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Living in the 'Here and Now': The Secret of Contentment and Calm

July 17, 2011 | Comments: 0 | Views: 132

There is one clear way in which the philosophies of the East and West differ. In the West we believe that we should be constantly struggling to improve our lot. In the East, the prime existential aim is to stop the endless striving for material gain so that one is free to enjoy the perpetual 'here and now'.This approach is well portrayed in the famous Buddhist parable of a man who, in fleeing from a tiger, finds himself dangling on a vine suspended over a steep precipice. He looks down and sees another tiger waiting to devour him should he fall. Then two mice start gnawing at the vine. Looking to one side he sees a ripe, juicy strawberry growing just within his reach. He stretches out, picks the ripe fruit and places it in his mouth. How succulent it tastes, and how sweet life seems in that fleeting moment. One of the great differences between humans and animals is that we have a past and a future as well as a present, whereas their thoughts are focussed entirely on the matters of the moment. We have a vivid imagination, which is one of our supreme assets as well as one of our greatest liabilities, since it enables us to dwell on past mistakes and envision future catastrophes. That is the root cause of most of our day-to-day angst.

Sir William Osler, the Canadian doctor who became Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University, told his students that they could cope with the stress and strain of their professional lives by cultivating the habit of living their lives in 'day-tight compartments.' Everyone can carry their burden until nightfall, he assured them, whereas even the strongest will falter if they also try to carry yesterday's load and the burdens of tomorrow. This is one of the key principles of Buddhist thought and practice, portrayed in the well-known story of the elderly Indian lady who approached the Lord Buddha and said she wanted to join a community to learn the art of meditation but was too busy to escape her family commitments. The Buddha told her that she didn't need to leave home, for she could learn to meditate by focussing on the here and now. 'Every time you draw water from the well for you and your family, remain aware of every single act, movement and motion of your hands,' he instructed her. 'As you do your chores, maintain continual mindfulness and awareness every single instant, moment after moment, and you too will become a master of meditation.'

We have lost this art today, partly because we try to multitask, and partly because we waste our time mulling over past mistakes and slights.One of the key messages of sports psychology, is to train tennis players and golfers to concentrate on the task in hand rather than allow their performance to be marred by the double fault they've just served, or the four-foot putt they've just missed. We only achieve our peak performance, and overcome needless anxiety, if we adopt the habit of 'nownessness'. This was proved by a study of holocaust survivors which showed that the victims who made the best adjustment to everyday life on their release were the ones who managed to push their past sufferings to the back of their minds and get on with their current,day-to-day activities.

Schopenhauer, the German born philosopher, is well known for his pessimistic outlook. However, there is one brief ray of hope and cheer in his book On the Suffering of the World where he grudgingly admits that one might argue 'that the greatest wisdom consists in enjoying the present and making this enjoyment the goal of life, because the present is all that is real and everything else merely imaginary.'Unfortunately he ruins this uplifting advice in his very next sentence where he writes: 'But you could just as well call this mode of life the greatest folly; for that which in a moment ceases to exist, which vanishes as a dream, cannot be worth any serious effort.'In arriving at this jaundiced conclusion he seems to forget that eternity is made up an endless succession of present moments. If we want to life to the full we can't do so in the past, for that is gone. Nor can we live it in the future, for that hasn't yet arrived. Utopia is either here and now, or nowhere and never. Our aim must be to follow the advice contained in the ancient Sanskrit proverb: 'Look to this day, for yesterday is but a dream and tomorrow is only a vision. But today, well lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope.'

© Donald Norfolk 2011

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