Christmas Present Moment

I don’t know why it should surprise me after writing about impermanence and uncertainty last week, but my own plans for this week’s blog were royally upended by the events of this week. I was all set to write what I thought would be a failsafe piece about Christmas and generosity, but starting the week with the possibility that the country’s food supply might run out and we were on the verge of another national lockdown suggested to me that there were more pertinent issues to deal with. The announcements about the new strain of Covid-19 and the new tiers on Saturday afternoon seemed to be enough to deal with, but the constantly shifting mass of conditions since then at times seemed to converge into potentially much more serious situations. But while situations are changing so much I feel the relevant focus is on the present moment, and just how to deal with it when it is moving on at such a furious pace. Sure, it can be straightforward enough to come to terms with one present moment, but can we really keep up with the pace of change when our present moment keeps being overwritten with something new, and less welcome than the previous present moment?

I’m sure the recent changes in tiers in the UK have impacted on almost everyone here, and it is easy to have empathy for each other because we are largely all coming to terms with the same feelings of disappointment and concern. But woven into these feelings is an incredible amount of uncertainty, yes Christmas was cancelled but the situation continued to unfold and it still didn’t seem improbable that the plug might have been pulled on us all on Christmas Eve. At the start of the week I read stories in the papers about some people at airports who were allowed to leave the country when they joined the queue, and the rules had changed by time they got to the front. I really feel for those people trying to get out of the country before the borders closed, it pales into insignificance with the things that some have had to deal with but I too felt my own small version of the present moment shifting under my feet. Whatever plans I could make were only one press release away from being undone, or one government advice document away from being no longer allowed. How do we deal with that kind of continuous and abrupt change without it upsetting us? Can us unenlightened beings really be expected to cope with this level of disruption with a cool head and an open heart?

Perhaps the first thing we need to do is to recognise that it is okay to not be okay, if what is happening in the present moment is that you are not okay then that is all you need to know to begin with. When people talk about the ‘present moment’ they can make it sound like some kind of panacea, some safe, squishy place that if we could only get to it then all of our problems would be solved. This escapist approach to the present moment can sometimes provide us with a momentary relief, but it can only ever be temporary because a new present moment keeps turning up over and over again. What it doesn’t really address is just how being in the present moment is supposed to make us feel better, when it is the present moment that we are in that we want to escape from. Sometimes the present moment is just really, really shitty, and ‘being with it’ provides no relief at all. But conversely, sometimes, as seems to be the case a lot over this previous week, we stay with it and finally get a bit of peace, only for the next news report to come in and we find ourselves with a whole new pile of crap to be with.

This is really demanding work, so please don’t be hard on yourself if you can’t muster instant equanimity in the face of one disappointment after another. This section of the Vala Sutta has a striking analogy of how difficult it is to see the reality of a moment while we are in it, and therefore how hard it is to do the skilful thing every time:

“What do you think, Ananda: Which is harder to do, harder to master — to shoot arrows through a tiny keyhole without missing, one right after the other, or to take a horsehair split into seven strands and pierce tip with a tip?”

“This, lord, is harder to do, harder to master — to take a horsehair split into seven strands and pierce tip with a tip.”

“And they, Ananda, pierce what is even harder to pierce, those who pierce, as it actually is present, that ‘This is stress’; who pierce, as it actually is present, that ‘This is the origination of stress’… ‘This is the cessation of stress’… ‘This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress.’” trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

The Buddha here is talking about the Four Noble Truths, and other translations present this passage as being more to do with how difficult it is to penetrate that teaching deeply; but it also speaks to me about the particular difficulty of recognising what we are experiencing as being ‘stress’ – that is recognising the fundamental reality of what is happening and not just the feelings we are having about it – while it is happening to us. It is sometimes harder to recognise exactly how we feel in the moment than it is to fire arrows through a tiny keyhole, or to pierce a split horse hair with another horse hair.

In the heat of the moment we can get caught up by our sensory experience, and it is only once we have had time to stop and decompress that we can look back on what happened and understand it in terms of dhamma. It takes a lot of practice to be able to hear what is important over the noise of our screaming senses, and even if we can do this it becomes much harder when the scene is changing at a relentlessly fast pace. The only thing we can be sure of then is that we are likely to make mistakes, to get fished in by some anxious train of thought, or to be tricked into righteous indignation. How do we deal with that then? Perhaps the only thing we can do is what we would do when we think we will make mistakes in any other area of our life – check yourself frequently and ask other people to check for you. If you have the breathing space to not make decisions quickly then don’t; when the situation is changing rapidly, our impulse can be to act immediately but sometimes we need more information before a decision can be made wisely.

But we’re not just making trivial decisions about decorating a Christmas tree, and that’s something else we need to remember if we start telling ourselves that ‘we should be coping better’. Enfolded into every layer of this recent chaotic situation are matters of life and death – becoming ill, making others ill, running out of food, running out of resources. These, and not anxieties about whether we said something mean when we were ten, are the kind of existential threats to our survival that our flight or flight system was intended to help us to deal with. So yes, actually we should feel a bit stressed about it biologically speaking, because our psycho-physical form recognises that action may be required – our fight or flight mechanism is that response. It is a state of readiness, physical and mental; the body is primed to move and the mind is whittled down to its bare essentials.

It can feel uncomfortable to be in this kind of heightened state of readiness, but it is useful to remember that the presence of this feeling does not indicate the presence of danger. It is just a state of readiness, just a signal from the body that it is good to go. What I’ve seen through my investigation of feelings of fear in blogs over previous weeks recently is that the fear often comes from how we feel about that state of readiness. I was reading a book by Joshua Fletcher, called Anxiety: Panicking about Panic, which makes a useful point about this type of experience. The gist of it is that he feels that it can help us a lot to understand that often what we call anxiety is in fact our panicked reaction to adrenaline being dumped in large amounts in our systems by our fight or flight response. His advice is that whenever we start to feel jittery, or whatever symptom we experience when we are tensing up, that instead of trying to think through whatever issue started it off for us, instead we take a step back and recognise it as just our reaction to adrenaline. There is nothing scary about adrenaline, in fact many times in our lives we thrive on it, so when we can separate out the issue that triggered it from the feeling itself then it is much easier to let that feeling pass. This is reminiscent of the advice Ajahn Sumedho would give to people who came to him with a problem to do with difficult emotions or thoughts. He would tell them to just pay attention to where they could feel it in the body and just stay with that, don’t pay attention to anything else. Just put your attention on where you can feel that worry, or restlessness, or anger, or disappointment. Feel it as a physical sensation, and don’t let your mind get involved.

Which brings me back to my earlier question – how does being in the ‘present moment’ actually do anything to make us feel better? One way of thinking about the present moment that can help to understand this comes from Thanissaro Bhikkhu, who suggests that rather than being a stable place that we can somehow escape to, the present moment is more like a house that is constantly under construction. There is no single ‘present moment’ that we can ever make contact with, just one present moment after another, after another, after another. What that means is that the present moment is no sleepy backwater, but an active and vital place, a place where our past, present, and future keeping meeting, over and over and over again. Because the present moment is the junction between our past and our future, that means the present moment is where we can take action to influence the direction that we want to progress in, both in the immediate and distant future:

“…what you do in the present moment can have an influence not only on the future, but also on what you experience right now. Past actions may have some role in shaping your present experience of pleasure and pain, but they don’t totally determine it. In fact, present actions can make all the difference between whether a past bad action leads to a lot of suffering right now or only a little.” The Karma of Now by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

So in the present moment we make contact with our old karma, or kamma as it is in Pali. This old kamma manifests as our reaction to specific events such as the news that our Christmas plans have been cancelled and we feel angry or sad about that; that the food supply chain might break down so we decide we might need to pickle brussel sprouts to stave off scurvy; that we can’t find a decent Chinese restaurant inside our tier area and that frustrates us; or more simply as our reaction to the feeling of our fight or flight response kicking in which could be concern, worry, over thinking, avoidance behaviours, or any other number of responses. The way we feel in that moment is our old kamma, but how we react to that feeling now it is how we make our new kamma – and that is how our actions in the present moment can change our actions in the future. Kamma is simply our habit, how we normally react to something, and changing our kamma is just learning how to change our habits.

I don’t think of the present moment as some kind of fuzzy wonderland where all our troubles disappear; instead I see it as more like a crucible in a blazing furnace, where in the white heat of the point where our past, present and future meet we have the opportunity to burn off our old habits and forge new ones. So whatever feelings or sensations come up for us, if we have the opportunity to pause for a moment and recognise them for what they are – just old kamma, just a habit, just a reaction to adrenaline – then we can break the chain of how we would usually respond and choose to do something different, we can burn off our old habitual responses. Or we can simply choose to not react to them, which is often all we need to do to stop ourselves from making matters worse in that particular moment. So in the moment we can feel the disappointment being there, but that is where we have the opportunity to take that old kamma and supplant it, or at least stop it in its tracks.
If you are following Buddhist practices, this action fulfils the requirements of the development of Right Effort on the Eightfold Path:

“And what is right effort? It’s when a mendicant generates enthusiasm, tries, makes an effort, exerts the mind, and strives so that bad, unskillful qualities don’t arise. They generate enthusiasm, try, make an effort, exert the mind, and strive so that bad, unskillful qualities that have arisen are given up. They generate enthusiasm, try, make an effort, exert the mind, and strive so that skillful qualities that have not arisen do arise. They generate enthusiasm, try, make an effort, exert the mind, and strive so that skillful qualities that have arisen remain, are not lost, but increase, mature, and are fulfilled by development. This is called right effort.” Trans. By Ajahn Sujato

Where we find unskilful or even, in more basic terms, not useful thoughts and attitudes, we develop the intention that when we notice them that we will not allow them the time and space to proliferate into something much bigger and more upsetting. When we have a lot on our plate, trying to fully activate all the directions of Right Effort can be a bit more than we can deal with, but following the first direction – to give up unskilful qualities that have already arisen – is enough to keep us ticking over and not causing extra problems for ourselves.

I find these rapidly unfolding situation, like the ones some of us are in right now, naturally require a level of readiness, so I find it is especially important to be okay with that feeling of being on alert, and not doing anything to exacerbate it – which can sometimes happen when we try to make it go away, just as much as doing things that will hype us up. When I notice that feeling I remind myself that it is just an indication of the body being on stand by, and that it is nothing to be concerned about. By not interfering with it, it can be just as it is – whipping myself into a tizz is entirely optional. The more frequently that I am able to keep my mind calm when the bodily systems are activated, the more it becomes my habitual reaction to that feeling when adrenaline hits my system, and I think this is a clear example of how we can get the practice of present moment awareness to really make a difference in our lives.

When the present moments are coming at you thick and fast,I also find it useful to remember that what I am ultimately working with is habit, my (and your) reactions to each and every one of those moments is driven by old kamma. It takes a long time to change one habit, so it helps me to appreciate that it will take a much longer time to change all of these habits that drive each and every one of my reactions. Inevitably that means some of our best intentions are going to slip through the net, but that’s okay, just keep applying yourself wholeheartedly to the next moment that comes along, and the next, and the next.

Just deal with how you feel and what that feels like as each new moment comes along, and that will keep you up to date. When we get stuck on something we can get left behind; we end up in our heads and the thing we are stressing about or angry about has already changed, that situation has already gone, and it is that – not the change in external circumstances – that I shouldn’t wonder creates most of the uncomfortable feeling of never fully being in control of an ever changing situation. But you don’t need to try to deal with everything that is potentially panning out ahead of you; if you can just deal with what is happening in this moment, that will set you up better for the next moment than trying to figure it all out.

Photo by Kari Shea on Unsplash

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