The mind plays tricks on us. It often keeps us away from the present. It conjures up an image of how we were in the past and how we should be in the future. It swings like a pendulum between these two imaginings, dragging us into an unchangeable past, and then pulling us the same distance into an invented future.
Both these movements are pointless; a waste of time and energy. Trying to reconstruct the past can make us desperate, constructing the future in our minds makes us hopeful. Both hope and despair, according to the Tao Te Ching, are hollow and wasteful.
It helps to visit the past to better understand a situation or our reactions to it and to have a lighthearted aspiration of what we may become in the future. But pushing ourselves unpleasantly towards a certain way or trying to recreate how we were at a particular point in time can be both frustrating and futile.
Buddhist texts offer us visual metaphors for orienting the mind towards greater clarity. One such visual is that of a river—a metaphor for life and ourselves as well. Water in a river is always flowing and it is never the same. It changes every moment, just as a person witnessing it also changes.
This, then, is a simple yet powerful concept to reflect on. It stresses the concept of impermanence, of things changing moment to moment. Nothing is the same. Nothing will ever be the same, how much ever control we may exert on trying to steer and keep things a certain way. To wish that life be the way it was in the past or that it must remain a particular way all the while from now into the future are attitudes rooted in ignorance (avidya).
Stripping the present
The Vedantins follow another tradition of training to root the mind in the present. They emphasise on curbing the mind by stripping it of all its imaginings, both pleasant and unpleasant. This requires practice since the mind thrives on the things we imagine for ourselves, which often spur us on. On the other hand, a lot of our stress and anger is also imagined since we assume loss of control over a certain circumstance before it has really occurred.
This is an austere, somewhat difficult exercise. It seems unreal to imagine a mind without its imaginings. Practising it, however, helps remove the unreal and stops us from reacting to things that haven’t yet happened. It is akin to cutting out the fat to strip out what is unnecessary.
Similar to the Vedantins’ emphasis, the Buddha’s experience of liberation (nirvana) turns our attention to recognising, knowing and acting in the present moment. The individual is stripped off his or her notions of everything, including the self. He or she is thus ready for wholehearted expression in the present reality, rather than in a misconstrued or imagined construct of reality. One draws on the resources available here now. Those, too, like the river and like the person watching it, are ever-changing and ever-moving.