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04 January 2006 @ 12:30 pm
Nothing Gold Can Stay  

    In my reading of the Dalai Lama’s How To Expand Love this morning, his thoughts on impermanence reminded me of a Robert Frost poem that I loved as a teenager.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

    The Dalai Lama puts it this way: “No matter how much friends love each other, eventually they must part. The mistake is to see these situations as inherently pleasurable. Attachment is built on this misperception and will always cause more pain.” The emphasis on ‘inherently’ is my own because I think it’s a key word. There is nothing wrong with deeply enjoying pleasure in whatever form it takes and whenever it happens. Trouble arises only through our tendency to forget that pleasure never lasts, and to wish that it would only serves to undermine it.

    His Holiness says something else in the following paragraph that I think points to an essential missing element in the popular philosophy of present consciousness espoused by Eckhart Tolle, in a word, compassion. I love Tolle’s writings and lectures. In fact, I credit my rediscovery of meditation and Buddhism to an interview with him I read in The Sun a few years ago. Tolle’s consistent theme of recognizing the wisdom of non-resistance to what is is pure Buddhism. But his efforts to remain as secular and unrelated to any specific religious tradition as possible excise a key idea from the spacious, ever-present now of which he speaks so eloquently, namely the need to develop and cultivate an ever-widening awareness of others. I think Tolle assumes that if people succeed in touching present moment consciousness and grounding themselves in that consciousness more and more throughout the day, that compassion will follow naturally. That may be true, but all of the Buddhist sages whose writings I read are consistent in their teachings of the need to consciously develop a sense of compassion. None seems to believe that such a sense arises naturally from stilling the mind. All view meditation as an essential first step toward becoming a more compassionate person, but the consensus on compassion seems to be that it is a wisdom that must be learned and practiced through conscious effort, at least in the beginning.

     Here’s what the Dalai Lama says: “When the present becomes your preoccupation, the future does not matter, which undermines your motivation to engage in compassionate practices for the future enlightenment of others.” No one who teaches present moment awareness, including Tolle, advocates placing importance on the present moment to the exclusion of the future. The tricky part of this discussion is that if one deeply and authentically inhabits present moment consciousness, what Thich Nhat Hanh calls mindfulness, it is not possible to exclude the future because the very distinctions we make between present and future are inventions. A few moments of serious reflection will reveal to anyone who is ready to acknowledge it that there is absolutely nothing but the present moment. Memories are collections of events that took place in the present moment of that timeframe. Whatever happens in the future will be the present moment of that timeframe. This truth becomes clear to many of us when we fret anxiously about some dreaded future event. (At one time, this was for me, having to give a speech in college.) We suffer terribly until the moment the feared event is actually upon us, and then, when we begin to do our thing, our fear begins to evaporate, usually to the point where we wonder why we felt so fearful. All the monsters we imagined were only this.

    Given this truth about the present moment, I must assume that when the Dalai Lama warns about the present becoming our preoccupation, he is referring to a false view of the present, distorted by the fiction of the present and future as two distinct realities. In this case, one’s preoccupation with the present is not really grounded in the present at all. Rather, it is made up of memories and imaginings viewed through a dimly perceived something, this present moment, that can never seem to hold still long enough for us to get a satisfying fix on it. How interesting life becomes when we begin to understand that this elusive state, always somehow relegated to our temporal peripheral vision, is the whole cake.

    But this brings me back to Frost’s beautiful little poem and the impermanence it tries to teach us. The present moment is the very place from which so many of us wish to distance ourselves to the greatest extent possible for the very reason that we think we cannot make it stay. (In fact, it never goes anywhere. Only the forms it manifests change, and I thank Tolle for that particular insight.) We can objectify memories and imagined future events. We can put them in our pockets, lock them away in our cabinets, take them out when we want, place them on the table and study them at our leisure. Objectifying experience lends a feeling of security and mastery over our lives. Naturally we all seek this.

    Conversely, it is impossible to objectify the present moment. Feeling a sense of mastery there requires a mental attitude entirely at odds with usual thought patterns. In fact, feeling a sense of mastery there requires that we do just about everything that we have been conditioned to believe as the opposite of mastery. We must understand surrender as ultimately stronger and wiser than resistance. We must continually rediscover that being right doesn’t matter. We must continually be aware that just as other people’s successes are our successes, other people’s pain is our pain, because we are all exist in a living web of interbeing. Most of all, we must constantly strive to place other people’s welfare before our own for the very simple reason that other people’s welfare is our own. This is what Buddhists call compassion. When we understand, truly, deeply understand, that nothing gold can stay, that objectifying experience provides only a superficial sense of mastery that effectively exiles us from the vibrancy of being really alive, it is then that we begin to give ourselves permission to do what Ram Dass counseled us to do all those years ago: be here now.
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