New Year Series Part 2: Living in the Present

This is part 2 of my New Year series, a trilogy of posts about 2017.  Alongside minimalism, one of my resolutions for the new year is to live more mindfully. This essay is about the present and being present in it. 

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We are no longer bodies in motion, staying in motion.

We have become bodies in motion that cannot, will not, do not want to stop.

In this productivity-obsessed era, stopping has consequences. On the financial level, taking days off isn’t self-care, it’s losing money. Socially, it’s the anxiety of FOMO–fear of missing out, scrolling through Instagram on the couch, swiping up with bitter, covetous eyes. Mentally, it’s reading and reading and reading because falling behind in school, with tuition fees looming overhead, is not an option.

At our busiest, our fastest, our most productive era in human history, we are living undead.

‘If to enjoy even an enjoyable present we must have the assurance of a happy future, we are “crying for the moon,” Alan Watts writes in The Wisdom of Insecurity. But let’s take a cue from the moon. She shines above, breathing life into our ocean waves, twinkling mischievously before the day inevitably hides her away for a little while. She has a presence unbridled and charming.

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In all our revelations in the digital age, we’ve created a new kind of anxiety. It’s the unsettling feeling of living a life unfulfilled. It’s that “happy future” Watts talks about that’s never guaranteed. Even at this age, I feel that all-consuming angst. So what can we do about this lack of presence?

Live mindfully.

Make your God the one for you.

“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship,” writer David Foster Wallace said to students of Kenyon College in his 2005 commencement speech.

In Canada, the religious tolerance I have experienced is unmatched; it is one of the most inclusive I’ve seen. But to those who do not recognize a religious doctrine, Wallace argues that they recognize a divine being nonetheless:

“If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough…Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”

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Religion aside, there is a secular tyrannical governing presence that is persistent in everyone’s lives. It can be money, smarts, clothes. And admittedly, these are necessary today (we don’t all have a friend with a pond to lend to try out a life off-grid), but their overbearing presence wears away at us unwittingly.

Wallace recognizes that these aren’t inherently insidious; the fact that they are unconscious is. To be more aware of our objects of worship is the first step; the next is to analyze its importance in our lives and to see if there are other priorities worth our care.

Make time for nothing at all.

Maria Popova, whom I consider a modern day treasure hunter for knowledge and culture, runs the blog Brain Pickings. In her article “10 Learnings from 10 Years of Brain Pickings”, number four on the list is particularly relevant: “Build pockets of stillness into your life.”

We will ourselves to move faster, work more, make more; days blur together. A year ago, I vividly remember drawing in the drab light of the December morning gloom, watching Rumours by Fleetwood Mac spin on the turntable. Fast forward a year and I’m in a different house, morning clatter stretching its limbs upstairs with my mom and visiting relatives getting ready for a new day. One thing that remains, though, is that bleak morning grey.

But not all things have to feel like a “fast forward”. Popova, in her retrospective article, says that, “The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations.” Stopping may jumpstart new ideas.

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So be idle. Make time for the mind to breathe. Daydream. Stare at a wall. Put a record on and lie down. Prop a chair next to a window and sit in the sun. But, in my experience, always keep a pen and paper nearby.

Be conscious about where your time goes.

There is idleness, and there is squandering of time. The latter is going to bed at 10 PM and then forcing yourself to fall asleep at 11:30 because your phone dies. It is meme after meme on your Facebook feed, and minute-by-minute passing unwittingly. It is sitting on the toilet for half an hour longer, trying to get to the very end of the front page of Reddit.

These are the ways I squander the finite time I’ve been given. It doesn’t take much introspection to recognize that these don’t contribute to the growth I would like to nurture this coming year.

Contiguous to that anxiety of securing Watts’ “happy future” is the fear of failing to secure it. It’s like that one part in Pink Floyd’s “Time”:

“You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today

And then one day you find ten years have got behind you

No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun”

So consume, but don’t be consumed. Share those memes! Use that dog filter on Snapchat because it’s cute! But assess the activities and tasks that bring value to everyday life and take care of those too. Reclaim every second, every minute, every hour, every day. Don’t let anyone or anything steal them from you. Don’t miss the starting gun.

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