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The Present Moment

Jack Petranker wrote The Present Moment in 2014 that "Mindfulness" is on everyone's lips, but do we really know what we mean by it? He asks if Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) presents mindfulness as "purposeful, nonjudgmental attention in the present moment". Or is it just "McMindfulness," a simplified version of dharma that turns meditation into self-help? The dialogue between Buddhism and the West in recent decades has been too narrow in its range. The Stoics and Epicureans are natural partners for the meeting of dharma traditions with the West.

Their worldview may be closer to a Buddhist outlook than that of materialistic, nihilistic thinkers of our own time. MBSR founder Jon Kabat-Zinn: "We have to deal with things as they are in the moment". Thich Nhat Hanh: "From now, I'll use the term 'mindfulness' to refer to keeping one's consciousness alive to the present reality". MBSR focuses on mindful presence, or nonjudgmental, present-moment attention to body sensations. The Epicureans believed that only in the present moment is happiness possible.

In Buddhism, mindful presence refers to remembering what has value, what matters most. The Bhaddekaratta sutta instructs monks to view the various constituents of the body (blood, pus, snot, phlegm, urine, feces and the like) as unclean or repulsive. With mindful presence, we move beyond immediate sensory experience and disregard for the past and future, beyond joyful and therapeutic presence. When you practice mindful presence, you do not just experience feelings and sensations in the body; rather, in the present, you see the body as repulsive, composite, and mortal. Therapeutic presence encourages us not to cling to these elements of experience, which means radically simplifying the story.

Masters of Buddhism and Stoicism both ask us to maintain present-moment attention, but also understand that this will involve a way of being present that takes us beyond the particulars of "this single moment". The present moment is not defined solely by letting go of past and future (therapeutic presence) but by choosing how we make sense of the world (mindful presence). Mindful presence involves choosing to orient ourselves in the world in accord with a certain outlook or set of teachings. We also have to take responsibility for this outlook and act accordingly. When we practice active presence, choosing how to act in this moment, we also choose who and what we will be.

Seneca's "toti se inserens mundo" could be understood as "plunging oneself into the totality of the world". Active presence does justice to the Buddha's revolutionary impulse on a wholly different basis. Not holding back, fearlessly questioning, always going beyond what we know, active presence offers a way into deeper existential concerns. The present moment is more than we imagine it to be, Jack Petranker writes. When we engage in the present, we come close to the teachings, even if we choose not to think and see reality in accordance with the models for understanding that the ancient teachings put in place.
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