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Dynamiting the prison of the present

Updated: Jun 6, 2022

Karen spoke about feeling trapped in the present. As meditators, we’re always encouraged to stay in the present and “be here now”, but what if I feel claustrophobic and stuck in a present that seems to be full of stress and worry and demands?

That sounds like a very productive place to be. I think that claustrophobia is a valuable way-marker along the path.

Most people are completely lost in distraction. They don’t spend any time in their personal present because they’re always buzzing around after fast food or Netflix or on their phone or chasing one thought or worry. Generally, they are never still enough to notice the present.

Systematically clearing out all the mess and putting the room in order

But when we start to meditate, it’s like we are suddenly aware of how awful our present is. It’s horrible! Shouty, stressful, anxious, restless, claustrophobic. And that’s partly because up until the moment we started meditating we never stopped to look at it. And in the thirty or forty years we weren’t looking it got pretty chaotic and messy.

It’s like a person who has been shut in their room using heroin for thirty years. One day, they manage to get clean but then they look around their room and it's full of feces and dirty food plates. The curtains are tattered, the windows filthy and there’s rubbish on every surface. It’s disgusting.

In some sense, the first phase of meditation practice is like cleaning. It’s like tidying up this room of the mind. Opening windows, hoovering. Throwing garbage in the bin, putting the furniture straight. Systematically clearing out all the mess and putting the room in order. This is the first phase of Buddhist practice. Shamata, vipassana. Seeing, simplifying, steadying.

This is like dynamiting the walls of your room and stepping out

But then you hit a wall. Literally. Even when the room is spotless and the sun shines on polished floorboards and your food bowls are full of nourishing salads. It’s still the same claustrophobic room. Even with endless tidying and control, you’re still stuck in your personal present. You’re still stuck inside those walls.

Which is where the 2nd turning of the Buddhist wheel comes in. The explosive move of Bodhicitta – or as I’ve styled it: finding joy in others. This is like dynamiting the walls of your room and stepping out. Stepping out and enjoying the otherousness of the universe. The reason the personal present can feel so claustrophobic is because it is personal. It’s still all about you.

These incredible Buddhist practitioners saw that as long as everything was still stuck in that personal room there would be no true freedom. Just rearrangement and tidying. The lojong slogan we were going look at today is a beautiful one: Change your attitude, but remain natural. The attitude they are referring to is the attitude of self. The “Me-first” attitude.

Even if we’re a parent or a teacher or a partner and we feel that we’re really a giving and caring human being, if we’re very honest, there are many moments when we’re just “What about me?” or me-first. There may be more moments than we care to admit where we are looking at things from the ‘self’ end of the stick. And if we have awareness of the other, it’s only to see if they are going to thwart our aims or help us get what we want.

Change the me-me-me attitude but don’t force it into a you-you-you attitude

It’s ugly. We don’t like to admit it but this whole lojong practice is encouraging us to look at it square on.

This ‘me-first’ is the attitude that we are encouraged to change. Take the ‘other’ end of the stick. Use the heart practices – the beholding practice we’re exploring – to be AND to hold the real presence of the other. It could be another person, or an animal, or a landscape, a tree, or a rock. But we make space for the otherousness of the Other to really co-exist with our existence.

I think this is what is meant by ‘remain natural’. Change the me-me-me attitude but don’t force it into a you-you-you attitude. That would be distorted and phoney. I really think this natural state we discover through the heart practices is precisely that: natural. It is our natural, embodied self. Often, when Buddhists talk about the Natural State we can get quite abstract or lofty. But increasingly I’m beginning to think that they are pointing to this very natural, simple and embodied space of co-existence that the beholding practice opens up.

It’s something very ancient. Something that pre-dates the arrival of our prefrontal cortex and the evaluative and parsing processes of the thinking mind. The whole body, centred in the heart space below the throat well, senses and receives the world in a very steady, simple and interconnected way.

There is an obsession in some meditation practice with being in the present

This space, this magic carpet that the heart rolls out, allows all the brouhaha of the self and the presence of the other to co-exist quite easily. The morning sky and the heart space in my body in an easy, open cohabitation.

And this ancient ability we all have (and most of us have completely forgotten) is also not personal, also not time-bound. It doesn’t worry about ends of sticks or schedules or to-do lists. It simply is in an easy, natural way.

The Tibetan teacher Tilopa has a beautiful teaching where he says, let go of the past, let go of the future. But also: let go of the present.

There is an obsession in some meditation practice with being in the present. But as Tilopa points out, this is just an idea. And like all ideas, it can be tight and claustrophobic. The sense that the present is like a pin-head and that we have to strain to stay balanced on it. But the truth is that there is no “present” there’s only this endless space of happening.

The heart-space is always filled with a gentle joy that gets more intense the more we hang out there

This is the very opposite of claustrophobia because it includes everything. All the others. All the infinite amount of otherousness that makes up the universe. And we don’t have to strain after it or grasp or ‘empathise’ or do anything. The ancient space of the heart is just connected to it very naturally. It is the natural state of affairs. And it is full of joy.

Really, it’s incredible that anything exists. You or me or rocks or sky or jaguars or space stations. Incredible. And the heart-space is always filled with a gentle joy that gets more intense the more we hang out there.

Which, in a very long-winded way, is the answer to your initial question. The fact that you experience the personal present as so claustrophobic and unwanted is a good thing. Because it’s a sign that you’re ready to explode those walls. The endless tidying and rearranging of the personal present has reached its useful end. Now you’re primed to open the door and step out into the natural state where the rest of the Universe presents itself for a dance.

That’s much more fun.

Much more joyous.

I’d love to know your thoughts about staying in the present. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

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