How can we be happily stuck in the present moment?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Life is full of twists and turns that will push us into a state of misery and pain at any moment. And when we are in a state of misery and pain, our natural tendency is to hate the present moment as we feel we are stuck in it. Consider, for example, a song titled, “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out,” a song included in the 2000 album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, by U2, a popular Irish rock band, which contains the following lines:

You’ve got to get yourself together.                                                                                    You’ve got stuck in a moment and now you can’t get out of it.                                                Don’t say that later will be better now you’re stuck in a moment.                                              And you can’t get out of it

While the song does not say why “you’ve got stuck in a moment,” it was about the suicide of a close friend of Bono, the band’s lead singer, as he later told in an interview with the Rolling Stone magazine. Needless to say, there are other circumstances in which you feel “you’ve got stuck in a moment.” You could be stuck in a hopeless relationship with someone who has been close to you—a lover, a partner or a parent. Or it could be your supervisor in the workplace who is causing you misery and pain. You could also be stuck in a painful realization that you have lost all your property and belongings due to a natural disaster. As an extreme case, you could be stuck in a prison for a crime that you have not committed.

Whatever may be the reason behind it, when we are stuck in a moment, feeling lost, miserable and painful, we tend to look back on “good old days” in the past or look forward to “bright new days” in the future. But we know that “good old days” are gone forever, and that there is no guarantee that “bright new days” will come as the song reminds us, “Don’t say that later will be better.” What is needed for us when we are stuck in a moment is “to get ourselves together,” as the song suggests us to do. How, then, can we get ourselves together when we are stuck in a moment, in what appears to be a hopeless situation?

Zen Buddhism teaches us that we are not stuck in a moment, in a hopeless situation. Rather, we are stuck is a concept, or an idea, we form about our situation based on how we perceive the condition we are in at the moment. This is so because time running irreversibly from the past to the future is an illusion, as Einstein reminds us with his theory of relativity. In fact, time does not exist independently from our perception; it is the process by which we perceive changes in the universe. What all this means is that we can never be stuck in a moment because a moment has no real existence outside of our perception.

In order to get out of a moment by getting ourselves together, Zen Buddhism teaches us to follow a spiritual practice, for the essence of Zen practice is to transform our suffering into happiness. What does that practice entail, then? Here is what Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us in his 2014 book, No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering: “It requires first of all that we come home to ourselves, that we make peace with our suffering, treating it tenderly, and looking deeply at the roots of our pain. It requires us to let go of useless, unnecessary sufferings and take a close look at our idea of happiness. Finally, it requires that we nourish happiness daily, with acknowledgment, understanding, and compassion for ourselves and for those around us.”

What Thich Nhat Hanh is telling us is that true happiness comes only when we can say that we are happily stuck in the present moment, whatever it is that we are going through. To be able to say that we are happily stuck in the present moment, needless to say, requires constant spiritual practice. We may recall a letter Kayla Mueller, an American ISIS captive, wrote to her family in the spring of 2014 and released to the media in 2015 after her death was confirmed. In this letter, Kayla writes: “I have been shown in darkness, light, and have learned that even in prison, one can be free. … I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it.” These are remarkable words coming from someone who, despite being stuck in a hopeless situation, can still say that she is happily stuck in the present moment because of her spiritual practice. Can we do the same and sat that we are happily stuck in the present moment? It is the challenge that confronts us practitioners wherever we are, whatever may be the situation we are in.