The future is not a destination
I’ve wasted a lot of time living in the future. I’ve made every today a perpetual sacrifice for a better tomorrow. I thought I learned a fundamental truth long ago: That the true barrier to reaching our goals is immediate gratification. That those of us who practice resisting immediate gratification for longer periods of time will be the ones who reach their goals and find the deepest, longest-lasting, happiness.
With the help of a friend, I’ve recently found the flaw in that fundamental truth, and it was a tricky bug in my logic to find. What made it so tricky is that the logic is sound, and every time I practiced it, I saw the reward, so like any good scientific theory that held up to testing, I trusted it. It’s the premise this logic was based on that’s flawed.
As a teenager I used to enjoy painting, and then took it up again in my 30s after a 10-year hiatus. I started with a large mural on 4 large canvases and liked the result. So I took longer on the next one and did it on one large canvas. I was even more pleased with the result, so I continued putting more and more effort into every painting I did, spending more time on a smaller area of canvas, foregoing the pleasure of seeing the finished work. Eventually I spent all of my free time for 6 months on one painting and lost the desire to start another.
This is just a microcosm of my mode of operation for the last 20 years. I got through college, had some increasingly challenging and interesting jobs, taking on more responsibility and stress. I found the perfect life I’ve always worked for, with a perfect wife, and 2 perfect kids. The problem was that I could never see any of it as perfect. My whole life was a constant work in progress. I’m not an unhappy person. I enjoyed much of this time, but I didn’t know what I was missing.
Recently, I noticed how my son acts just like I did at his age, and yet I was increasingly frustrated with him. He is the sweetest gift the world could give a father, but I found myself trying every second to correct the things I don’t like about myself by being hard on him. I now see that it was more than simply trying to fix the flaws of nature I gave him through strict nurturing. Like everything else I’ve done, I’ve tried to make him better tomorrow by souring so many wonderful todays. I would see some behavior that I wanted to correct and would scold or frown at him to show my disapproval, trying to quickly mold him to perfection. I didn’t understand I was giving him the impression, all too often, of a disappointed dad.
Finally I realized a deeper truth. The future is not a destination. It is always moving away from us in time. In other words: The future will never be here, only the present.
Perhaps you’ve heard the Taoist quote:
“If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace you are living in the present.”
When I first saw that quote it seemed wise, but I didn’t understand it on the level needed to practice it. I was fortunate enough to realize about 10 years ago how true the 1st line is, and take it to heart. Before then I would agonize about stupid decisions I’d made or stupid things I’d said, but then I came to understand choice as a fallacy. I now see every choice we make as the only possible choice after weighing what we know at the time (meaning there was only the false perception of other choices until the choice I couldn’t help but make was made). Even if it comes down to flipping a coin, the mechanics would play out the same if the universe were reset to those conditions before the choice was made. Since that understanding, I only regret things long enough to learn from them, then I discard that regret as worthless.
Being anxious about the future is a harder nut to crack, in my experience. Aren’t we better prepared for the future if we worry about scenarios, playing them out in our heads? Doesn’t fortune favor the well-prepared? In fact I still believe it does, but fortune can only be experienced in the present, so if the act of preparing becomes the fortune, then you can be prepared and live happily in the present. We can’t experience things in the future. In the future we’ll still only be able to experience the present. If in that future time, we’re still sacrificing for some other future time, then to some degree we will have lost all of the present times in between.
The concept of living in the present isn’t new, it’s not some hippy-dippy BS, or even some words of wisdom to ponder and forget. It’s one of the rare philosophical concepts that can have a practical, beneficial effect on those who understand and use it. There are simple common-sense ways to apply this mode of thinking that can make every moment more enjoyable. There are many variations on the concept, but many common threads as well.
When you're talking to someone, give them your full attention.
Stop multitasking. Do one thing at a time with focus.
Free up more time by doing less.
Concentrate on what you’re doing be it breathing, washing dishes, eating, i.e anything.
Spend some of your time doing nothing, just sitting there breathing.
Notice things around you.
Don’t chase achievement, let it find you enjoying yourself.
I’ve practiced these things recently, and though I drift back into old habits, I soon remember to return to this mode. Whenever I do, I have a great time with my son, my daughter, or my wife and I can see they do with me as well. I’m hopeful that in the future I will spend much more time in the present.