– by Michael Maciel
The problem with being a future-oriented society is that when the future disappears, everything falls apart. Our horizons have been too broad and too far-flung. It’s time to bring them closer to home. Because when we use the future (which is always fictitious) to anchor our reality, we lose direction—it is suddenly obliterated, not just by changing into something different but by being replaced altogether by uncertainty. And that can be unsettling if not downright disturbing.
Now is the time to practice mindfulness, but in a way that’s a little different from the way we might practice it in meditation. By bringing our horizons closer in, so that our future is no more than a day or two out, we can focus on what needs to be done right now.
We all have a certain amount of chaos in our lives, but we manage to put off organizing it by constantly focusing on the future. We have goals, and they are usually long-term. Now those goals have…disappeared. And we don’t know how to live without them.
Ever notice how young parents can be too distracted to be in the present moment with their kids? It’s because they have goals. Big goals. Important goals. And the overzealous pursuit of those goals can rob them of the most precious years of their life.
Now we’re in a time where there are no goals. Goals have been preempted by a huge cloud of uncertainty. For many of us, the farthest out we can see is fourteen days, the recommended period of quarantine. After that, who knows? Maybe another fourteen?
Being overly future-oriented has its dubious payoffs. It allows us to falsely prioritize. Instead of tending to the things right under our nose, we put them off, because there are much more important things to attend to. Even if we’re not actually doing anything concrete to realize our goals, we justify putting off the small stuff by believing that if we don’t stay focused on the future, it will drift away, as though thinking about it holds it in place. Thoughts without action is a form of magical thinking.
Having goals isn’t the problem. Having goals that are beyond our immediate horizon is. We need to bring our horizons in. Way in. What am I going to do today? What has to be done by tomorrow? That’s it. That’s as far as our concerns should extend right now. Why? Because no one knows what lies beyond that. But we do know what needs attention right now.
Our lives are a continual balancing act between the known and the unknown. We plan ahead as a way of projecting certainty into our world, so that we can feel confident that our actions will produce predictable results.
Our actions, then, become our prayers. We tailor them to produce the world we want to live in.
There is a Zen saying: “The way you do anything is the way you do everything.” Just as having a well-defined long-term goal can positively affect the way we take care of the little things, so can the way we take care of the little things positively affect how our future will turn out. There are two reasons for this. One is practical and understandable. The other is profoundly esoteric. Let’s take the first one:
As we attend to problems as they arise, we prevent them from accumulating beyond our ability to control. If we fail to attend to them now, they will overwhelm us in the future. Procrastination sets in. We worry—a lot. We get depressed, and our ability to respond to the exigencies of our life deteriorates. If we ignore our problems long enough, they will sink us, sometimes catastrophically.
We face problems everyday. There are enough of them, big and small, to completely occupy our attention. Unless, of course, we’re too busy thinking about the problems that might occur in the future. Those problems are fictitious. They haven’t happened yet. They might not ever happen. But we spend more time worrying about those than we do about the real ones lying at our feet.
When Jesus told his followers not to worry about tomorrow, he wasn’t telling them how to be hippies. He wasn’t telling them not to plan for the future. He said, “Sufficient unto the day are the evils thereof.” He was telling them that if they attended to everyday problems as they arose, the future would be a far better place to live in when it arrived. But if they did not attend to the everyday problems as they arose, the future would likely be a living hell.
Now for the esoteric part of this: We are not born a blank slate, but…we live into one. There is no fate. The future is not written in stone or, as Lawrence of Arabia said, “Nothing is written.” We write our futures as we live. Our actions are our prayers. If we organize our lives now, the order we create will extend into the future and the future will take care of itself.
How do we implement this? Since most of us are in isolation now, due to the public health crisis, we have the time and the stage upon which to conduct our experiment. Our home is like a miniature solar system. It is in constant flux, and as conditions change, so do its needs. All we have to do is ask ourselves, “What needs to be done today?”
Our home will tell us, if we listen. Maybe the refrigerator needs to be emptied and cleaned. Maybe we need to order food from Amazon. Maybe we need to call a family member or friend. Whatever it is, it is a bit of chaos that needs to be put in order. Chaotic conditions—unattended problems—make us vulnerable.
Sufficient unto the day are the problems thereof. Don’t allow yourself to get obsessed with speculations about the future as a way to avoid what needs to be done now.
By bringing our horizons in and living consciously in the present moment, we live in a state of continual preparedness. When conditions change suddenly and unpredictably, we will be as ready as we can be, which is better than feeling crushed by regrets.
And, most importantly, when we order our present, we simultaneously order our future. The developer of the Alexander Method, F. Matthias Alexander, said, “People do not decide their futures; they decide their habits, and their habits decide their futures.” Get in the habit of attending to real needs as they present themselves. Bring your horizons in. Way in.