Well-being: Ahead of time
How do you strike the balance between planning for the future and living in the now?
Published 13/09/2016 | 02:30
I can't go on holiday without imagining what it would be like to live in whatever country it is that I'm visiting. Instead of sitting in cafés and looking out at the people passing by, I look in estate agent windows and wonder if imminent emigration would be financially feasible.
Instead of being grateful to be abroad, I'm imagining the next trip to the same location - only this time I'll have more money in my pocket and more time on my side.
The neuroticism of this behaviour occurred to me during a recent trip to New York. Instead of marvelling at the architecture of Grand Central Station, I was imagining what it might be like to make it part of my daily commute.
Instead of admiring the Brooklyn brownstones, I was imagining living in one of them. Not before agonising - actually agonising - about the possibility of ending up with flatmates that I didn't like.
It's a very rare person who lives entirely in the present. By and large, we either dwell on the past or anticipate the future and, in my experience, these thought patterns tend to be mutually exclusive.
The personalities of past- and future-based thinkers become more pronounced on holidays. People who live in the past dwell on holidays of yesteryear, when they were younger and thinner and more tanned. They also have a strange compulsion to find out what the weather is like back home.
People who live in the future never really unpack their suitcase. They feel like they should be exploring the sites when they're lounging by the pool, just as they feel like they have failed if they don't tick off every item on their itinerary.
And therein lays the dilemma for the future-thinker. We need itineraries and plans, yes, but we can miss out on the moment when we're too busy trying to tick everything off the never-ending bucket list.
Of course, it's important to always have something to look forward to, but these fantasies should be an occasional retreat rather than a permanent abode.
Albert Camus wrote that "real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present". Yet when we're constantly contemplating the future, we jeopardise the present moment. When you're looking out for the signpost in the distance, you miss out on the views along the way.
It was in New York that I decided to take the scenic route for once. Every time I caught myself thinking 'next time', I reminded myself that this could very well be the only time.
One day I turned off my phone and went walking with the intention of getting lost. I chanced upon an antique jewellery shop and, while perusing the glitter and gold beneath the glass cases, one of the staff pulled open a hidden door and led me into a secret speakeasy bar.
Lesson learned: it helps to have a loose idea of where you are and where you're going, but magical things always happen when you go off-map.
Philosopher Alan Watts wrote extensively on the fallacy of living in the future, noting that even when we climb the ladder, we're still "living in some other future which hasn't yet arrived".
"And so in this way, one is never able actually to inherit and enjoy the fruits of one's actions," he added.
Taking stock is one way to inherit the fruits of your actions. Instead of always looking ahead, take a moment to appreciate where you are now. To appreciate is to mediate, after all.
Patience is equally important. Future-thinkers want everything to be happening right now. This very minute! Yet this doesn't allow for the ebb and flow of life.
Ram Dass, who popularised the 60s countercultural manifesto Be here now, says we should trust that everything happens at its own pace. "Be patient," he writes. "You'll know when it's time for you to wake up and move ahead."
It's also worth remembering that life, invariably, has other plans - and even those with the wildest imaginations could never predict what's in store for them.
When we live in a constant state of expectation and anticipation, we are never really fulfilled, just as we are never really present.
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