Sunday, February 26, 2006

The crisp simplicity of the moment

The Daily Dharma for Feb 26 from Tricycle.
It is often the case that whatever we are doing, be it sitting, walking, standing, or lying, the mind is frequently disengaged from the immediate reality and is instead absorbed in compulsive conceptualization about the future or past.
  • While we are walking, we think about arriving, and when we arrive, we think about leaving.

  • When we are eating, we think about the dishes and as we do the dishes, we think about watching television.
This is a weird way to run a mind. We are not connected with the present situation, but we are always thinking about something else. Too often we are consumed with anxiety and cravings, regrets about the past and anticipation for the future, completely missing the crisp simplicity of the moment.

— B. Alan Wallace, Tibetan Buddhism from the Ground Up
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There is a review in this week's New Yorker of two books that review the history of Happiness. It refers to Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi's fairly old study that
showed that people were most content when they were experiencing what Csikzentmihalyi called “flow”—in Haidt’s definition, “the state of total immersion in a task that is challenging yet closely matched to one’s abilities.” [Jonathan Haidt is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.] We are at our happiest when we are absorbed in what we are doing; the most useful way of regarding happiness is, to borrow a phrase of Clive James’s, as “a by-product of absorption.”
It seems to me that the Buddhist advice quoted above is to be in such a state of absorption no matter what one is doing.

On the other hand, it also seems to me that the examples given in the advice quoted above, although very widely used in Buddhist writings, are too simplistic. After all, when Csikzentmihalyi refers to flow, he is referring to the state one is in when one is absorbed in whatever it is that one is doing. But that includes thinking. Csikzentmihalyi studied creativity, and creativity is often quite conceptual. When one is writing (words, software, music, whatever), one may be completely absorbed in the process. (I can find myself completely absorbed when writing software.) But at those times, I'm not particularly aware of the motion of my fingers or the inflow and the outflow of my breath. So one may be walking and thinking at the same time—and the thinking may be very absorbing. One may be in a state of flow even though one is not aware of walking.

What the advice above was really about was to avoid obsessing about events that one can't control. Worrying about what might happen when one arrives at one's destination is not worth the brain power devoted to it. Just walk—or invent something while walking.

And now that I'm thinking about it, even absorption in physical activities is different from awareness of the mechanics of those activities. When one is deeply absorbed in playing music, one isn't aware the motion of one's fingers. When one is deeply absorbed in playing tennis, or running a race, or skiing, or virtually any sporting activity, one isn't aware of the mechanics of how one is performing the activity. In general, absorption brings one to a state of concentration on the activity itself—the music, or the tennis, or the basketball game, etc.—and not to the individual actions that make it up.

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