“The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.” ― Alan W. Watts
“Life is a journey, not a destination.” ― Unknown
Have you heard the second quote before? I have. Dozens and dozens of times. And yet, only now am I beginning to understand it.
Because life isn’t really about a destination, an end goal, an achievement. When you’re young, you’re asked what you will be when you are older. When you are in college or high school, you’re asked what career you will have. When you have a career, you are asked what your plans are for moving up. As you journey on, questions center around who you will marry and when, where you will live, when you will move out, how many kids or pets you will have.
And maybe your idea of the future revolves around those goals as well. You’re working at your current job to get to the next one, you’re making do with an apartment to save up for a house, you’re stressing out now to plan for the wedding, you’re buckling down in school to get the degree. All your actions, every step you take, revolve around the end goal.
In fact, I believe you spend most of your life striving for an end goal. Having achieved it, you might bask in it for a little, feeling accomplished, fulfilled, happy, and good deep to your core . . . until you realize it’s time to strive for the next thing on the list. After all, if you linger too long, the questions will become more insistent, more urgent, and what if you get left behind? What if you miss out on the life of your dreams?
And, as Alan Watts said, in doing so, we are missing it. Missing the meaning of life. The purpose of our lives.
Our life *is* the in-between moments. Most of our memories and emotions are tied up not in the huge events but in the little day-to-day happenings. Our life is the bus ride to work, editing a book, sipping a coffee, walking through the rain, making the bed, living in an apartment, managing a small budget, studying, interacting with new customers every day, or sending emails. Our life *is* the in-between moments.
Sound exciting? Nope. Not really.
But that’s all in the way we look at it. Think about it. We are the only species that lives in a future end-goal. Your dog isn’t worried about trying to be the best at Frisbee or standing out the most in this year’s Eukanuba Championships. Your dog doesn’t spend every moment of every day longing for the next moment or the next goal or the vacation coming up two weeks from now.
A dog just is. A dog experiences and lives to the fullest every moment. We, as humans, however, have this ability to look ahead, set goals, and work toward them. That’s not a bad thing, but it, like everything else in life, must know its place and be taken in balance. The issue is humans have taken this ability to set and achieve goals terribly out of balance.
So how do we focus on the in-between moments? How to see them not as stepping stones but as the fullness of our lives right now? How do we honor and respect them?
Paying attention to the here-and-now can be daunting at first. Trust me, I’ve tried! Every time my mind comes back to center, it jumps off in a new direction, either to focus on the past or try to predict the future. It’s like a Husky in a sled race, just before take-off, whining and whimpering and straining at the ropes. I’ll explore properly harnessing and directing that energy in another post, because the mind’s energy does have a very good use. But quieting and focusing the mind are also good skills, especially if you want to live life fully and see it as the here-and-now rather than a destination only to be achieved or fulfilled at some undetermined time.
One way we can quite the mind is through meditation, and I think the simplest way to get started is through using a grounding technique throughout the day. To do this, list to yourself five things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. It’s simple and can be done anywhere, even at your busiest. What it does is bring us back to the present moment and allows us to experience it fully. It may take practice before you can stay in that state for longer periods. If you’re like me, a few minutes after grounding, you’re already jumping back into your head-space and veering toward either the past or the future.
Another way to live each moment fully is to express gratitude and approach life with a mindset of thankfulness. Keeping a gratitude journal can be healthy, or mentally stopping yourself a few times a day to take a deep breath and feel gratitude for what’s going on in this moment.
Mindfulness can also anchor us. Mindfulness is about bringing awareness of the present moment to our lives. Along with awareness, it focuses on acceptance, gratitude, and curiosity about the world. An excellent way to begin is by bringing your full awareness to the act of brushing your teeth, eating a meal, or getting dressed. Our body naturally stops focusing on things that become routine. This isn’t bad, but bringing attention back to these moments can help anchor us, pull us out of our head space, and help us enjoy and feel gratitude for even the little tasks we take for granted. My favorite is practicing mindfulness while eating! Mmmm!
Last, mantras can be helpful reminders to anchor into the present. If you pick a mantra like, “I fully embrace the present moment,” “Here and now,” or “I am grateful for this moment,” you can recite it throughout the day, write it on a note in your pocket, or hang it somewhere you can see it. As you repeat the phrase and memorize it throughout the day, your mind will begin to echo it and pull it up more easily when you need it.
Is the task hard? Yes! As I said, if you have an anxious mind, your thoughts are like Huskies straining at the lead, barking, yelping, all but driving themselves mad in an effort to *do* something. Left tethered, with no race to run, they chase each other and leave you with a pack of wild animals. Focusing and releasing that attention are important, but this week, practice mindfulness to quiet those braying voices, bed them down for a snooze, and soak in the moment you are in right this second. Once you finish reading this sentence, close your eyes and open to a feeling of gratitude. Acknowledge and accept any feelings that are there, let the ideas in this post sink in, and choose one of the above tips to practice several times a day this week.
What Do You Think?: How do you practice staying in the present moment? What best connects you? What challenges do you face? What is your internal reaction to the idea that life happens in this present moment, not in the future?
Challenge!: Listen to Alan Watts explain the concept of life as a thing that happens in the here-and-now. Watch the video a few times if you like, then meditate, journal, or ponder on what you just learned. Let it sink in, and post your thoughts below.