Some twenty or so years ago I was grousing to someone close to me about how lousy things were in my life at the time. In all honesty, they weren't that bad, but everyone always experiences problems in a personalized way; everyone's suffering is always only their own. I was suffering. Ergo, things sucked; Q.E.D.
My friend was trying to be empathic and positive, and he started talking about "living in the moment". I don't blame him for attempting to feed me what amounted to a Zen 102 mini-course, and my memory of his exact words are distant enough that I don't want to attempt to critique them. But I do remember my reply in perfect detail: "'Live in the moment'?" I scoffed. "What if the moment sucks?" (I feel all the more bad for my friend now; he was just trying to help.)
I think back to that exchange often these days, since I don't think I'm being hyperbolic when I say things really, really suck right now, for all of us. It's hard to tell people with a straight face that they need to not succumb to the temptation to run and hide, or (worse) to ally themselves with whatever team seems loudest and brashest and thus most capable of weathering the storm. (Volume and ferocity do not, by and large, translate into survival skills or tactical advantages.) It's hard to tell them to accept the moment they're in when that moment by and large is a wretched one.
I'm not going to try and talk anyone into having a change of heart about this. Instead, I'm going to share a few ways my own thinking about the subject changed since I sneered at my friend.
One of my first formal introductions to Buddhism came by way of teacher and author Dean Sluyter. He pointed out, with humor and candor both, that it's stupid to try and run from the present moment because it is literally all we have. If we make plans for the future, we always only make them in the present moment. That doesn't make them invalid; that just makes them highly qualified.
My other big teacher was (and still is) Brad Warner, and he compounded all of this with yet another insight: Even if the present moment sucks, it's still better to stay with it than to try to shove it away. The most joyous utopia you could ever dream of is still inferior to whatever it is you have right here and now (again, even if it sucks), because it's not real. A bad real moment has more genuine possibility than a hundred good fantasy moments.
I groused at this one for a good long while myself. What good is the present real moment if, for instance, it's about to kill you? But over time, I realized that POV isn't valid either: when is there ever a moment in our lives when we're not potentially three seconds away from death?
As Brad pointed out, we put a great deal of faith in these mental projections we have about how viable the present moment is. But at the end of the day, when we're in our beds with the covers up to our chins and we're staring at the ceiling and wondering if we're ever going to open our eyes again — and don't lie to yourself, kiddo, you've been there — all those mental projections don't add up to much. You could still die before you get to the end of this paragraph. It's naïve to assume outside circumstances can guarantee anything, but that's what a lot of us want: a guarantee we can go to sleep in, not a discipline or a practice that will wake us up from such things.
At some point in my life — around ten years ago or so, if the fossil record is correct — I made a decision that I would seek to live with eyes open, not shut. I also had to admit to myself such an undertaking wasn't going to be about using that awakened state to get rich and famous. or even just really, really good at my job. It was going to be its own reward — that becoming that much less self-deceiving, that much more willing to face whatever was in front of me (again: EVEN IF IT SUCKED ALMIGHTILY), was in itself a holy chore. There's been some fringe benefits, to be sure, but the thing itself has been the most rewarding part.
I almost died in a car accident when I was five. I was very conscious of what had happened, how close to death I'd come, and how lucky I was to have survived. It took a long time to realize I'd taken away the wrong lessons from that incident. Or, rather, that the lessons were incomplete. First I thought: If I could die at any moment, what's the point of anything? The kind of mewl that's okay even well into adolescence, but which curdles pretty quickly after that. Then I thought: If I could die at any moment, then I'd better do something to make the time worth it. Not a bad line of thought, and one I owed directly to Hubert Selby, Jr. after he had put it into just about those words himself. And then I thought: If any moment could be the last one, why wait for a better one to come along? You don't need the right moment to come along and give you permission.
A few other people I have talked to about this have made macabre jokes along the lines of the criminal who repents while being strapped to the gurney in the lethal injection chamber. Better late than never, right? But actually, yeah, better late than never. Maybe people look at stuff like "a moment with one's eyes open vs. a lifetime of blindness" and hate it, because they think the only thing that can come to the mind of the person whose eyes are finally open is: What a waste, what a missed opportunity. In other words, yet another chance to ignore what's right in front of them, for however long they have it.
So, if this all means something, it's not in the hippy-dippy self-congratulatory feel-good way it's usually dumbed down into. It's a responsibility and a mission, one that weighs in at being slightly larger than the entire universe. It's something to rise to, for however long any of us get to rise to it.