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A question that often arrises with Thich Nhat Hanh’s phrase “Present Moment, Wonderful Moment” is this: what if the present moment is not a wonderful moment – what if it is one of great difficulty or pain or anguish?
The first thing to say is that this phrase does not mean “don’t worry, be happy” – at least not in the sense of Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Newman. There is no denying that there is suffering in life.
However this phrase of Thay is an assertion that suffering can be transformed – that happiness is possible and that it is possible right here and now. I experience “the present moment is a wonderful moment” to be true because the awareness of the moment is wonderful, not because whether what is happening in the present moment is pleasant or unpleasant.
Thay often suggests “enjoy your non-toothache” and encourages all his students to remember that “we already have more than enough conditions to be happy” (see the 7th Mindfulness Training in the 14 Mindfulness Trainings reproduced below). In the 7th Mindfulness training Thay’s encourages us to touch the “wondrous elements…[available] in all situations”. But for me, the most wondrous element of every moment is the awareness of this moment. And every moment of awareness has that element in common with every other moment, regardless of what is happening in it.
The ability to be fully aware of the present moment is also the ability to be “non-discriminating” between the experiences we like (because they are pleasant) and the experiences we don’t like (because they are unpleasant). Awareness is non-discriminating because awareness does not want to get and does not want to reject, it just is aware, and accepting of everything that manifests.
Thay has often also said “no mud, no lotus”. This can be understood in at least two ways. One is: “without the mud, there can be no lotus”. Thus, if you want the lotus, you have to accept the mud because it is necessary for the lotus. This is often a difficult teaching to really practice sincerely because some muds can be quite difficult to bear and the incentive to bear with them is the promise of the lotuses (in the future). So Thay emphasizes that we learn to focus our mindfulness on all the wonderful lotuses that are there even when there also appears to be a lot of mud at times.
Many other meditation teachers also give the instruction, for example, that when a pain in the body arises during meditation – that the meditator should focus on a part of the body that is pleasant or neutral to encourage the development of mindfulness of the experience of the “pleasant” (or neutral) phenomena in the body that is available.
Another meaning to “no mud, no lotus” is: true happiness requires neither mud nor lotus. Or to put it another way, true happiness encompasses both mud and lotus and does not depend on them being beautiful or not beautiful.
True happiness is rooted in awareness which is only happening in the present moment. This is why happiness is possible in every circumstance. The real “joy” in the enjoyment of our tea, our breathing and our non-toothache is the joy that springs from the light of awareness itself.
The Seventh Mindfulness Training: Dwelling Happily in the Present Moment
Aware that life is available only in the present moment, we are committed to training ourselves to live deeply each moment of daily life. We will try not to lose ourselves in dispersion or be carried away by regrets about the past, worries about the future, or cravings, anger, or jealousy in the present. We will practice mindful breathing to be aware of what is happening in the here and now. We are determined to learn the art of mindful living by touching the wondrous, refreshing, and healing elements that are inside and around us, in all situations. In this way, we will be able to cultivate seeds of joy, peace, love, and understanding in ourselves, thus facilitating the work of transformation and healing in our consciousness. We are aware that happiness depends primarily on our mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that we can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that we already have more than enough conditions to be happy.