Despite my logophilia, I’ve never had much time for mantras. Mantras reek of motivational quote posters, of superficial thought, of a certain sort of lack of intellectual inquiry, or even, perhaps worst of all, a whiff of new age mysticism.1Here I disclose I make an exception for the profound wisdom of dasharez0ne
Growing older means—or at least, should mean—revisiting one’s beliefs to see if they still hold up, and to see if they still serve me. I try to find a happy and pragmatic intersection between believing in my beliefs on one hand and being open to change, or at least reexamining those beliefs from time to time. I aim to find out if I can benefit from a different way of thinking, rather than simply assuming I have all the answers.
I recently read Oliver Burkeman’s exemplary Four Thousand Weeks, and it brought up an idea that I’ve encountered in a few places (not least of all in one of Burkeman’s earlier books, The Antidote). The idea is simplicity itself, at least on the surface: the only life you have is the one that is occurring right now. This very special and irreplaceable instant is the only life that we have. Anything else is uncertain, a speculation. There is no afterlife, no reincarnation, no potion of immortality. What we have right now is all that we have. Nothing more and nothing less.
Sit with this idea if you can, as I did, and allow the concept to penetrate the endlessly whirling thing that is my brain. It, as an idea, is as bracing and powerful as diving into a frigid pool on a searing summer’s day. Some ideas come to you gently, like the growth of moss over a rock; and other ideas are like tidal waves. For me, at least, this was a powerful realisation.
There is no life other than what is right now. One is simply not guaranteed any more life than what is happening right now. Of course, we expect a lot more life—a lot more nows—and many times, we will be so lucky to have many more nows. Get there is no guarantee or promise that we will be so fortunate. Taking a cosmic perspective forces us to acknowledge the absurdly unlikely nature of our lives: they are transient, ephemeral, and random. It defies belief that we are here at all. And, as it follows, it is absurd to realistically expect that we will continue rolling sixes forever. To be a little more macabre in my expression: death could visit us at any time; an accident, a crime, or a random misfiring of some part of the brain would see our goose cooked and our time up. Entropy beckons. When you take a suitably zoomed-out view, you quickly come to realise our views about our corporeal longevity are hubristic and misguided and really just fantasies.
This can be distressing, but that is only the case if you think, on some level, that you are immortal. Each of us poops and each of us shall die. How we deal with this unassailable truth makes us who we are.
I’ve started repeating to myself: “There only life is the right now” whenever I act, or think, to the contrary. Like many of you, I suspect, I spend a fair bit of time projecting into the future worrying about things. An anxious mind, after all, is one that lives in every time except the right now. A lot of us have a belief that if we work hard now, we’ll perhaps earn the right (or indeed the ability) to relax and enjoy life in the future. My friends, that future never comes. We have only the now.
By repeating this to myself, especially when I catch myself not in the now, I have begun to notice a curious and beneficial change: I’m a little calmer, a little more content, I’m a little bit more me. At its essence, this idea is nothing more than acknowledging reality and consciously choosing not to live in fantasy.
Last week, I threw out my back and was in prodigious amounts of pain, but for the periods where I stayed still and keep my breathing even. It was not a fun time. At first, I found myself projecting forward to when my back was no longer sore; imagining the happiness I would feel and the life I would (once again) be able to live. It was a fine fantasy for a time, but it quickly crashed against the unpleasant reality of what was happening to me. We don’t feel warm by imagining a fire; if anything, it draws attention to how cold we are.
And so I reminded myself that the only life I’ll get is the one I’m experiencing right now, back pain and all. And a curious thing happened: the pain did not magically disappear, or even recede, but my attitude toward it shifted. By accepting reality and not escaping into a back-pain free fantasy, I could become comfortable with the back pain. By fighting my natural inclination to run away from pain, the pain took on a distinct character, one that I could find some comfort in.
And, even more broadly, I found I could connect with and enjoy the things around me. Yes, my back hurt, but my doggo was still beautifully stupid, the way the light hit the plants on the balcony was still captivating. I could recognise that the pain was only a part of my now.
Shifting our focus to the now does not mean giving up any planning at all for the future, or surrendering our agency. It simply entails accepting the brevity of life and seeking solace in what we have, as opposed to what we may wish or what we may dream of (or what charlatans and mystics might promise us). And it does not mean we must pretend to love or relish each moment: merely all we must do is accept that whatever is happening right now is our life.
I’ve found myself getting more and more comfort in this approach. It feels as close to a state of Zen as I could imagine. When I’m worried or stressed or feeling down, reminding myself that my life is happening right now gives me cause to find the beauty or grace in my situation, or at least find a measure of acceptance.
You face a choice: arguably one of the more important choices we can make. Do you want to live in a fantasy in which you are always anticipating the moment where life will really begin, usually once you have satisfied some goal of productivity or accumulation? Or do you, instead, want to revel in reality, to take delight in your life, a life only possible as the result of the confluence of thousands (millions, billions) of factors that all had to turn out the precise way they did to get you here.
It is not, though, a choice you make once and never again. It is a choice that you need to reaffirm every time you catch yourself in a fantasy (especially one that stands in stark opposition to reality), every time you feel anxious and escape into threat planning/opportunity scanning mode, and every time you wish things weren’t the way they are.2I’m thinking of you, hot Melbourne summers. Why, oh why, is the hottest part of a Melbourne day often 6pm? The utility of the mantra becomes apparent given this lifelong need for recommitment: each time I choose to ignore reality, giving myself a gentle reminder helps me reorientate and focus on the now in front of me and not the unknown, unknowable future.
The only life I have is the one that is happening right now. You too.
- 1Here I disclose I make an exception for the profound wisdom of dasharez0ne
- 2I’m thinking of you, hot Melbourne summers. Why, oh why, is the hottest part of a Melbourne day often 6pm?