On Being Present

It occurred to me early this morning (I can only assume this happened because we watched Kung Fu Panda last night and Master Oogway’s words had an impact) that being present is difficult because the present is a tiny moment in time compared to the past or the future. I have been meditating somewhat consistently for 18 months or so now and the basic difficulty of staying present on the breath has certainly shown me this but it has never been made concrete in my rational mind.

Meditation, especially breath meditation where you focus attention on the breath, is designed to move focus to the present moment where air flows into your body through the nose and out again in the same manner. It is one of those things in life that sounds incredibly easy but is actually impossibly hard, at least in my experience. My tendency is to make it to about breath number two before something intrudes on my focus whether it’s a bad choice from the past, an anxious need from the future or an item on the always present TODO list that lurks like some evil spirit in the shadows of my mind.

One of the reasons this is so hard even in good circumstances is that the Past is a vast treasure trove of fears and delights, times when things went well and poorly, events that seem much more interesting to think about than the ennui of breath in, breath out. The Future is an equally vast cornucopia of possibilities, many of them terrible if the average social media timeline is to be believed, possibilities that spring to mind easily and often to interrupt the focus of the present moment. Add to this the anxiety and cognitive load of the TODO list which I am prone to and the result is a situation where being truly present can seem impossible. The human mind seems especially talented at focusing on the past (depression) or the future (anxiety). The present in contrast is a pinhead of space where this moment you are present in is so fleeting as to be imaginary, gone before it can even be recognized.

Yet the present is the key to practically everything. It is the way to happiness, to progress, and to health. When I watch Wobbles closely, her joie de vivre comes from her total immersion in the present. All children are like this. They run and leap and laugh and cry based on this moment. I believe much of the anxiety of the youth (and perhaps the world) of today can be tied directly to social media usage which is designed to turn our attention to either the past through reminders of what our life used to be five minutes or five years ago or to the future when hopefully we will be having a great dinner in Italy like our friends Karen and Bob and their two perfect children. Unless carefully managed, social media removes us from the present and places us into some other period over which we have almost no control.

The present on the other hand is within our control. What we choose to do with now is where all beauty and happiness lies. It is a great paradox that so many people obsess about the past as one long list of bad choices but obsess about the future as a time when we can get things right, ignoring the more likely outcome that they will continue to make the same choices then and get the same results. Being present is the way out of that trap.

The Stoics were masters at the present, putting forth a philosophy designed to recognize this situation that teaches us not to revel or dwell on our past or worry about the future because they are out of our control. Instead, we must focus only on what we can do in the current moment which results in peace of mind. It is also interesting to me, though probably the topic of another essay, that creation and experience and appreciation of art happens in the present moment. Writing, music, drawing, painting, it’s all done here and now. In fact, the book Drawing On The Right Side of the Brain is a book that specifically teaches you how to leave the judgmental and controlling left side of the brain and fall into the flow of the present that the right side of the brain is so in tune with.

Another interesting way to look at this is that the past and the future don’t actually exist, only the present moment as Master Oogway noted. The past is gone, a litany of present moments spent and cast aside. The future is unstable, a stream of present moments affected by randomness and contingency that we have less control over than we imagine. The only way to achieve a different past or future is to do things differently in the present. Whether that’s saving money or losing weight or learning Spanish, the way to achieve anything is by doing something in the present moment other than dreaming about the future or wallowing in the past. These present moments then compound over time to produce a savings account of memory and learning that redefine our past and change the opportunities for our future. The present is the only way to true happiness.

On Not Being A Bug

Levquist went on, ‘I am close to death. That is no scandal, old age is a well-known phenomenon. But now the difference is that everyone is close to death.’
Gerard said, ‘Yes.’ He thought, it consoles him to think so.
‘All thought which is not pessimistic is now false.’
‘But you would say it has always been?’
‘Yes. Only now it is forced upon all thinking people, it is the only possible conception. Courage, endurance, truthfulness, these are the virtues. And to recognise that of all things we are the most miserable that creep between the earth and the sky.’

From The Book and The Brotherhood Iris Murdoch

Family movie night was A Bug’s Life recently which is only the second time we’ve watched that particular film (unlike Cars or Mary Poppins which are on continual repeat). At the end of the film, we played a fun four year old game which is “what bug would you be if you were a bug?” The womenfolk picked ladybugs and I said I’d be a native Texas honeybee. The next day, at the soccer field while we rested in the shade and watched ants on the ground, Wobbles said “We aren’t really bugs, are we Papa?” “No, of course not.” The question, a reasonably standard one as four year old questions go, struck a chord with me as I have been thinking about this experience of living in a pandemic, meditating on Levquist’s comment regarding how death and its proximity is forced on all people.

It is true that death has always been close. Only in modern times have we been somewhat isolated from death with our wars in far off places not even shown on TV and modern medicine keeping us alive (but not particularly healthy) for what seems like forever. Modernity, with its veil of isolation, from death, from philosophy, from connection, has made it difficult to deal with a situation where it seems to lurk round every corner, on every apple at the grocery store, in every visit to the veterinarian. We are ill-equipped to deal with this situation because our lives are built around newness and change and distance from the day to day truth of a life cycle we very much a part of. Modernity has conditioned us to function only within change, a new job, a new phone, always searching and needing new stimulation. All that is solid melts into air as Marx and later Berman put it.

But now, in the midst of a pandemic, death and finality have come to the fore. As it turns out, our sheltered modern life with its constant change does not protect us from the realization that we are in fact bugs as far as Mother Nature is concerned. Our life feels just as capricious as the ant for whom death lurks near. This is terrifying and unsettling. However it doesn’t stop the ant. He and his community continue on being ants, building, gathering food, operating as if tomorrow is guaranteed but also operating as if it isn’t, that the natural cycle of things involves both life and death. If Bob the Ant ventures forth for food but doesn’t come back because a four year old girl happened to bounce her soccer ball by at an inopportune moment, the contingency of the event (or life) does not seize the community

I have found myself recently talking about how I long to go to a coffee shop to work and how in 9-12 months, life will be back to normal once the wonder and genius of mankind has found a vaccine. In some sense, this is likely true. People who say that they aren’t sure we’ll ever have a vaccine or be able to conquer it forget that mankind has been infected by diseases throughout history. Science has always found a way through. We will find a vaccine or a treatment or just achieve some significant level of herd immunity. Life will resume. Life will be normal. But our consciousness of life may be altered. The illusion of difference from the bugs, that we in some way are qualitatively different when it comes to the contingency of Nature will be squashed. While life will return to “normal”, it is a mistake to long for that day because in the interim, thousands more people will have died, thousands more will have been infected and possibly suffer from as yet unknown morbidity effects. Longing for that day assumes one even makes it to that distant promised paradise.

Instead, perhaps the Bob the Ant and Marcus Aurelius are better guides. Aurelius, the famous Stoic emperor of Rome, said “When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.” Modernity teaches us that if we don’t like how something is going, we can change it. The Stoics teach us that in actuality there is little we can change other than our mind and our reactions to our situations. True happiness comes from this, that each day is precious and that our appreciation of it is key to our being.

The way we are truly different from the bugs is not because we can somehow pretend that death is not near. It is in our minds’ ability to comprehend this and still find power and meaning in the beauty of the day, to choose not to suffer from that anxiety of the unknown. The ant suffers no anxiety (as far as I know, never having been an ant.) We suffer anxiety because we pretend to live our lives in some non-guaranteed future day when things are rosy and the contingencies of life have been solved. That future is an illusion. The anxiety that stems from it is a curse that can be treated by focusing on the day we have been given. Is that easy? No of course not. Our entire media structure (one that we choose to participate in) is built around panic and rage and catastrophe. But today is the key to happiness. Flowers in the garden. Heat of the sun on our face. When we choose to wish for some future, we lose both because today is wasted wishing and the future will not happen as we wished anyway. Aurelius also said “Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”

I couldn’t explain to Wobbles that we are neither ants nor non-ants, that while it seems that our lives are different, more meaningful, the contingency of Nature applies equally to us as it does to them. We are not squashed by random acts of soccer violence but we do catch a disease from a trip to the grocery store that might kill us or fail to wake up because our hearts stopped in the night. A child’s mind lacks depth to understand this. But a child’s mind has something greater, the ability to live for only today. We played soccer (and hopefully killed no ants), we ran to the fence, she beat me there occasionally, she laughed her infectious laugh when she did, all during a pandemic that continues to rage across the globe. That anxiety I feel about longing for a distant future where I can work in a coffee shop will not be remembered in 10 years but, God willing, the moments of watching my child enjoy the experience of today will remain. Levquist and his pessimistic, Schopenhauer-like outlook were wrong. Learn to appreciate the moment of today and the pessimism turns towards optimism. It will always be a struggle but it will always be worthwhile.

On Action

We cannot spend the day in explanation.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle is the Way is a book on implementing Stoic philosophy with three main attack vectors: perception, action and will. The book is designed to help with how the reader deals with obstacles in the path first by changing how we perceive them, then how we act against them and finally (I assume, I’m not this far into the book yet) how we stay focused on them until they are dealt with.

The Emerson quote particularly struck home with me. The full context of the quote regards how Emerson must write when the Muse strikes him, regardless of what else is going on in his life. Of course, it is easy to act when the Muse is heavy upon us. The real power in a bias towards action lies in all the days when the Muse is silent or hungover or generally feeling sorry for Herself. Continuing to act on those days is a super power, one that results in a lifetime of results and more importantly, improvement in the craft.

This is something I have come to struggle with a great deal. I THINK about doing things all the time. Projects, todos, phone calls, letters, cleaning tasks, garage organization, websites, they all rotate regularly through my consciousness. Yet, at the end of the day, I’m more like James McMurtry than Emerson when he said “All I want to do now is sell all my stocks and sit on the coast. I don’t believe in Heaven but I still believe in Ghosts.” Ghosts of previous days when I was in shape or when I did build websites or when things got done.

Action is hard. It gets harder when you think about right action or “not having to do it again” action. But in reality, doing things twice is better than not doing them at all as long as you aren’t writing software for the Space Shuttle or doing heart transplants. If you’re learning to write or playing the piano or drawing or learning some new technology, any action is better than mere thought about action. When I read Emerson’s quote, I want to apply it not in an anti-social way regarding rejecting all in times of Muse-y-ness but in an admonition against the constant “thinking about action” trap that I regularly find myself in.

One way to do this is to be present in the moment which unsurprisingly is another tenet of the book. In The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer hammers this point home that no amount of concern or thought can change either the past or much of the future. You only have this moment now and the worry and anxiety of results from the past or potential disasters in the future are wasted time. Focus on this moment, pick something to act upon and do it. My main struggle in this area is just the size of many projects and the fact that if I start now, I may get interrupted or I only have 1 hour so why bother. But 1 hour done regularly can make a world of difference. Building a bias towards action can overcome the long, tedious middle ground of a project or craft when it seems nothing is changing, no progress made.

A focus on the present also removes all fear of failure or internal discussion of ability from the equation. We cannot fail in the moment. Failure is an artifact of the past viewed through the lens of history and hindsight. Remaining here in the moment removes failure as a consideration. There is only right now, learning another chord or writing another paragraph or putting a few more strokes on a painting. Thinking about anything else immediately introduces failure as an option. Focusing on that failure puts the obstacle right back in your way.

In The World Outside Your Head, Matthew Crawford explains an interesting phenomenon as a motorcyclist. I have encountered something similar on a bike. If you are going along and you notice an object in your path, you must note it and then immediately move your eyes back to the path or road ahead. If you do not do this, invariably, the bike or motorcycle will track directly at the object until you hit it. The obstacle becomes the focus and try as you might, you cannot avoid it. Where we focus our attention is critical not only to our success but also our progress along the path.

Combining presence with action will undoubtedly change the output and result of any task, project or obstacle. I find that it my focus on the final result that hinders my progress. I think of how great it will be to be done or what it will provide. But who can know what the final result of anything might be? The Stoics would tell you that you have little control over the future, that this might be your last breath so use it as if it were. Some people then find this approach fatalistic and it’s important to avoid this. If you have no control over the future, why do anything? This is where I think Stoicism reveals itself less as a philosophy and more as a structure for self control. The Stoics say little about morality or values as guidance for what to do. You must augment Stoicism with a set of values that you develop separately. Your values tell you why and what to do, Stoicism tells you how.

If we can combine our values with the Stoic principles of presence and action, we can live a fulfilled life. We will be both less concerned with final results and more able to achieve them successfully.