Posted On 27 Mar 2012
How much do you think about the future?
The answer reveals a lot about the quality of your life. In fact, there may be no better question to ask when examining yourself.
The more you think about it, the poorer the quality of your life.
Now that’s interesting!
From an epistemological point of view, the future is wholly unknown and unknowable. It may or may not have any resemblance whatsoever to the past.
As Hume pointed out, that we usually take it to have a lot of resemblance to the past is really just a fact about our psychology rather than having anything to do with what’s really ahead.
The future does not yet exist. It isn’t real. So thinking about it is nothing but imagining.
Furthermore, we never experience the future! It is always still out there in front of us. As far as experience goes, it is always now; it is always the present moment.
This is why living well always and only occurs in the present moment. It is impossible today to live well tomorrow – and that very thought is incoherent.
Why, then, are we tempted so frequently to imagine tomorrow?
That’s an important question.
The answer is that we identify with our own stories, which are always unsatisfactory or dysfunctional.
Our stories are our autobiographies, the narratives we tell ourselves in an effort to make some sense of our experiences.
Autobiographies are works of fiction. They appear to be about a separate continuant self that has a sequence of experiences.
Yes, usually the experiences did occur. It’s just, as the Buddha seems to have been the first to point out, that there’s no separate self that has them! That’s why autobiographies are nothing but fictional narratives.
Whether you agree with that or not, notice that autobiographical narratives are always unsatisfactory. There’s always something missing.
Of course, if you just fell in love or won the lottery or purchased a new home or finally got that promotion that you’ve been wanting for years, you may feel, today, on top of the world. You may even feel that nothing is missing.
I hope that, at least occasionally, everyone has the experience of everything’s seeming to fall into place. Wonderful!
If you are an adult, you also understand from experience that, even when it seems that nothing is missing, that feeling never persists. So, if you feel like that today, just wait. Notice how dramatically that changes in the next month or year.
Even if you ever managed to get everything exactly how you wanted it, that arrangement couldn’t last. Why? It’s an arrangement in Becoming, which means that it’s temporary. Becoming is characterized by incessant flux.
So life forces us back to the usual fall-back position: my life may not be without problems today, but it may be without problems tomorrow. My story may have a happy ending. All my problems could satisfactorily be solved tomorrow.
We imagine a better time to come when we shall, finally, be living well.
That explains why we think so much about the future. We keep hoping that life will get better. We imagine lots of specific ways in which it could improve.
This fall-back position is very dangerous: If I am thinking about tomorrow today, those thoughts separate me from whatever I’m experiencing today. The more I have those thoughts, the more separated I am from the present moment. The more separated I am from the present moment, the more I suffer. Separation is the root of suffering.
Life doesn’t have to be that way.
Who controls what I think about? I do!
Who controls whether or not I think? I do!
The fewer thoughts I have about tomorrow, the less separated I am from whatever I’m experiencing today. The less separated I am from whatever I’m experiencing today, the less I suffer.
The fewer thoughts I have, the less separated I am from whatever I’m experiencing today. The less separated I am from whatever I’m experiencing today, the less I suffer.
(As always, it’s important to distinguish suffering from pain. Pain is an inevitable part of life, whereas suffering isn’t. Pain is not optional, but suffering is optional.)
The best way to live well tomorrow is to live well today.
The only way to live well today is to eliminate separation, which eliminates suffering.
Thinking always involves separation. The nature of thinking or conceptualizing is separating (discriminating, sorting, classifying).
Thinking well is valuable. There’s no better way to solve problems. Most thinking, though, is unnecessary; perhaps 90% of it is useless, mere repetition.
Yes, of course, think when it is necessary.
Admit, though, that most of the time it isn’t. When thinking is useless, cut it off. Stop it. Be fully conscious (alert, aware) without thinking most of the time.
That’s how sages live.
They simply do not spend much time thinking about the future – or anything else!
Their quality of life is much higher than ours because they waste a lot less of it thinking.
This is why there’s nothing to gain to live well. We don’t need anything more. We already have everything required.
Rather, living better comes from letting go of obstructions to living better. The chief obstruction is misuse of our ability to think.
To live better, think a lot less.
Thinking a lot less includes thinking a lot less about the future.
Once you admit that, like Godot, it never arrives, you can waste a lot less time and effort thinking about the future, which is what doesn’t, and never will, exist.
Improving the quality of life is largely about letting go.
Don’t you already have a sense that this is correct? Remember those intense, wonderful times when you were deeply experiencing something without, at least for a few moments, thinking at all? That’s a taste of how sages live.
Living that way is a tantalizing possibility, isn’t it?
The only obstruction between how you are living now and your living as a sage is a lot of unnecessary thoughts. Why not drop them, right now, and find out for yourself?
Additional resources: the works of Eckhart Tolle