Burning the bridge to the past and the future
I have already written about Buddhist thought on this blog, and part of Buddhist meditation is about being fully present. This is extremely important and shows that Buddhism has a deep understanding of how we experience reality.
What does that mean?
Well, have you ever experienced flow? Have you ever been so absorbed in what you were doing, be it dancing, working, drawing, running, or even a good discussion with a friend? That is a moment where you were present, and fully in the present, without your mind being drawn away from that moment to other places and times. If you’ve ever experienced this, you know it makes you profoundly happy.
Why can’t we always be this happy?
We are used to always planning. Our complex mind is so powerful because it can think in terms of the hypothetical, in terms of what might be. We can compare situations and judge them. But that makes us vulnerable to unpleasant feelings: feelings of inadequacy, jealousy of others, regret of the past, hope and ambition for the future, and so on. These feelings all stem from a bridge that our mind is creating between now and the past or the future.
This bridge has to disappear.
Why? First, it leads nowhere. Whereas the present moment is as pure as can be, because it is not mediated by anything and thus not altered more by our mind than it has to be for the purpose of making sense of it. Both the past and the future are not what they seem to be. My past has gaps. I forget things, or make myself forget them. I lock them up. And my future is often overenthusiastic, like when I think I will do task X tomorrow because I’m really too tired today, but tomorrow’s me will be just as tired and not motivated as the present me. Past and future are unreal dream landscapes, they are removed from reality by several layers of abstraction, modification, embellishing and other mind tricks. Don’t let your mind fool you. Only the present is real.
Second, even if the bridge led somewhere real, it would not make sense to use it. Even if I could somehow create a link to how my past actually was, or to a realistic projection of my future self, what good would that do me? Any action can only take place now. I cannot act in the past, for that would be to change the past, which is impossible. And I cannot act in the future, because that is called planning, and it leads to nothing. 1 hour of work has a bigger effect than 100 hours of planning. For this reason, the only timeframe that should concern your mind for the vast majority of moments is the present.
It is OK to analyse the past and plan things for the future. That’s what makes humans smart, after all. But analysing and planning are tendencies that our minds often engage in too intensely. We overdo it, and it becomes like a drug. We constantly live in our heads, instead of being present. What good is a 30 minute session of planning what you will do next year, if tomorrow you do it again, and you make entirely different decisions? Will the outcome improve a lot by thinking about it for 30 hours instead of 30 minutes? No. Most of the actually required thinking in any decisions we make is surprisingly clear-cut. It doesn’t require lots of thinking. In most other people, we can see in a few minutes what their problem is and what they should do to improve.
An example: If you’re obese and that makes life difficult for you and you want to change that, bam. There’s your one thought: change this. Then you spend 10 minutes looking up a workout, and another 10 on dietary changes, maybe even one or two hours if you go crazy. And that’s it. You don’t need more thinking or research, you need more doing. No rationalising why you should indulge and eat ice cream, and no dwelling on how difficult it is to stay on the treadmill for 45 minutes. Just do it. And if you think you cannot go on running on that treadmill for another 20 minutes, don’t run those 20 minutes. Instead, run one minute. And another one. And repeat that 18 more times. 20 minutes will be over, but they will not have been 20 scary minutes in the future, but 1 minute by 1 minute, easily trickling by in the present.
That’s how you make progress. Don’t be scared. Jump right in and do it now. Because no other moment in time is available. You only have now.