Speaking of moments: One phrase that hasn’t occurred in this piece so far is “living in the moment.” This may seem strange, since this theme is so commonly associated with mindfulness, and so emphasized by meditation teachers. Indeed, The New York Times recently defined mindfulness as the “desire to take a chunk of each day and simply live in the present.” Stop and smell the roses.
There’s no denying that deep appreciation of the present moment is a nice consequence of mindfulness. But it’s misleading to think of it as central to mindfulness. If you delve into early Buddhist writings, you won’t find a lot of exhortations to stop and smell the roses—and that’s true even if you focus on those writings that contain the word sati, the word that’s translated as “mindfulness.”
The ancient Buddhist text known as The Four Foundations of Mindfulness—the closest thing there is to a Bible of mindfulness—features no injunction to live in the present, and in fact doesn’t have a single word or phrase translated as “now” or “the present.” And it features some passages that would sound strange to the average mindfulness meditator of today. It reminds us that our bodies are “full of various kinds of unclean things” and instructs us to meditate on such bodily ingredients as “feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, skin-oil, saliva, mucus, fluid in the joints, urine.” It also calls for us to imagine our bodies “one day, two days, three days dead—bloated, livid, and festering.”
I’m not aware of any bestselling books on mindfulness meditation called Stop and Smell the Feces. And I’ve never heard a meditation teacher recommend that I meditate on my bile, phlegm, and pus, or on the rotting corpse that I will someday be. What is presented today as an ancient meditative tradition is a selective rendering of an ancient meditative tradition, in some cases carefully manicured.
But that’s OK. All spiritual…