Chasing an exit from capitalist anguish

The charming and humorous Sri Prem Baba
The charming and humorous Sri Prem Baba

Chasing the Present
Documentary film directed by Mark Waters
In cinemas

Chasing the Present focuses on the psychological and spiritual journey of a successful young New York businessperson, James Sebastiano who finds himself at a mental crossroads, beset by panic attacks while advancing a successful career.

The “chasing” is literal. The camera follows Sebastiano around the world as he visits spiritual masters and New Age advisers receiving their wisdom.

The “present” he is chasing is the present moment. He is told again and again to focus on the moment, to stop identifying with the part of himself that worries and so cease to suffer.

It would be easy to mock Sebastiano as he scoots hither-and-yon consuming spiritualism like cupcakes while saying that he suffers from his attachments. But his anguish is palpable.

He represents a real quandary about living under late capitalism. He personifies the emotional desolation of grasping for capitalist success while recognising its moral vacuousness.

Some of the spiritual teachers are genuinely charming, particularly Sri Prem Baba, who exhibits infectious humour and sincerity. Russell Brand is also disarmingly comedic.

There is an interesting moment when New Age guru Gary Weber advises Sebastiano on how to relieve himself of suffering: disassemble the part of himself that suffers. Sebastiano asks him directly if he ever suffers. Weber pauses for a moment before blithely claiming that he doesn’t. However, the pause is more telling than the claim.

The film avoids interrogating any of the teachings presented, but it is very well edited, with dramatic music.

What struck me most was that in American culture it seems quite unremarkable for an individual to allow themselves to be filmed for two years while they open up their innermost feelings. That cultural phenomenon would itself be worthy of a fascinating documentary.