Living in the Here and Now (Part 2)

BLOG Living in the Here and Now (Part 2)

mandala of being
Mandala of Being, based on a sketch © Richard Moss

Well, I’ve now finished reading Richard Moss’ The Mandala of Being, the book I was raving about last week. My reading of it was prompted by a recommendation and comment by my friend Paul Heft:

But let’s also wonder why we are constantly anxious; why our minds are so often caught up in past wrongs and future disasters that we are unable to be in and handle the present; why we so often claim ideals yet fail to live in ways that feel right.

As mentioned in my earlier article, the thesis of the book is as follows:

When we are not living in the Now, our minds take us to one of four ‘places’: the past (where we recall stories of what happened, that we may feel guilt, nostalgia or regret about); the future (where we dream of an idyllic future, or worry about a catastrophic one); to judgements about ourselves (who we think we ‘are’ and should be, perhaps grandiosely or depressingly); or to judgements about others and the external environment (who/what we think they ‘are’ or should be, perhaps jealously, angrily or bitterly). When we are in these fictitious ‘places’ we are not ourselves. What we must do is learn to be aware of our lack of presence when we are in these other ‘places’, and how to bring ourselves back to the Now, so that we are continually ‘starting over’, beginning again and afresh, with none of the ‘gunk’ that is not us, being present Here and Now.

The graphic above is my adaptation of the illustration of this mandala.

The good news about the book is that I do like Moss’ model — it’s plausible and thoughtful and useful. I like the fact that this is not about ‘self-improvement’ but rather about self-knowledge. I do “buy” the fact that, thanks to our modern human brains’ compunction for abstraction and story-creation as a means of ‘explaining’ the world, we have lost the capacity (which most creatures on the planet have) to live in Now Time, in the moment. Instead, we live, mostly, in our heads, telling stories that ‘represent’ what we think has happened, is happening, and will happen to us and to the world. And as we come to believe these stories, they evoke, again and again, the emotions shown on the perimeter of the mandala on the chart above. Our thoughts about these stories and the corresponding emotions reinforce each other. Ultimately we spend almost every moment of our lives (except those when we are caught up in the intoxication of love, music, nature, drugs, or other ‘escapes’ from the machine in our heads) reacting to everything by defensively relating it to the corresponding stories, and feeling the corresponding emotions. Ultimately we come to think we, and the reality around us, are these stories and these emotions.

The bad news, for me anyway, is that (1) the exercises that Moss suggests to bring us back to the Now just don’t work for me, and (2) the stories that Moss uses to illustrate how one could transcend these stories and emotions are very simple stories that I simply can’t relate to — they’re just not my stories.

So thanks to Richard Moss for introducing a third useful model to explain who ‘we’ are (I’ll get back to the other two in a moment). I’d recommend the book to anyone interested in such explorations. But now I’m left trying to figure out how to devise alternative exercises and ‘higher-self functioning’ processes to deal with my own stories and emotions. If you’re not interested in any more of Pollard’s navel-gazing, you can stop reading this article now — the rest is mostly all about me (or at least who I frequently think and feel I am).

mandala of being 2

This second chart shows (in yellow) the four personal stories I came up with as I worked through Moss’ book, and the emotions (purple) these stories engender in me. I think they’re very different from most people’s stories, in part because I have been extremely fortunate in my life so far (so none of the stories that nag my psyche are about the past — I’ve reached closure on the very few that once might have qualified). And also, I’ve been blessed with the capacity and the time for a great deal of self-reflection, so I know myself pretty well (so none of my stories lends itself to the rather simplistic approach that Moss’ examples take).

Here are the four stories that most keep me, these days, from living in the Now:

  1. Gaia is dying. I’ve written a lot about this belief, and the feelings of grief and anger it invokes in me. This grief and anger is about every living creature that is suffering and will suffer as the Sixth Great Extinction of our planet progresses.
  2. Civilization is a prison. I’ve written a lot about this, too, and the anger and helplessness it invokes in me. 
  3. Others expect things of me I cannot or will not live up to. I am aware of and have written about the things I am not, but still some people expect me to be some of these things. My response is a mixture of self-loathing (when I think their expectations are reasonable) and self-righteousness (when I think they’re not).
  4. I lack the courage to actually act on my convictions. I wrote about starting over, describing exactly what I know I have to do, but so far my starting over has, well, hardly started. This fills me with anger at myself, and sometimes despair.

So there’s my c.2009 version of self-analysis in a nutshell. This is just about all I’m unhappy about these days. Moss’ prescription for not getting trapped by these stories is a combination of trust and unattachment to the future, continued self-inquiry and empathy for others. The objective seems to be to deconstruct and cast doubt on the veracity of these stories. I find this all very new-agey in a Byron Katie kind of way (sorry if you’re a fan of hers). As much as I’m sure Lomborg and the rest of the climate change deniers probably lap up this “are you sure this is a true story — you can never be sure any story is really true” hokum, I just don’t believe that denial is any way out. Sorry, but the four stories above are true stories. There is mountains of evidence to support them. Unattachment, denial, continued self-inquiry and empathy are not going to make them less true.

But there might be some other ways of coping with the veracity of these stories that could allow me (and others who also tell themselves these stories) to get past the emotions and live more fully in Now Time.

My guess, thanks to reading John Gray’s Straw Dogs, is that a more appropriate, honest and graceful means of coming to grips with my first story is acceptance. Moss alludes to the fact that in some cases we need to learn to ‘hold space’ for our stories, to acknowledge them, without letting them devour us. Learning to accept the death of our planet may not be that different from learning to accept the death of any individual creature we love.

My thought is that a more appropriate response to dealing with my second story is pragmatism. I am increasingly viewing idealism as not only my worst enemy but one of the greatest causes of violence and misery on the planet. We can’t control or cure all the tragic unintended consequences of civilization culture, so there is no point in stressing or ranting about it. What we can do, that’s useful, is to help the small circles of people we love, in community, collaboratively, to cope with it, and to share with them the astonishing joy in living that is still possible.

My candidate for a more appropriate response to the third story is appreciation. Through the practice of listening and paying attention and conversation I think it’s possible for me to understand why others expect things of me that I’m unwilling or unable to give, and to help them understand as well. Maybe the resultant improved communication will yield more reasonable expectations, those that can be achieved and exceeded without anxiety.

And for dealing with story four, perhaps I should be less hard on myself and practice patience. I’ve learned to trust my instincts. It’s possible that what I and others see as procrastination or laziness is just giving myself the time to be ready for what I need to do next, fully and effectively.

Moss might argue that acceptance, pragmatism, appreciation, and patience are just additional stories I could learn to tell myself about myself, more fictions that, like all stories, are not-me. I’d like to believe that they could be a useful part or aspect of me, something to work on. I think they’re perhaps a prescription for grace.

Perhaps all that’s required now is a lifetime’s practice. I still need to find a meditation practice that works for me, but I’m sure I’ll find it. The capacity to live most of my life in Now Time instead of Anxious Time is so close I can smell it. Everything tells me that when I achieve that, I will indeed become

just the space through which stuff passes, a part of the unfathomably complex dance of all-life-on-Earth, learning to improvise which of that passing-through stuff to touch, and which to just let go. “Ah, I know how I can make this better, or clearer, or more interesting, or more useful, or more innovative, or more fun — there!” Just being the space, and touching the right stuff in just the right way as it passes through.

So getting back the the three models of who we are, I can see how Moss’ model of us as just “a space of no-thing-ness…a potential for awareness” is not inconsistent with Cohen and Stewart’s model of us as a “complicity of the separately-evolved creatures in our bodies organized for their mutual benefit”. Both tell us we are not our minds, or our minds’ contents or conjurings.

As for whether “stories are all we are”, Thomas King’s model seems to be the odd one out here. Though when I browsed The Truth About Stories again today it occurred to me that King is warning that most of our stories are lies, which we tell ourselves to be comfortable, and that even the best stories are only guides. Perhaps King’s assertion that “stories are all we are” was meant as a challenge to see whether anyone would reply that we are and must be more than the stories we tell ourselves and others, more even than the stories that are ‘true’.

The above thoughts mostly emerged during a wonderful two-hour walk in the forest yesterday, followed by an evening listening to favourite music by scented candlelight. Time to read David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous again.

Category: Let-Self-Change

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9 Responses to Living in the Here and Now (Part 2)

  1. Paul says:

    Dave, I think you’re misinterpreting Moss’ approach a bit. The four painful stories you list may very well be true, and therefore might not be the ones to work on.Take the first for example: “Gaia is dying.” I might quibble with the idea of the world being spoken of as a living creature, but the gist of it makes complete sense. Species are disappearing, habitats are transforming quickly, even humans are approaching a great die off. A catastrophe is happening under our noses. An awful but true story.The key question is, is that your story? Are you attached to the story in some way, or using it as a defense mechanism? I don’t think so–in which case it’s not what Moss is concerned about.I don’t know what’s going on in your head, so let me just toss out examples of what goes on in some people’s heads, various stories of the self:”Gaia is dying, and it’s my fault. I have always taken more than my fair share in life.””Gaia is dying, just the latest example of how I’m forever at the mercy of others” (choose at least one thing to blame: God, the ruling class, the stupid masses, laws of nature, my unlucky stars, my upbringing, etc.)”Gaia is dying, it seems, but pessimism and unhappy thoughts never solved any problems. I’m above that, I can turn my attention to what I know I’m good at, I’m ready to make my life the best life it can be!”Those are PERSONAL stories, ones that construct a sense of ME in the world, that create ME as a subject with everything else as its object. Choose one: I am guilty, I am victim, I am superior, and so on. Those are the sorts of stories we get stuck in that distort our views of reality, that poison our relationships (with humans and everything else). Those are the ones we must deconstruct in order to (perhaps slowly?) live more authentically as “nobody-but-oneself”.It’s my belief that (maybe it’s just a hope, but …) the results of such self-inquiry will include the qualities you strive for: acceptance (as we give up delusional stories that lead us to control things that we really can’t control, or expect some fantasized perfection), pragmatism (as we give up idealistic stories that comfort us and cover up our dark sides), appreciation (as we give up righteous stories, stop judging ourselves and others, and instead learn to listen and view unmoving, without intention), and patience (as we learn to question preconceived notions of how quickly we and others actually change).I bet you don’t have to practice those qualities as something to work on, instead they will develop as a consequence of your self-inquiry. But you can still use them as markers. For example, if you find yourself being idealistic or impatient, that’s a great opportunity to focus awareness on your emotions, examine what’s happening, note your feelings and reactions, watch carefully rather than steering yourself toward your goals of pragmatism or patience. Hmmm, interesting ….So Dave, let’s challenge each other to discover the stories that our minds employ to make each of us a “me” against the world–the personal thought constructions that keep us stuck in our thinking. And thanks for your probing and prodding and questioning–I need that sort of stimulation to help me break out of the habits of mind. I don’t want to get stuck on Richard Moss or anything else!

  2. Gerard Joyce says:

    We are dying,not so sure about Gaia. If we die out soon enough there should be plenty left of Gaia to evolve, adapt and ultimatley erase our messy attempt to dominate.Here’s hoping.

  3. Mariella says:

    I agree with Gerard Dave… I´m also not so sure GAia is Dying, it is evolving… What is dying is what Gaia ment to us humans in this moment… probably we will also evolve and fit into GAia´s evolution or we will diappear… when the time comes…GAia will send us another “universal flood” and wipe us away from the earth surface… and she will bloom again…. metaphorically speaking…..

  4. vera says:

    I was intrigued by this turn of phrase: escaping “from the machine in our heads.” Would love to hear more about this machine.

  5. Janene says:

    Hey Dave –I totally agree with Paul’s comments, above. I also agree with everyone saying that Gaia is not dying, but rather evolving. A painful process, for sure, but we are *not* so powerful as to be able to destroy her utterly (at least not at current tech… if somehow civ survives and we build a planet killer weapon, then you should worry :-) )In any case, I did write an article trying to pin down my thoughts on these issues you are exploring. It’s at

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Paul: Thanks for the clarification. Perhaps I was a bit harsh on Moss, too narrow in interpreting what he was saying.As for Civ dying, I am guilty of intemperate wording, but if you read Liz Tolbert’s article in this week’s New Yorker on the progress of the Sixth Great Extinction, I don’t think “dying” is too harsh a word. Gaia will recover, of course, but the suffering in the process is almost more than I can bear to witness or imagine.

  7. Jennifer says:

    Thought you might enjoy this fun quiz.

  8. Chaitanya says:

    >> Sorry, but the four stories above are true stories. There is mountains of evidence to support them. Unattachment, denial, continued self-inquiry and empathy are not going to make them less true.>> But there might be some other ways of coping with the veracity of these stories that could allow me (and others who also tell themselves these stories) to get past the emotions and live more fully in Now Time.Hi Dave, i think you make an important point above, which is to distinguish between a possible truth (which one believes), and one’s potential reaction / attitude towards it. I think you bring up an important point in buddhist philosophy. let me try to expand on it:The story that “Gaia is dying” may well be true. The point is whether one has to grieve about it, which causes only suffering to oneself. I think this distinction is very critical and forms the heart of buddhist (and other eastern) philosophies. The core principle is this : Whenever one attaches oneself to impermanent things, that attachment is bound to cause suffering. Put another way, whenever one has subjective like/dislike about a particular outcome in the universe, its bound to cause suffering because the universe will not always produce outcomes that are favorable to your subjective liking.Lets face it. All the universal processes are impermanent and in constant transience. The Sun was not existing 5 Billion years back. The Sun will cease to exist 5 Billion years from now. Same with Gaia. I think Buddha was talking about impermanence at a much more micro level, on a micro times scales, but even on macro level, impermanence is obvious.Coming to our example, “Gaia is dying” may be a fact. But, one’s subjective dislike of this fact will make one suffer. That, is precisely the point where we humans have a choice. One can *choose* to suffer by being caught up in like/dislike pattern. Or, one can *choose* to rest one’s consciousness in awareness of the fact that “Gaia is dying” and thatyou dislike that fact, and that this is causing suffering. This recognition that one is suffering because of a particular like/dislike is the first step in ending suffering. (Is this the core principle of mindfulness ?).Now, there is an important addendum to this point. Being unattached doesn’t mean one stops acting and sits in a cave. You put up your best efforts according to your subjective liking or what you think is “right”. You just do your duty. The universe will throw an outcome on its own inner logic, aggregating all the other forces (like Lomborg) that were influencing that particular outcome. Again, One is unattached to the result of the action.This twin concept of non-attachment / duty forms the central theme in Bhagavad Gita, where Arjuna is faced with the issue of fighting his own cousin brothers for the sake of kingdom. Krishna urges him to fight, as thats the most dutiful thing to do in that situation, even if it means fighting one’s cousins.To summarize, perhaps, being able to observe and be aware of all the stories / attachments that the mind creates, and the suffering that the attachments cause, is the beginning of living in freedom ?

  9. Nick Smith says:

    Dave, you mention acceptance on the list of the possible solutions, but from what I’ve seen there’s a more radical form of acceptance than the one we normally mean when we use that term. It’s the acceptance of ourselves as the Love set free from a heart that’s been allowed to be broken open.It sounds as though the story behind these 4 stories (as it seems to be with all of us) is that, in some form or other, we want the Universe to change… and we want it to change so we’ll feel better. This personal motivation tends to get masked behind some other ‘justifiable’ altruistic feeling which varies depending on our self-perception. For some the ‘justifiable’ feeling is one of compassion, or perhaps a sense of justice or grief.The thing is, by projecting our angst onto others, or onto ‘life’, or perhaps some image of a God, we avoid ownership of these feelings. But these feelings that we are unwilling to experience end up running our lives. We think we have free will but in truth we live our lives unconsciously — responding to thoughts and feelings that seem to come ‘on their own’ — patterns of mind established and forgotten eons ago in order to avoid experiencing the feelings we most dread. The result is, in our own particular way, we end living a big part of our lives hiding, venting, running, clinging, anesthetise ourselves or fighting back. (BTW, I’m mentioning all this only as a precursor to offering an alternative way of coming into the Now. It’s a more direct approach, suitable perhaps only for the brave in heart)So here’s the alternative: When whatever angst or despair or other form of fear appears within us, instead of avoiding it, we can elect to sit still in the middle of it and not move. We can choose to let it consume it, regardless of the consequences. In a way this feels like our worst nightmare — like death itself. But by letting our heart be broken like this, what we discover in the ashes is what can never be broken. What flows free from the gaping void is an unimaginable Love that could never be put back and a peace and stillness that envelops everything. This, to me, is true compassion. If, as I think you do Dave, you see the human condition as the cause of our problems, when better way than to provide the answer to the cause? Isn’t this what the world is waiting for! I don’t believe there’s any grief that this Love could not hold and dissolve, nor anything that could come to disturb a mind that recognises itself as the answer.

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