Saturday, 4 May 2013

Nao, now - with thanks to Ruth Ozeki

I'm in the middle of a fascinating novel:

Its author:

Here is the teenage Nao Yatsutani remembering how, at the age of six or seven, she tried to grasp the present moment, as she is being driven in the family car:

..."and I kept the window open so the hot, dry, smoggy haze could blow on my face while I whispered Now!... Now!....Now!...over and over, faster and faster and faster, into the wind as the world whipped by, trying to catch the moment when the word was what it is: when now became NOW.

But in the time it takes to say now, now is already over. It's already then.

Then is the opposite of now. So saying now obliterates its meaning, turning it into exactly what it isn't. It's like the word is committing suicide or something. So then I'd start making it, ow, oh, o until it was just a bunch of little grunting sounds and not even a word at all. It was hopeless, like trying to hold a snowflake on your tongue or a soap bubble between your fingertips. Catching it destroys it, and I felt like I was disappearing too.

Stuff like this can drive you crazy."

It seems to me that Nao is discovering for herself the great paradox about the present moment: it has no dimension, no length. You can't measure it, and if you try to conceptualise it, even, as she found out, to name it, it becomes then, something you did, in the past. So where and how is the present, now?

And yet I keep banging on about presentmomentness, about mindful meditation creating a state of mind which is not our stream of memories, or our anticipations, or our fantasies; a state of mind which is in the present.

But the present can't be captured in concepts, or measured. It is not a conceptual thing. It isn't a verbal construct, or amenable to such a thing. You have to do it to be in it, and you need to bring yourself gently and calmly back to it, during meditation, whenever your mind starts up is usual thought-train.

"The way that can be named is not the perfect way."

This ancient statement isn't obscurantist, or difficult for the sake of appearing superior, profound, secret to an elite - it's trying, like this post, to suggest via verbal concepts what isn't a matter of concepts.

It is a state of being.

There really is "no time like the present." 


  1. I feel as though - in literary terms - I'm treading at your heels GM: this is another book on my 'to read' shelf at the moment. I really enjoyed her first book 'my year of meat'.
    It is a lovely illustration of the paradox of now - that becoming aware of the moment means that you are no longer in it. It's a parable of childhood too, isn't it? The moment that childhood ends because of sudden self awareness - like the moment you see your mother or father as people for the first time.
    Is the child's sense of now equivalent to the adults mindfulness?
    Made me think of Huxley's Island too - the trained birds in the trees calling “attention” and “karuna”.

  2. My, what an interesting comment Vale, thanks.
    So now I'm trying to "remember" my sense of "now" as a child- entirely impossible! But I guess small children are more "in the moment" than adults usually are.
    As for treading on my readership heels - I haven't read any of her other books, and I haven't read "Island," so maybe it's a circular heel-treading we're engaged in! So my list has just lengthened.

  3. And incidentally, hasn't Ruth Ozeki got a lovely open sort of face? According to W'pedia, she is a Zen Buddhist priest, and she is one of the team who run "Every Day Zen," looks like a useful website for them as wants that sort of website. (Me, for one.) So no wonder there are passages of "A Tale For The Time Being" that are so enlightening. She's been there, done that. Yet there's none of that writerly showing-off, over-writing, that sometimes bends very good writers out of true.

  4. She has! I didn't know she was a zen Buddhist - but it makes complete sense. I was drawn to her first because of her environmental and food concerns. Both her previous books have had the abuses of modern farming at their centre, as well as the experience of being part Japanese in modern America. A lovely, concerned activist sensibility.