‘now’. As words they can all too easily become, and have become in some cases, just quasi-mystical sounding utterances that make people think that mindfulness sounds really ‘deep’.

I wouldn’t argue that there isn’t a profundity in finding yourself completely at one with the moment and situation that you are in, but rather than seeing this as some function of a mystical process I consider this to be a rather commonplace natural ability that we all have and can cultivate with the right kind of training. Allowing it to seem ‘deep’ and difficult to access can block us from ever really making contact with it, which is a real shame because it is such an important aspect of practice.

In last week’s blog I was exploring how it is that I have come to have a greater appreciation of the role of embodiment in practice, but I started to realise that being present also had a role to play in actually achieving genuinely mindful movement. As I thought more about how the experiences I had of seeing how the mind worked on the body, I started to probe how I had converted these insights into my practice on a day to day level. When I thought about how these insights were translating into changes in my actions I understood that what I was starting to appreciate more was the importance of being present, of being fully in each moment and with each sensation. But more than that, it was also fully participating in each moment too.

To give a bit of background, something that has really helped me to have a framework about how to think about these things is the cognitive scientist John Vervaeke’s ideas about the four knowledges, the four different ways that we can know each moment if you like. The four knowledges are propositional, procedural, participatory, and perspectival. I won’t go into too much detail because it is a dense subject, but I will just point out the parts that have been most relevant to me at the moment.

Propositional knowledge is knowing by thinking, and includes autobiographical thinking too. Procedural knowledge is things like riding a bicycle, it is knowing by having skill. Participatory knowledge is knowing by being, by being a part of; the example he gives is that we know our body by participatory knowledge. Perspectival knowledge is situational awareness, knowing what is happening here and now.

Vervaeke’s work does cover mindfulness, embodiment, insight, and developing wisdom, so it’s not surprising that I could take his ideas and utilise them in my own practice. But what I found most useful was that it gave me a way to depersonalise the role of thinking, it allowed me to treat it as just another mode, just another way to know the moment. When we think it is all too easy to think ‘I am thinking, this is me talking to myself’, and it can be hard to even see a way in to somehow prising our feelings of self away from our thoughts. So that is where the idea of thinking being just one mode among four really helped me. All of our self talk is propositional knowledge so having a way of framing thinking as just being ‘a way of engaging with the moment using thought’ really helped me to let go of it more easily.

But the letting go of thinking more easily is only half of the equation for me, because when I could see that thinking was a mode I could understand that being was also a mode. This made me realise that mindfulness wasn’t just the absence of thinking, it was also the presence of something, and for me that something was presence – really being here, really being present – and not only that but being fully present means fully participating in the moment too.

This combination of presence and participation really opened my eyes to the work that embodied practice and mindful movement do – they allow us to gain access these different modes of knowing the moment. What is so important about that, for me anyway, is that when I experience a moment or a sensation without using my thinking faculty, it allows me the opportunity to experience it without any concepts overlaid on it, which is what the Buddha suggests that we should be trying to do.

The main thrust of the Buddha’s teachings on anatta, not-self, are that our sense of self is a concept, and it is one that we apply incorrectly to the output of our senses. The five khandas are the source of this sense of self, when we cling to a sensation we ‘become’ a person, a self who is having this feeling, but letting go of them is realising anatta, and all the benefits that come with that as described here:

“And what, bhikkhus, is the burden? It should be said: the five aggregates subject to clinging. What five? The form aggregate subject to clinging, the feeling aggregate subject to clinging, the perception aggregate subject to clinging, the volitional formations aggregate subject to clinging, the consciousness aggregate subject to clinging. This is called the burden.

“And what, bhikkhus, is the carrier of the burden? It should be said: the person, this venerable one of such a name and clan. This is called the carrier of the burden.

“And what, bhikkhus, is the taking up of the burden? It is this craving that leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination. This is called the taking up of the burden.

“And what, bhikkhus, is the laying down of the burden? It is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, non-reliance on it. This is called the laying down of the burden.”

SN22.22 Trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi

So any while work we do with the body takes us into direct contact with the khandas, if our mind is still involved then we never get the space, or change of perspective to see the situation differently. When we can push the thinking mind out of the way, we can have a more direct experience of our senses, and that can allow us to actualise the experience of the self not being the output of our senses.

Recognising that participatory knowing is a mode also allows me to understand that to use it I have to do something; I can’t just be passive and wait for the moment or experience to come to me, I have to open up and fully participate in whatever I am experiencing. When I talk about participating, I mean it in every sense of the word, really being a part of what is happening, not trying to be separate, really engaging with the experience and all of the sensations of it, joining with it, being in a dynamic relationship with it, shaping it and it being shaped by me.

What that translates to in real terms is that in any moment if I apply some mindfulness – which is perspectival knowledge – I can ask myself ‘what knowledge am I using to know this moment right now?’, and if the answer is that I’m only knowing this moment by thinking then I can make a switch to another mode. The way I do that is by inviting all of my other senses to participate in the experience, to engage with the moment in a fully embodied way.

When I’m meditating, if it is quiet then I like to try to feel the silence on the surface of my eardrums. I like to let the temperature of the room come right up to the surface of my skin. I use all of my other senses to go out and meet the moment and the environment that I am in, to let me know what is going on in this moment right now.

I have found that working with the cold is a great way for me to not only develop presence and participation, but also to appreciate their usefulness too. When you know you are going to get into a cold shower, everything in your mind and body contracts and it takes a lot of effort to mindfully release that tension. But when you are actually in the cold shower, if that tension is there then you have a really difficult experience. The water is really cold, the breath gets short, the mind screams, and you just want to get out of there

But I have found that if I can be fully present to the experience, and not try to escape from it in any way that it is very different. When I connect fully with the experience, of the cold water on my skin, and I am completely present to it, then all that is there is cold water.

I had previously found that if I was able to release any tension in my muscles that this made the experience a bit more tolerable, but I also found that when I could combine this with the approach of being fully present and fully taking part in the experience that this made it almost comfortable.

One thing I find really interesting is that even though cold showers have been used throughout history as a quick way to invigorate yourself, is that when I have a cold shower and I can stay completely relaxed and present throughout that when I come out of the shower I am just as relaxed as when I went in, there is no adrenaline rush. I assume that because I didn’t create any tension the body didn’t need to respond with a threat response, the adrenaline rush is basically your flight or flight mechanism.

But I can recognise that I have already used presence and participation to good effect previously when I was doing a bit of gentle striving over the summer months. Inspired by a talk by Ajahn Sucitto about the importance of practicing in the wild forests and jungles of Thailand that many members of the Forest Sangha do, I had the brainwave that I should sleep in the garden one night.

Now I probably have one of the safest gardens in the world: I live in a village in rural Englandshire, on a quiet cul-de-sac, and we don’t even have a gate into the garden, it is completely enclosed. But despite this I was absolutely terrified about sleeping outside.

To give a little bit more context, I was sleeping under a tarp which was open on all sides, but for some reason my mind was sure that it would be 100 times less scary if I was inside a tent. There was something about being in a little synthetic cocoon that seemed so much more appealing than being out there exposed to the elements at that point.

As I lay there trying to get used to my surroundings before it got really dark, my mind was incredibly busy. I was really scared, all the anxieties about what might happen were going through my mind, and I kept thinking to myself that I shouldn’t be here, I didn’t belong here, this wasn’t my place.

I don’t remember exactly why I decided to take this approach, but at some point I realised that I need to change the feeling of being separate from my environment. I needed to become a part of the environment, I needed to blur the sense of there being a boundary between ‘me’ inside this body and the rest of the world being ‘out there’.

Looking back on it I can see that what I had done was to activate my other senses to engage with the moment, and with all of the sensations that I was experiencing. I let go of a sense that there was a clear border between the edge of my skin and the air that was touching it. I opened up to where I was, and I removed any sense that I was not fully a part of it. When the thinking stopped, and I was fully present and fully being a part of the environment, then the fear went away. If I started to close myself off to the experience then the fear would creep back in again.

Another time that I used presence and participation was if you can remember back to my blog post The Taste of Liberation when I was eating food that I didn’t like. I can see that when I was challenging myself to eat blue cheese (which I absolutely hate) that what made it possible for me to do it without having to use a lot of willpower was that I had been able to use a different mode of engagement. I had been able to be fully present to the experience, and I had stayed fully participating in it, I hadn’t tried to push it away.

But before I had tested myself with blue cheese I had concerns that I had somehow just learned a way to spiritually bypass uncomfortable experiences, but eating the blue cheese and being able to taste how horrible it was but not have any stress or disgust come up suggested to me that rather than closing off parts of the experience, I was instead engaging with them fully.

And I asked myself this question again when I started to deliberately use my participatory mode of knowing in uncomfortable situations: is this just some kind of Buddhist party trick? Am I just ducking out of discomfort? But I don’t feel like I am, because I don’t treat any of this as an accomplishment of my ego, of my iron will overcoming nature. On the contrary, I see all of this as reinforcing to me the teachings of anatta.

In the cold shower there is only cold, and I can absolutely feel how cold it is. In blue cheese there is only the taste of blue cheese, which isn’t my favourite thing in the world but it is still largely fit for human consumption and I can still eat it. This would all be a bit trivial though if I couldn’t then take those kinds of experiences and use them to support the more difficult things that I go through.

When I stand in a cold shower I remember that the cold is just a sensation, and that reminds me that everything we experience is just a sensation in the same way – hot, cold, hunger, pain, fear, uncertainty, love, like, lust, anger, sadness, happiness, etc. So when I encounter another sensation, such as fear, I know it is just a sensation and then the memory of tolerating the cold shower comes up; and I can make the connection that the chances are that I can tolerate this sensation in just the same way as long as I fully participate in it and I am fully present.

This to me is anything but spiritual bypassing, bypassing means hiding the truth, denying the experience, and burying things away in dark recesses of the the mind. To work through feelings of discomfort instead I have to both completely accept whatever (potentially unreasonable) sensation is arising in me – such as a deep feeling of dread at the thought of being woken up by a hedgehog in my garden – and I have to open up every corner of my mind and body to the reality of it. I cannot hide anything, anywhere, because if I do then the fear stays put.

So what I eventually understood about the wider significance of the insights I had while out running that I wrote about last week was that I was able to access those insights by being fully present, and fully participating in the actions and sensations of running. Whenever I felt my mind drifting into thinking I would put the attention back onto the body; but more than that I would make the body the source that the attention was coming out of, and bring my limbs and lungs to meet the reality of what was happening in that moment.

Having a way of considering thinking and being as different modes gave me a way to both recognise which one I was in, and to make a choice to activate a different one. So my run really was a meditation, it was a practice of mindful movement, and by using it it opened up new perspectives for me to see how the mind and body interact with each other – and in the process breaking down some of my long held concepts about them.

In this way I can say that I have much more appreciation of the role of mindful movement practices in changing perceptions and allowing insights to happen. And not only that, I can now appreciate that the teachings of the Pali canon have embodied practice at the very heart of them. In the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10), the Buddha tells us to develop mindfulness of the body in the four postures of sitting, walking, standing, and lying down, but also to be mindful of all movements of our limbs, of eating, and of even going to the toilet. It’s not fancy to look at, but when you do it right, as I now see, it is just as powerful an embodied practice as yoga or tai chi.

Even the most basic form of meditation, watching the breath, which is also mentioned in the Satipatthana Sutta, is an embodied practice. If you can observe the breath not with the thinking mind but with all of your senses, and you can fully be a part of the moment when you are watching the breath, then the mind and body are working together in one unit, free from concepts, and insight will naturally arise from that.

The key, at least for me, has been the realisation that embodiment needs me to not just stop thinking but to actively engage with my senses to pull me out of thinking mode and into a fully participatory mode. Just observing the mindful movement isn’t enough, I need to get out of my head and really take part in it. When I do this, then I can really appreciate that embodied practice done well can be so much more than just another ‘wellbeing’ activity, it can create the conditions for insight, for transformation, and for the relief of suffering. And I can see that it isn’t just a change of scenery either for when sitting gets dull or challenging, it is right there at the heart of the development of every element of the Buddha’s graduated path of training:

Even as one who encompasses with his mind the mighty ocean includes thereby all the rivulets that run into the ocean; just so, O monks, whoever develops and cultivates mindfulness directed to the body includes thereby all the wholesome states that partake of supreme knowledge.

One thing, O monks, if developed and cultivated, leads to a strong sense of urgency; to great benefit; to great security from bondage; to mindfulness and clear comprehension; to the attainment of vision and knowledge; to a pleasant dwelling in this very life; to the realization of the fruit of knowledge and liberation. What is that one thing? It is mindfulness directed to the body….

If one thing, O monks, is developed and cultivated, the body is calmed, the mind is calmed, discursive thoughts are quietened, and all wholesome states that partake of supreme knowledge reach fullness of development. What is that one thing? It is mindfulness directed to the body….

If one thing, O monks, is developed and cultivated, ignorance is abandoned, supreme knowledge arises, delusion of self is given up, the underlying tendencies are eliminated, and the fetters are discarded. What is that one thing? It is mindfulness directed to the body.

Photo by dorota dylka on Unsplash

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