Do you spend much of life leaning, being temporally off balance?
That’s always been my foolish tendency, and I suspect that most people share it.
The future cuts both ways.
This is an important reason why we are stressed. Stress occurs when two forces are pulling in opposite directions. Even as we are leaning into it, we both desire and fear the future.
Because we are dissatisfied in the present moment, we look forward to not being dissatisfied in the future. We have a tendency to think that our lives may improve over time. We imagine future fulfillment.
For example, we may hope for a grand encounter, a wonderful long term relationship with a new lover. We may hope to win the lottery and end our money problems. We may hope to become healthier by losing weight and reducing insulin resistance. We may hope that our children will overcome their obstacles and begin living more satisfactorily. And so on.
We have a tendency to hope that our present problems will be solved in the future. So we may look forward to improved lives. We want that to happen.
On the other hand, all we really know about the future is that it will mean the end of us. Death is inescapable. Even worse, we have no idea when it may occur!
Even if death is still a long ways off, we may become seriously ill. We may lose even what is giving us satisfaction today. Certainly, we shall grow older – and probably fatter and more wrinkled as well.
We are, therefore, quite stressed. We are both anticipating and fearing what will happen tomorrow. We are leaning.
How can we stop leaning?
It helps to remind ourselves that the future never arrives or, rather, that it always arrives only in the guise of the present moment. We never experience the future. We only ever experience the present. It is always now.
Therefore, if fulfillment or salvation is to be found at all, it must be found in the present moment. How could it be found in the future if the future is never experienced?
The future is nothing but a set of thoughts, mere imaginings. Since we control what we think about, we control the future.
Sengcan was the third Zen ancestor in ancient China and the author of the oldest extant Zen document. In it he says: “The wise do not strive after goals; / the foolish put themselves in bonds.” [Rochester Zen Center translation]
I confess that, even though I had it memorized, I used to ignore that stanza. Why?
I always seemed engaged on some self-help project or other to become more successful. For example, I attended school to learn how to become more successful in the future. Talk about leaning!
I was like a perpetual undergraduate who was working hard to make the future better for myself and others.
A noble flaw? A grave mistake?
I’m not denying that it is possible to follow directions and to become successful in different areas of life. It certainly is possible, over time, to lose weight and keep it off, to become stronger and fitter, to increase your net worth, to date more people, to become a better parent, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with such activities.
However, isn’t there a lot wrong with leaning into them?
For example, if I am exercising, I may motivate myself to imagine being fitter or stronger tomorrow if I exercise well today. However, it would be far more satisfactory just to be fully engaged in exercising without thinking about it. Just be the exercising. Let go of the thinking about it. Why?
Here are two ways to think of it.
First, to think about something is to be separated. If I am imagining tomorrow’s better body while I am exercising today, then there’s a separation between mind and body. What I’m focusing on is not what I am doing.
That’s very important to notice for a simple reason: separation is always the source of dissatisfaction. When my thoughts are split from my activities, I’m dissatisfied because of that very separation.
If you disagree, try to recall any episode when you were dissatisfied when there wasn’t such a split. Then recall some episode when you were thoroughly satisfied – and notice the absence of separation.
Second, thoughts are noise, static, interference. Therefore, it’s not surprising to realize that the more I think, the more noisy my life is. Instead of being peaceful, calm, and refreshing, it becomes unpleasant and even frantic!
It does not follow that all thinking is bad. Thinking is an excellent way to solve problems.
Roshi Kapleau used to distinguish between thinking and “thoughting.” “Thoughting” was useless, repetitive, compulsive thinking—and that kind of thinking is precisely what is occurring whenever we find ourselves leaning into the future. The ideal is to use thinking whenever it is necessary and beneficial to do so, but to let go of thoughting completely and permanently.
Restoring balance is the cure for being out of balance. Letting go of leaning by focusing fully on the present moment is the cure for leaning.
In theory, this is quite a simple solution, isn’t it?
In practice, though, it is very difficult. To accept the present moment as it is, to allow it to be, to let go of all resistance, is letting go of the egoic mind. It’s to give up having enemies. It’s to identify with Being.
Please find out for yourself. The next time you catch yourself thoughting furiously, just relax into the present moment. What more effective spiritual practice is there?
As always, if you know someone who might benefit from this, please recommend it.
Additional resource: Eckhart Tolle’s “Through the Open Door” (2 CD set).