I read a lot of books on mindfulness in order to inform my practice. Many of these books leave the impression that if we become all present-momenty, we'll find beauty in every mundane object and event of life, even the tough ones, and, thus, be happy. Sounds great, doesn't it? The problem for me is that despite hauling myself into the present and paying attention to what my senses tell me rather than listening to the inner chatter, I'm not feelin' the love, you know? The present moment doesn't usually doesn't feel so hot.
A few days ago, I read an article ("What's So Great About Now?")* by Cynthia Thatcher in Tricycle magazine about this very experience. It's a bit of a dense read, but if you are a new mindfulness practitioner and have wondered why you usually perceive the present moment as a total let-down and wonder what the heck you're doing "wrong," you can relax because you're actually right on target.
Thatcher says that if you expect mindfulness to help you find beauty, poignancy, or happiness in each moment -- like, oh! this bite of apple is exquisite! oh! look at the sparkle of raindrops on the window! -- you will be disappointed because that's not the point. She describes her own "aha" moment with her teacher, Achan Sobin Namto:
"How do you feel?" he asked me. He'd just finished the evening chanting; the burning incense sticks made three glowing points in the otherwise dim room. Despite his kindness, desolation hung on me like a cape. "I'm having doubts," I said. He grasped the nature of the doubt instantly. It wasn't my ability that I questioned, or the teachings, or the practice method itself. It was the bleakness I experienced when staying in the now. Fundamentally, was the present even worth staying in? Somehow, Achan knew my thoughts. "There's nothing good in the present moment, right?" he asked, hooting with laughter until his eyes teared up. Apparently this cosmic joke struck him as hilarious, though I didn't find it particularly funny. He was glad I was on the right track. I was beginning to find out what all meditators were supposed to see: the First Noble Truth that every moment of samsara, every blip of mind... and matter... was unsatisfactory (dukkha).
Oh. Oops. I thought I'd find happiness by learning to drop the voice of perpetual dissatisfaction in my head. Wow, if I stop listening to it, I'll be happy, right? Everything will be so much more peaceful and beautiful! But no. Instead, we see that in the early practice of mindfulness we're grasping for The Cure, the good feeling and sense of well-being we crave, and the grasping is the problem. "The more mindfulness one has, the clearer dukkha becomes," Thatcher says. It's only when we "see the distress of clinging" that we can see beyond it. The old adage rings true: the only way out is through.