Time is Never Time at All
Why we should ignore Robert Burns and heed Dwight Eisenhower
On my yoga mat recently I had the following thought: if we knew how few practices we had left, we might be more willing to risk falling to try something new. Another way of saying that would be, “If not now, when?” In my experience, the most damaging framework we can adopt is that of waiting for life to begin. This is something I have struggled with my entire life. It’s painful to admit that I spent too much of my life waiting for it to start, usually at some indeterminate date at some point in the future when it would hopefully be a lot more awesome. I am very embarrassed about this, because I’d rather be a whole lot more present in my day-to-day life. This, unfortunately, is the dark side of optimism.
There is a whole world of spiritual wisdom out there suggesting that, because the past is unchangeable and the future is unpredictable, we should focus substantially all of our energy and attention on the present. And there are many who swear by this temporal orientation. But I think there is a bypassing issue here. Because it’s easier said than done and it’s very difficult to do, at least until it isn’t.
Spiritual bypassing tends to be thought of more in the context of the amorphous concepts of toxic positivity and avoidance of the necessary discomfort required for personal and community growth. But there is also a lazy intellectual component of spiritual bypassing. The biggest and most common issue I face in accessing the present is how the advice of temporal orientation in the present moment fails to integrate itself into a more comprehensive theory on how to live.
(Abstracting up a layer, we run into the perennial issue of multiple conflicting frameworks being simultaneously true. CD-baby philosopher-king Derek Sivers, in his recent book How to Live, presents ~27 conflicting but widely accepted as true frameworks for how to live, abiding by F. Scott Fitzgerald's observation that the mark of first-rate intelligence is “the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
In my opinion, there are only two meta-frameworks that enable FSF's intelligence, integration and asynchronicity. As far as ‘living in the now’ is concerned, I think the appropriate reconciliation strategy is the latter, see below).
In the specific case of implementing the wisdom associated with ‘being present,' we run into the very real issue that if we want to be temporally-oriented in the present, we somehow need to figure out the appropriate mechanism and internal-computational weighting for asynchronous processing of future-oriented obligations. It's no easy task, because what we are after here is very the holy grail, and potentially even the secret to happiness? Consider the following subplot from the well-known best-selling spiritual guidebook The Alchemist:
A young man goes off to learn the secret of happiness from the wisest of all men (the 'sage'). Upon arriving at the sage's castle, he approaches the sage to ask him for the secret to happiness. The sage gives him a spoon, full of oil, instructs him not to spill any of it, and sends him off to go appreciate the wondrous castle's beauty for two hours.
So off he goes to appreciate the castle, wanders around a bit, and comes back to the sage. Unfortunately, he didn't appreciate the castle because he was too focused on not spilling the oil. So the sage sends him back out and says to make sure that he appreciates the castle! So off he goes and this time fully appreciates the castle, but upon his return is chastised by the sage for having spilled all the oil in the spoon.
The sage then informs him that the secret to happiness is to appreciate all the beauty of the castle without spilling any of the oil in the spoon.
I understand the parable to be about the requirement that we tune our algorithm for asynchronous processing of our long-term obligations and responsibilities alongside our engagement with the present moment. The interesting question lies in how to practically do this because at a certain point we run into diminishing returns on tautological statements like "the secret to happiness is learning to achieve balance." The last thing the world needs is more useless proselytizing that the secret to happiness is to figure everything out! Because like, obviously.
In my own life, I try to blend a schedule and a to-do list to create spaces for now-orientation. Responsibilities tend to be temporally oriented around future outcomes. (For example, I need to walk my dog because if I do not, she will take a shit on the floor in the future; this is quite contra to my happiness). Every time I walk my dog (or ensure my dog is walked by some third-party), I create a 4-6 hour window during which I am able to relax and focus on the present. The key in my life seems to be using schedules and lists to create windows of time in which to be laser-focused on the present. However, to do this well, we need to spend a considerable amount of time doing the opposite of being in the present moment. We have to plan.
So the revised question, the one that we *actually* need to answer, is not whether or not we should be in the present moment (because perhaps we *should* always be in the present moment, but in reality we *can't* always be in the present moment). It's this: Assuming we default to being present during specific activities, how much time should we spend planning and what is the right level of time-granularity at which we should plan? In essence, we actually need to plan to plan, to ensure we have space to be present in the future! WTF!
This is why life is so fucking difficult! The answer is never simple, it is always some complex recursive statement that requires either resolution of or acknowledgment of paradox. To add to our time-dilation angst, we can't also help but notice the inevitability of plans going awry, which often screws up the entire concept of creating space to be present, because then plans must be revised. Here’s poet Robert Burns on what rodents and homo sapiens have in common with one another: The best laid schemes o' mice an' men, gang aft a-gley. Translation: plans go wrong constantly. Hopscotching back from poetry to prose, here's what consummate planner and time-management guru Dwight Eisenhower has to say about planning: "In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable."
So to summarize my experience, the way I have learned to be present and in the NOW, has been to first do the opposite of being present, i.e. planning for the future, knowing full well that events are unlikely to go according to plan. Then, using the slices and windows of time created by planned activities and fulfilled obligations, being fully present and engaged in whatever activity I happen to be doing. All of this is somehow necessary? Counterintuitively, in addition, I find I am able to be substantially more present and awake on my yoga mat by taking occasional breaks from the present, traveling backwards in time to recall the memory of countless events not going according to plan, which then reminds me, somehow, of the inevitability of my own death, its impending and uncertain nature, and the temporary-ness of all things, which slingshots me back into the present more deeply, so that I am willing to take more chances, risk falling, try new things, and transform my practice. Because when I really think about how few practices I may have left, when I think about and admire all of the unseen asteroids headed in my direction, I am able to accept the very challenging and inspiring logic of “If not now, when?”
Postscript on my own planning/presence balance:
Everyone will land somewhere different, but after a lot of trial and error, I’ve landed on 30-90 minutes per day of planning, with about 50% of that time spent on planning for the following day and 50% spent planning on a multi-year time horizon. The standard deviation in minutes is quite high depending on the uncertainty of inputs I’m dealing with at the time.