How the Future Destroys the Present, and How to Stop It

I have been through some terrible things in my life, some which actually happened. -Mark Twain

Happiness is often too much about the future. At work on Friday I’m happy because I’m looking forward to the weekend and time with my wife and kids. Strangely, at home on Sunday, when I’m actually with my wife and kids, I’m moody and down because I’m anticipating Monday. Hmmm? That’s insane. But it’s a good lesson in how the future can taint the present. Our over-active mind does us a great disservice by endlessly anticipating horrors that will never occur or craving pleasures that we cannot have. But we can train the beast.

Like Mark Twain said, we spend a lot of time being anxious over terrible things that never happen. In reverse, we over-anticipate good things to the point where the actual event–the vacation, the party, the birthday present–are a let down. I know people who plan their next vacation while on vacation, fearing they’ll return home with nothing to anticipate. Is there time to enjoy the vacation?  But I know the feeling. Sometimes on the best days and moments in my life, my stomach twists up at the thought of it ending. Any really great moment can be clouded with the thought of it ending: When my wife cooks a really good meal, my first reaction is to say, “Hey, we should have this every week.” My kids and I play a fun game, and they immediately want to do it again.

This is clinging and craving. It is easy to see Buddha’s first noble truth (the truth of suffering) in this context. When we are in pain, we want it to end. We don’t want to suffer. Duh, who does? Pleasure can be a little harder to discern, but it’s there. We suffer with pleasure when we fail to enjoy it and, instead, let the moment be clouded with fear, fear that it will end, and desire for it to continue.

Pleasure can almost be painful when overtaken by fear and desire.

So is it possible to experience a moment of pure pleasure?

One common way to handle pleasure is to renounce it. If you can’t have a beer without craving another, you give up drinking. Why do monks and priests give up sex?  I know there is a lot of talk about living only for God, but I think there’s something in it about giving up a certain earthly pleasure. Give up sex, booze, rock’n’roll, vacations, long walks, tickle fights, cuddling, warm baths…where does it end?

How can you just enjoy a moment?

In my own experience, the first step is awareness. Be aware that the craving or clinging is happening; be aware that it is tainting the moment. For years I wondered why I hated Sundays so much. I could have asked Morrissey, whose well known anthem, “Everyday is Like Sunday” (every day is silent and gray) says it all.  So my strategy for handling the Sunday blues has always been to stack more pleasure into the day: bloody mary’s and naps and bike rides–anything to keep the mood up. But then I’m on the pleasure side, wanting it to continue, sad that it’s going to end.

With awareness, I can at least see this all happening. With a short meditation, I can watch the ebb and flow of feeling, craving, aversion, and desire. I want this to happen. I don’t want this. I want this to go away. I want this to stay. By being aware of it, half the battle is won. The mood is not controlling me.

Over time, this awareness has caused several changes. When I’m really enjoying myself, I can catch myself in the act of clinging to the moment or fearing its end. By catching the sensation as it rises, I can let it go faster. I can hold my tongue before I say something stupid like, “I wish we could stay here forever”, and remind myself I’m here right, right now.  There is no forever.

The awareness is the key. But it’s hard.

Second, and more important, is cultivating a sense of enjoyment, or contentment, in every moment. This is the focus of many of Thich Nhat Hanh’s wonderful books, which always focus on being in the perfect, present moment.  If I’m content right now, at work with a cup of coffee and a challenging task in front of me, then I won’t crave the future.  Each moment of our life is a lesson in cultivating contentment. Even in turmoil, when my students are crazy or my kids are acting wild, I can cultivate a space of contentment that keeps me present.

The moment has to be worth living in, otherwise you’ll always look ahead or behind. So make sure every moment is worth living in, even if it’s not perfect.

Every moment of your life is worth living, sometimes you just need to be reminded. If the moment is so bad that you cannot be even mildly content, then you have to make some changes, to yourself or the situation.  Most often, I’ve learned, it’s changes to the self that matter the most.

“There are indeed (who might say Nay) gloomy & hypochondriac minds, inhabitants of diseased bodies, disgusted with the present, & despairing of the future; always counting that the worst will happen, because it may happen.  To these I say How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened!” -Thomas Jefferson

In moments of happiness, be aware when craving and clinging push you off into the unknown future.  In moments of struggle, find a space of contentment.

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2 Comments

  1. Hi there,

    I recently found your website and I just wanted to say that I am so happy to read what you have to say. I read Eckhart Tolle’s books within the last year and have found myself on a bit of a journey- I am happy it took me to your writing.

    Thank you,

    Sam

    Like

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