Siddhārtha Gautama, known as Buddha, said long ago: “Be where you are; otherwise you will miss your life.” Therefore it seems that people have always had a problem with being present, but the amount of stimuli and social pressure these days have escalated this problem over the moon.
Our modern life is as comfortable as ever, but it comes at a price. In order to communicate and develop, we established a set of rules, created various systems, organized ourselves into societies, and so on. In other words, at some point in our evolution, we stopped directing our lives by simply trusting our instincts but defined existence and created a system of symbols to represent reality. It unlocked our potential to create life as we know it today, but it also greatly complicated our existence.
Therefore, our children need to sit and listen in the school classroom from a very young age and study for approximately 15 years to understand all the basic rules and finally join our society. And this is the reason why most of them are unable to live in the present because they have been fooled since childhood that life is going somewhere.
The thing is that we aren’t honest with children — new human beings, but force them to get involved in our mess. This new being must sit and listen and focus on finding some social role as quickly as possible because time is running out. There is no room for fundamental questions like: “Who we are” or “What is this all about?” No, it’s irrelevant. And while it’s a great way to prevent anarchy it’s also the reason why we have so many mental health issues these days — as WHO informs there are roughly 970 million people around the world living with mental disorders.
During the education stage, the poor human being learns about everything and everyone, but not a single thing about oneself. And then, when the process of education is done there is no space to question anything because life rushes at a tremendous pace and is harsh for young adults even in well-developed countries — Millennials are the unluckiest generation in a while.
The way of upbringing, all the complications, and the pace of modern life make an individual run in life constantly thinking of the future. There is simply no way to slow down these days unless we live an old-school lifestyle in a small village or even a forest. But it’s nearly impossible to withdraw from the systemic way of living. While building a small but cozy and most importantly peaceful house somewhere in the forest may seem tempting, it costs a hell of a lot. Thus, it’s impossible unless we first get involved in the systemic mess and get our hands dirty for 20 years or so.
Furthermore, this wanting to build a cozy house in the forest and withdraw or to do anything else, like create a family, is a desire that keeps us stuck in the future, thinking: “Some day I will fulfill it.” And this is the actual root of the inability to live in the present or be happy — it’s a trick we play on ourselves to go on a do all these things we do. There is nothing more human than developing a problem and then working hard to solve it.
But, no man — nor king nor emperor, has ever fulfilled his desires because there is no end to human desires. When we fulfill one desire, another one appears immediately. And this creates an experience of constant suffering on a way to fulfilling desires with short breaks for happiness after we fulfill them — not the best way to live. Also, it makes us completely detached from the present moment — from reality. And in this way, we completely waste our time planning anything, as Alan Watts once said:
“Tomorrow and plans for tomorrow can have no significance at all unless you are in full contact with the reality of the present, since it is in the present and only in the present that you live. There is no other reality than present reality, so that, even if one were to live for endless ages, to live for the future would be to miss the point everlastingly.”
Therefore, there is absolutely no point in making plans for the future until we are able to ground ourselves in the present moment and actually live. And don’t get me wrong — it’s good, even reasonable, to set some direction for life. But the problem with the future is that it will never arrive. No matter how hard we try, we just can’t escape the here and now — the present moment where reality is. Just think of the last time you heard anything from the past or future — did it ever happen? No, because it’s impossible.
Someone might say: “But hey, we can look at pictures from the past, listen to recordings from the past, and recall memories from the past!” Well, yes, but we do it all in the here and now and our memory is the present activity of our brain. And the future is just an idea of what could happen, based on the information we’ve accumulated up to that point in life. But no matter what happens, we’re ultimately stuck in the present moment.
It's relatively hard to understand because we've been trained from early childhood to focus on the effect, not the process, the cause, or just being. In school days it was all about grades - the effect, not the process or our attitude to education. And so it is in adult life - everything revolves around effect, having results, social role, material goods, and so on.
In this way, we are never present, but always focused on the future effect, which eventually lasts only a moment and so we quickly shift our attention to the next and the next. And this is completely opposite to how life happens, as one guru, Sadhguru, once tried to explain:
“The way life happens is first being, then doing, and then having. But right now, people always think first of having.”
It resonates with the Buddha’s words in my first line — when we focus on having and doing, we will miss our lives. Therefore we can make some plans for the future, but we should only consider them as a general direction, intention, or reminder of what we should be doing in the present. But our attention should be focused on being, otherwise our plans won’t matter.
Another guru, Osho, once said:
“Be — don’t try to become”
This is golden advice and the solution to the whole dilemma. Want to be a writer? Write. Want to be a runner? Run. Want to be a singer? Sing. Want to be an entrepreneur? Start a business. In other words, don’t kid yourself that one day you will be someone and just be here and now. And then start doing what a writer or runner does to determine the cause of further effects. But focus on being — the present, not on becoming — the future.