"The present of the present" is a phrase often encountered by readers of Westernized Buddhist teaching. It refers to the quite amazing fact that, if one is able to focus only on the present moment, virtually all problems disappear (temporarily). Unless you are in intense pain, immersing oneself only in what is happening right now will eliminate mental distress the vast majority of the time. That's why meditation is so soothing, and if practiced consistently generally quite effective. Essentially all anxiety and depression is related to some kind of fear of the future, based on experiences of the past.
This week I'm readoing Steve Jobs, the fascinating biography of Apple's co-founder. His energy, passion, exceptional design ability, and perfectionism are legendary, and the book provides numerous anecdotes illustrating those characteristics, but 1/3 of my way into the book I was particularly struck by the following quote:
"If you want to live your life in a creative way....you have to not look back too much. You have to be willing to take whatever you've done and whoever you were and throw them away."
For purposes of today's post, I would add "and be willing to throw away whatever happened to you."
The principle being articulated here is that the past can have a limiting, narrowing effect on the future. Sometimes that can be a very beneficial thing (once you've touched a hot stove you know not to do it again), but I believe that our culture places too much importance on planning and strategizing based on past learning, as opposed to remaining open to new ways of looking at things, and the attendant possibilities. After all, to the degree that your mind is planning based on the past it is reducing the possibility of a changed future. Indeed that's a good part of the reasons why minds do plan - to retain a sense of control, and to minimize the chances of unwanted developments. This tendency traces back to the evolutionary bias that gave "bonus points" to hypervigilance: those who learned, based on past experience, to be extra alert to signs of danger tended to survive longer and create more offspring.
Yet learning and planning based on the past also carries with it an inherent narrowing of possibility. Let me cite two clinical example from my work with clients over the past week (using pseudonyms, of course):
Paula has held a number of positions over the course of her career, which has been checkered (in a good way). She now has a high paying job with a prominent not-for-profit environmental organization. The organization has been under severe financial pressure and, as a result, she has not gotten the long-promised salary increase despite her continuing to do exceptional work. She began this week's session with "Here I am again, working for people who don't appreciate my contrbutions. Why do I continue to fall into this pattern? We need to talk about finding me a new job." As we talked she revealed how she'd had a meeting with the CEO just the day before in which he went out of his way to praise her to a large group of senior executives. Yet it was not as prominent a fact in her mind as it should have been because she was viewing her situation through the lens of "Here I am again". She was downplaying the possibility that the CEO's high opinion of her might work to remedy the salary situation.
Justin, a successful executive in the energy sector, is concerned about the future prospects for his company, given the uncertainties surrounding government funding of clean energy. He has been trying to figure out a strategy to get him and his family into a more secure situation, and was weighing the pros and cons of considering relocating - but each of the three cities on his list seemed to have some drawbacks. I made the suggestion that he plan to visit each of them for a week with his wife and daughter and "feel them out" - in essence experiencing them in the present rather than planning them through an intellectual prism. Of course he would have eventually spent time visiting whatever cities he was seriously contemplating, but doing so earlier rather than later, and placing less emphasis on planning and more on experiencing, would result in a better, less agonizing decision process.
Every day I work to get people to minimize or eliminate preconceived ideas, and to look at situations (whether related to career or to relationships) with as fresh and unbiased a perspective as possible. There's always the possibility of reining in an idea that seems to radical, but in order to "push the envelope," pay less attention to what's been and more to what is.