If you want to be happy, live in the moment.
To live a fulfilling life, be in the present.
Sounds great… Only, is it true?
I have always been pursuing happiness, finding meaning in the work I do. I often read, research, and then experiment with what I’ve learnt by living life with the adoption of different mindsets, carefully observing, and recording, my thoughts, habits, and moods in a diary in which I write for future references (when I can eventually read my own handwriting).
And one such popular mindset for a fulfilling and happy life is none other than ‘Live in the moment‘.
‘Live in the moment’, they say it like they’ve attained nirvana and understand how all the tiny and great things in the world works together in harmony. You’ve probably read it in a variation or another:
‘Breathe deeply, don’t worry about the past for it cannot be changed, don’t worry about the future because it has yet to come, breathe, and take a look at the flowers in the garden, no, really take a CLOSE look at the flowers, ahh yes, aren’t the flowers pretty? Oh, breathe again! See how living in the moment is so beautiful!’
Do not be misled by my satire. I am still for living in the moment.
For the most part, they aren’t wrong per se. It is, however, incomplete and thus misleading. It’s only one-third of how it should be.
I recently experimented with the idea of living in the now in my own life. I embraced the statement in its entirety and lived my life only according to my Nows.
I found my answer in a book I was reading. (But this is not a book on living in the past/now/future. I merely gained insights into a problem that was puzzling me, among many other great insights, from this book that I really recommend everyone to read.)
In Man’s Search For Meaning, the author, Viktor Emil Frankl, described his experiences as a prisoner in a Nazi death camp. The message of this book is centred on the idea that you can take everything away from a man but his freedom to choose how he responds.
From the foreword of the book by Harold S. Kushner:
Terrible as it was, his experiences in Auschwitz reinforced what was already one of his key ideas: life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life.
So how did the sufferings of the Nazi prisoners led me in arriving at a conclusion of the idea behind living a fulfilling life by being in the moment?
Take a moment to read Viktor’s account of this particular morning in a death camp:
The most ghastly moment of the twenty-four hours of camp life was the awakening, when, at a still nocturnal hour, the three shrill blows of a whistle tore us pitilessly from our exhausted sleep and from the longings in our dreams. We then began the tussle with our wet shoes, into which we could scarcely force our feet, which were sore and swollen with edema. And there were the usual moans and groans about petty troubles, such as the snapping of wires which replaced our shoelaces. One morning I heard someone, whom I know to be brave and dignified, cry like a child because he finally had to go to the snowy marching grounds in his bare feet, as his shoes were too shrunken for him to wear.
Can you look at the crying man in his eyes and tell him to live a happy and fulfilling life by simply living in the moment? Can you tell him, “Come on! Embrace the beauty of Nature! So what if you don’t have shoes anymore? Feel the snow under your naked feet. Being able to feel the cold in itself is a miraculous feat because it means you’re still alive!”
Can you tell the prisoners, living in that Hell of theirs, with only a piece of bread and a dish of watery soup as food each day, malnourished and tortured, to focus on their surroundings and just be in the present?
The author noted that many of them died, not from malnutrition of diet, but from the malnutrition of hopes and a future they can look forward to:
A man who let himself decline because he could not see any future goal found himself occupied with retrospective thoughts. In a different connection, we have already spoken of the tendency there was to look into the past, to help make the present, with all its horrors, less real. But in robbing the present of its reality there lay a certain danger. It became easy to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of camp life, opportunities which really did exist.
The writer also indicates that it is in looking into the past, you are sacrificing something from the present: making the best use of the Now.
Does this mean we should, indeed, have told the crying man to live in his present? Let us consider another of his accounts, on helping fellow prisoners survive the ordeal:
Any attempt at fighting the camp’s psychopathological influence on the prisoner by psychotherapeutic or psychohygienic methods had to aim at giving him inner strength by pointing out to him a future goal to which he could look forward. Instinctively some of the prisoners attempted to find one on their own. It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future — sub specie aeternitatis. And this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence, although he sometimes has to force his mind to the task.
Not every situation calls for you to be in the moment. Some moments, some realities, are too painful to live through, though, looking into the past is not just for painful situations. Yet, there is meaning, and practical utility, in living in the present, as the prisoner himself wrote.
And herein lies the flaw of the popularized adage, live in the moment. It is correct, but incomplete; one part of the three of a new manifesto.
On escaping into the past:
I did not know whether my wife was alive, and I had no means of finding out.
There was no need for me to know; nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thoughts, and the image of my beloved.
This intensification of inner life helped the prisoner find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation and spiritual poverty of his existence, by letting him escape into the past. When given free rein, his imagination played with past events, often not important ones, but minor happenings and trifling things. […]
In my mind I took bus rides, unlocked the front door of my apartment, answered my telephone, switched on the electric lights. […]
On looking towards a future:
I became disgusted with the state of affairs which compelled me, daily and hourly, to think of only such trivial things. I forced my thoughts to turn to another subject. Suddenly, I saw myself standing on the platform of a well-lit, warm and pleasant lecture room. In front of me sat an attentive audience on comfortable upholstered seats. I was giving a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp! All that oppressed me at that moment became objective, seen and described from the remote viewpoint of science. By this method, I succeeded somehow in rising above the situation, above the sufferings of the moment, and I observed them as if they were already of the past. Both I and my troubles became the object of an interesting psychoscientific study undertaken by myself.
Do a search on ‘live in the moment’ and you’ll find different versions of: Don’t worry about yesterday, because it cannot be changed. Don’t worry about tomorrow, because it has yet to come. Focus on the now.
But the problem isn’t with spending time in the past or future. The problem with spending time in the past and future is if you’re worrying about it. If you’re worrying, or caught up in any negative emotions, for that matter, then it hardly matters where you spend your time in — past, future, or now.
Now let me share my experience of adopting the living in the now mindset:
When I felt like watching anime, I watched them. When I felt like playing DotA, I played it. (Add me on Steam if you play too, BTW.) When I felt like practicing the piano, I practiced. Some days I wrote. Most days I didn’t, because I didn’t feel like it.
“No, not at the moment,” I said to myself, far too often.
Surprisingly, I had the urges of the more productive activities, though they occur less often than before.
When I don’t concern myself about the future anymore (since it has yet to come!) then it doesn’t matter if my blog has more contents, gets more traffic, or if I wrote at all! Most of my Nows consisted largely of wanting to play games, watch anime, and eating.
And I fulfilled my desires wholeheartedly.
My life was devoid of a purpose and a future to work towards to. A slave to the whimsical nature of my mind, a sentiment that cannot be more beautifully expressed by this quote:
“To be driven by our appetites alone is slavery, while to obey a law that we have imposed on ourselves is freedom.” — Jean-Jacques Rosseau, The Social Contract
If I am looking at a glorious sunset over the calming horizons of the sea, and I think to myself all the things I have to write, then surely I’d be jeopardizing my moments of happiness.
At the same time, I think there should be nights when I sit by myself, look at the rain outside my window with a glass of wine in my hand, and reminisce my past, thinking in amazement of how far I had come.
Looking at the future is what allows a man to walk away from the temptation of infidelity. The consideration of the possibility that his whole marriage will fall apart should he succumbed to the temptation of Now.
I embraced living in the now in its entirety, but I believe it is not the best way to live my life.
THE NEW MANIFESTO
Learn from the Past
Live in the Now
Look forward to the Future