Eventually, in virtually every spiritual and religious tradition, you’ll encounter the same advice when it comes to time: that we’re better off confining our attentions to the present moment than struggling to manipulate what’s coming next.
“Trying to control the future is like trying to take the master carpenter’s place”
cautions one of the founding texts of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, in a warning echoed several centuries later by the Buddhist scholar Geshe Shawopa, who gruffly commanded his students: “Do not rule over imaginary kingdoms of endlessly proliferating possibilities.”
But the version of this thought that has always resonated the most for me comes from the modern-day spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti, who expressed it, in a characteristically direct manner, in a lecture delivered in California in the late 1970s. “Partway through this particular talk,” recalls the writer Jim Dreaver, who was in attendance, “Krishnamurti suddenly paused, leaned forward, and said, almost conspiratorially, ‘Do you want to know what my secret is?’ Almost as though we were one body, we sat up… I could see people all around me lean forward, their ears straining, their mouths slowly opening in hushed anticipation.” Then Krishnamurti “said in a soft, almost shy voice, ‘You see, I don’t mind what happens.’”
I don’t mind what happens. Perhaps these words need a little unpacking; I don’t think Krishnamurti means to say that we shouldn’t feel sorrow, compassion, or anger when bad things happen to ourselves or others, nor that we should give up on our efforts to prevent bad things from happening in the future. Rather, a life spent “not minding what happens” is one lived without the inner demand to know that the future will conform to your desires for it – and thus without having to be constantly on edge as you wait to discover whether or not things will unfold as expected.
None of that means we can’t act wisely in the present to reduce the chances of bad developments later on. And we can still respond, to the best of our abilities, should bad things nonetheless occur; we’re not obliged to accept suffering or injustice as part of the inevitable order of things. But to the extent that we can stop demanding certainty that things will go our way later on, we’ll be liberated from anxiety in the only moment it ever actually is, which is this one.
AND YET attempting to “live in the moment”, to find meaning in life now, brings its own challenges. Have you ever actually tried it? It turns out to be bewilderingly difficult. Several years ago, I visited Tuktoyaktuk, a small town in the extreme north of Canada’s Northwest Territories. At the time, it was accessible only by air or sea or, in winter, by the route I took, which involved traveling in an off-road vehicle along the surface of a frozen river, then driving upon the frozen Arctic Ocean itself. My journalistic assignment concerned the fight between Canada and Russia for oil resources beneath the North Pole – but naturally, having heard so much about them, I also wanted to see the northern lights.
Several nights running, I forced myself outside into minus-thirty-degree-Celsius cold – a temperature at which the moisture inside your nose turns to ice the moment you inhale – to find only the darkness of thick cloud cover. It wasn’t until my last night there, shortly after two o’clock in the morning, that the couple renting the neighboring cabin at my bed-and-breakfast tapped excitedly at my door to tell me the time had come: the northern lights were on display. I threw some clothes over my full-body thermal underwear and stepped out under a cathedral sky, filled with moving curtains of green light, sweeping from horizon to horizon.
I was determined to relish the exhibition, which the next morning locals would describe as a particularly impressive one. But the more I tried, the less I seemed able to do so. By the time I was getting ready to return to the warmth of my cabin, I was so far from being absorbed in the moment that a thought occurred to my mind, regarding the northern lights, which to this day I squirm to recall.
Oh, I found myself thinking, they look like one of those screensavers.
The problem is that the effort to be present in the moment, though it seems like the exact opposite of the instrumentalist, future-focused mindset, is in fact just a slightly different version of it. You’re so fixated on trying make the best use of your time – in this case for an enriching experience of life right now – that it obscures the experience itself. You resolve to stay completely present while, say, washing the dishes – perhaps because you saw that quotation from the bestselling Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh about finding absorption in the most mundane of activities – only to discover that you can’t, because you’re too busy self-consciously wondering whether you’re being present enough or not.
The attempt to “be here now” feels not so much relaxing as rather strenuous – and it turns out that trying to have the most intense possible present-moment experience is a surefire way to fail. My favorite example of this effect is the 2015 study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, in which couples were instructed to have sex twice as frequently as usual for a two-month period. At the end of this time, the study concluded, they weren’t any happier than they had been at the start. This finding was widely reported as demonstrating that a more active sex life isn’t as enjoyable as you might have imagined. But what it really shows, I’d say, is that trying too hard to have a more active sex life is no fun at all.
A more fruitful approach to the challenge of living more fully in the moment starts from noticing that you are, in fact, always already living in the moment anyway, whether you like it or not. After all, your self-conscious thoughts about whether you’re sufficiently focused on washing the dishes – or whether you’re enjoying all the extra sex you’re having these days, since agreeing to participate in that psychology study – are thoughts arising in the present moment, too. And if you’re inescapably already in the moment, there’s surely something deeply dubious about trying to bring that state of affairs about. To try to live in the moment implies that you’re somehow separate from “the moment,” and thus in a position to either succeed or fail at living in it.
As the author Jay Jennifer Mathews puts it, in her excellently titled short book Radically Condensed Instructions for Being Just as You Are:
“we cannot get anything out of life. There is no outside where we could take this thing to. There is no little pocket, situated outside of life, [to which we could] steal life’s provisions and squirrel them away. The life of this moment has no outside.”
Living more fully in the present may simply be a matter of finally realizing that you never had any other option but to be here now.
I can’t be the only person who find this piece utterly wonderful? It’s taken from Oliver Burkman, the author of Four Thousand Weeks.
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