Staying In The Present Isn’t All That It Is Cracked Up To Be by Miriam Sagan

When I was 21, I almost died from swine flu and the attendant collapse of my lungs. When I finally got out of the hospital, I went and got myself a Transcendental Mediation mantra at the local center.
“Who’s the guy?” my sister used to ask when I’d do something out of character–fast for three days or ride on a motorcycle. The guy was my then boyfriend who didn’t last much longer. However, almost 45 years later I still meditate on that mantra at least once a day.
I was a student (a bad annoyed student, but one nonetheless) at San Francisco Zen Center in the 1980’s. I lived off and on in Zen monasteries in the years I was married to a Soto lineage monk. (Cherchez le Guy again). I’ve eaten psychadelic mushrooms, given birth, literally seen red with rage, and experienced many ecstatic states in the presence of art and nature. (Again, thank you guys for taking or getting me there). So I can say, with some authority, I’m acquainted with my own mind.
Which is why mindfulness, attention, and “being in the present” aren’t of huge interest to me. I’m not against it, but taken as a technique it just seems like a commodification of the spiritual path. It is supposed to get you somewhere specific–calm, grounded, focused. These seem like states that capitalism can use and exploit, unlike other altered states–stoned, cosmic, at one with God, singing and dancing, and more.
Also, we don’t “have” or own the present any more than the past or future. The idea that the present “exists” more firmly than past and future doesn’t sound like Buddhism–or physics. A lot of things are happening at once–in a cascading reality. Ant bait in my hand I’m in the present–hating ants, fascinated by them, a housewife protecting her food stores, a guilty environmentalist, a poet comparing ants to…hey, my swarming thoughts. It’s not exactly comfy. And I don’t find it morally–or spiritually–superior to being somewhere else.
I’m not big on following teachers, but my most fruitful relationship was with a Rinzai roshi who encouraged us to let koans continue in our sleep. Sleep certainly isn’t about being “present”–in fact it’s often about being gone. But it is about boundary lines. And that is where I’m happiest.

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About Miriam Sagan

I'm blogging about poetry, land art, haiku, women artists, road trips, and Baba Yaga at Miriam's Well ( The well is ALWAYS looking to publish poetry on our themes, sudden fiction, and guest bloggers and musers.

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