On September 10, 1950, exactly 65 years ago today, Beat nomad Neal Cassady composed a letter to future Beat chronicler Jack Kerouac. He wrote from the engine of a train and shared with his friend his thoughts about becoming more absorbed by the landscape and the people he saw, noting:
Now, eyeball kicks are among the world’s greatest, second to none actually in terms of abstract thought, because it is thru the way you handle these kicks that is what determines your particular conclusion (in abstraction in the mind) to each moments outlook . . .
One’s mind carries at all times the pressure of its own existence, and remembers previous eyeball views to recall what its previous life has been & feeding on this stuff, carries a heavy understanding of things it is capable of knowing & this knowing is blocked from coming out, because while one’s mind carries one’s life’s past constantly, it also carries before it all day the world which comes in thru the eyeball.” *
It was Cassady who, in a roundabout way, was responsible for stimulating Kerouac’s interest in Buddhism, but in 1950 I don’t think either of them knew much about it, and anyway Cassady never got into it like Kerouac did. Nevertheless, Cassady’s thinking in this passage seems to me rather dharmic.
Vision (“eyeball kicks”) is not free from conceptual or abstract thinking and how we think about what we see dictates to a large degree our view in each moment. This is true for the practice of mindfulness as well, because when we meditate we are not completely liberated from our senses. Not to mention that meditation is “seeing” with the inner eyeball.
Additionally, we are not separated from the past or future while we are in the “present moment.” When discussing Buddhist meditation, particularly mindfulness, we are fond of saying that the aim is to let go of the past and have no anticipation for the future. Certainly, we wish to release our attachment to the past and not obsess about things to come, but actually the past is always present, and in each moment and with each thought we shape the future.
In meditation, we center ourselves in the present by focusing attention upon some object, often our breath. Nyanaponika Thera, in his book The Heart of Buddhism Meditation, wrote
If there is any further interest in the object, or if its impact on the senses is sufficiently strong, closer attention will be directed towards details . . . This will enable the mind to compare the present perception with similar ones recollected from this past . . . This stage marks a very important step in mental development . . . It also shows us the close and constant connection between the functions of memory and attention (or mindfulness), and will thereby explain why in Pali, the language of the [early] Buddhist scriptures, both these mental functions are expressed by the one word sati.”
[Sati is a Pali word we translate as “mindfulness.”]
We can take this further to say that meditation involves not only the recollection of past perceptions but also past experiences. I think at times some folks are so focused on “letting go,” another phrase we are very fond of, that it becomes escapism. Perhaps we need to let go of this idea of letting go. Without the past there is no present, so we have to deal with it to develop ourselves. And rather than letting go of sufferings we should embrace them, for without suffering we could never know happiness.
I was making up all kinds of sayings as I went along. I was started on my new life with my new equipment: a regular Don Quixote of tenderness. In the morning I felt exhilarated and meditated first thing and made up a little prayer: ‘I bless you, all living things, I bless you in the endless past, I bless you in the endless present, I bless you in the endless future, amen.’”
Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
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* Neal Cassady, The First Third, City Lights Books, 1971, 196
Graphic based on the 1952 photo taken by Carolyn Cassady