The future recedes again


The other day I was listening to Sam Harris opining about how we are always trying to attain something we believe will make us happier but once we get it and get used to it we are no happier than we were before. We then start our search all over again for what will make us happy. We spend so much time trying to improve our lot that we forget that it is possible to be happy now. Before we know it we are 80 years old and on our death beds, wondering why we have spent a lifetime searching for something that was right under our noses. It is generally only when we are confronted with illness or death, either our own or someone close to us, that we ask ourselves why we still haven’t managed to be content. Okay, life hasn’t been perfect but neither has it been that bad. Why can’t we appreciate it more? As Joni Mitchell sang in Big Yellow Taxi, ‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’. Isn’t it possible to appreciate something before it is gone?

This constant striving for something better may be part of the human condition but it is nonetheless a pretty stupid way to live. The things we lack are probably not that important. That is, they are as important as we think they are. A change in attitude could reduce their importance.

Of course, attitude alone isn’t everything. It isn’t possible to be content if you are hanging upside down in a torture chamber or if you have just heard that the person you love most in the world (in my case, myself) has just had a serious accident. But anything short of physical or mental torture should allow for some degree of contentment. This needn’t involve walking round with a self-satisfied grin on your face so that people want to slap you. You just need to appreciate the fact that at this moment you are not having your head cut off in some filthy basement in Baghdad, or your plane is not plummeting to the ground from 29,000 feet.

One way to ween yourself off the constant straining after some mythical better future is to fix your gaze on what is right in front of you. Little by little, by paying attention to what is actually around you start to forget about the things that promise to make you happier but never do.

Since what is important to you is also what you think about most then all things being equal ceasing to think about something should reduce its importance to you. Thus stop thinking about the future and instead that about now. One technique for concentrating on the present moment is Mindfulness. I wrote about it here, here and here. It is really just a way of making you notice what is around you.

One caveat. I personally think that if your life is going fine then you shouldn’t tinker with it and there’s no need to dabble in anything, Mindfulness included. Acting naturally strikes me as being the best possible psychological state to be in and Mindfulness doesn’t come naturally to most of us, at least at first. This could either be because it is an unnatural activity or because modern life has made us forget how to live properly. Either way I think of Mindfulness as I think of medicine; you should take it if you are ill but not bother if your life is fine as it is. If your life is a bit of a mess then by all means give Mindfulness a go, otherwise carry on as you were.

So if you are one of those annoying people who has a wonderful spouse and two beautiful children and a fulfilling job and on top of that you practise Mindfulness to make yourself even more serene, then that is probably overkill. Serenity then perhaps becomes smugness.

Drifting away into your own thoughts and getting distracted by whatever comes along comes naturally and easily, but then again so do lying and picking your nose. Mindfulness requires some self-control and self-discipline and if you aren’t keen on these, then you probably won’t like it. After all, it is much easier to watch a film, listen to music, read a novel or daydream than to keep reining in your thoughts to concentrate on what is often a slightly boring present reality. Why would you want to do that?

Yet not to do so is to become like a leaf blown here and there. And maybe having some control over your mind feels better than always ‘going with the flow’ and being at the mercy of your moods and impulses. Just as there is an austere satisfaction in giving up smoking and making yourself eat salad, so taming your ‘monkey mind’ can also bring a sense of having done something worthwhile.

So if you prefer the company of well-behaved children to brattish kids or well-trained border collies to barking, hyperactive mutts; and if you prefer thoughtful people to those who blurt out the first thing that comes into their heads; and if you prefer calm people to fidgety, restless people then, my son, you will probably see why forcing a bit of discipline on yourself might not be a bad thing.

In a nutshell, planning ahead may indeed be a useful mental tool and is probably the reason why humans managed to rise above the other animals. Even so, just because you have a useful tool doesn’t mean you should use it every minute of the day.


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