What if “being in the moment” is also an escape?

I seem to have missed the memo on why being in the present moment is better than being in any other moment. I use Buddhist psychology a lot in my work and mindfulness/meditation do have a place in our recovery plans, however, I do not understand why as a culture, we feel that being in the moment is so much better than being in the past or the future, and is touted as a solution to everything?

Think about it, why should focusing on now, necessarily feel less miserable than yesterday or tomorrow? I could be miserable in the moment too. A leg could be hurting, I could be having a migraine, or I could be suffering because my boss just yelled at me. Maybe focusing on the future is how I cope with traumatic childhood memories, and being in the present might force me to confront that while I’m not yet ready for it. In this article titled, “Is mindfulness making us ill”, one such story is reported — “Claire, a 37-year-old in a highly competitive industry, was sent on a three-day mindfulness course with colleagues as part of a training programme. “Initially, I found it relaxing,” she says, “but then I found I felt completely zoned out while doing it. Within two or three hours of later sessions, I was starting to really, really panic.” The sessions resurfaced memories of her traumatic childhood, and she experienced a series of panic attacks. “Somehow, the course triggered things I had previously got over,” Claire says. “I had a breakdown and spent three months in a psychiatric unit. It was a depressive breakdown with psychotic elements related to the trauma, and several dissociative episodes.”

The reason for perhaps these kinds of experiences is the fact that there is no one definition of mindfulness meditation, nor a uniform way of delivering it, and often the credentials of the one providing the interventions vary. Therefore, the expertise needed to know whether mindfulness is suited to an individual and how to manage adverse effects, seems to be lacking. Research suggests that there are definite cons; and the pros floating around in the culture too seem to be exaggerated, as most of the quoted studies have no control groups which would help rule out a placebo effect.

Another big reason for the mindfulness failure is that it is used as a capitalist tool to cover up employee grievances caused by structural issues like bad workplace ethics, role non-clarity, hierarchy and sexism, and so on. But an even bigger reason is that it is stripped off from the grounding principles of eastern/buddhist philosophy and psychology.

For example, one of the assumptions of buddhism that are to be realized with the help of mindfulness is “annata” or the “no-self”, which as this article suggests, “In particular, mindfulness is grounded in the Buddhist doctrine of anattā, or the ‘no-self’. Anattā is a metaphysical denial of the self, defending the idea that there is nothing like a soul, spirit or any ongoing individual basis for identity. This view denies that each of us is an underlying subject of our own experience. By contrast, Western metaphysics typically holds that — in addition to the existence of any thoughts, emotions and physical sensations — there is some entity to whom all these experiences are happening, and that it makes sense to refer to this entity as ‘I’ or ‘me’. However, according to Buddhist philosophy, there is no ‘self’ or ‘me’ to which such phenomena belong.”

The point of mindfulness meditation is to focus on the present moment to realize that the thoughts, feelings, sensations that we identify with the “self” are themselves changing and so, the self is not as solid an identity as we’d like to believe. This helps us to give up desire, greed and negative intent towards others, since there is no “self” to whom these components belong. This realization is supposed to help us hold life lightly and move from suffering to compassion and look beyond the self and self-obsession to the collective.

So ultimately, the benefit of mindfulness comes down to the following formula:

Present = can be observed; whereas with the past and the future, the observation is not as clear, other entities can be blamed (thus the idea of past/future being “escapes”)

Observable present = realization that there is no “self” and what is experienced as sensations of the self is always changing

This realization= helps us to question our attractions, desires etc and we don’t hold onto it as tightly, thus fostering change.

However, this undermines the fact that escapes too are useful. Buddhism or mindfulness is not a panacea and therefore, coming to terms with the usefulness of escape mechanisms should be the next integration. The present and paying attention to each moment can be overwhelming. However, escaping every now and then makes things tolerable. Acceptance and commitment therapy, which works with avoidance of pain — as the theory suggests that avoidance itself gives rise to new issues and must be tackled — also admits that avoidance or escape is a good option/only option many times. It is only when the benefits of escape/avoidance no longer match the ensuing problems, do we want to tone down the escape and the avoidance a bit.

Many women who are trapped in marriages with men they don’t love, tend to escape/avoid mentally into fantasies of a future with only their kids and their husband not being around anymore, or some other thoughts of escape. Imagine if this was not possible and they had to “feel” each moment? Isn’t it wonderful then that we have the capacity to mentally escape such instances?

The analytical tradition, be it Freud, Jung or Klein, gave a lot of credit to fantasies and would espouse that they are not only good coping mechanisms but also a window into the inner life of the person as well as the potential they have to take their lives ahead.

To me it seems like “being in the present” is starting to being seen as strong/facing the problem head-on and escaping or avoiding with the help of fantasies and other materials is being seen as weak, and therefore is starting to reek of ideas of toxic masculinity.

The debate is not whether Buddhism is right/wrong or the analytical tradition is, but the idea from both schools — that of discernment, is important. Both Buddhism and the analytical tradition suggest us to hold ideas lightly and not become literal and concrete but rather, open to changes.

Therefore, it’s about time we admit that the present is as good/bad as other times and escape is as important as presence.

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Sadaf

Sadaf

Love psychology, economics, art, music, books, poetry, blogs, cooking and select sports.A jack of all trades, perhaps master of none. Psychologist.