I can’t speak for everyone who’s been attempting to follow a more “Eastern-centered” path of living in the present, but for me, this time of year has some unique challenges that run contrary to the philosophy, as it’s quite common to want to look back on the previous year and take stock of what one experienced. Personally, I try to make an effort to avoid using terms like “accomplished” and “completed” in this context, as they tend to convey finality, in addition to feeding the ego’s desire to label or place value upon experiences to serve its own need.
It’s my belief that what we generally refer to as “life” is but one endless succession of present-moment acts, defined only by a subjective sense of self. What we typically might think of as our “identity” is simply a collection of these life experiences, unique to each individual.
Consequently, I feel that we tend to struggle most when we identify too closely with those events, falling victim to their infinite power, to the point where they’ve begun to define our very Being. Health issues, failed marriages, or unexpected financial losses are all too ready and willing to consume us long-term, if permitted to do so.
The contemporary spiritualist Eckhart Tolle captures the relationship between the ego and time so clearly in his bestseller “A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose,” when he states: “For the ego to survive, it must make time – both past and future – more important than the present moment. The ego cannot tolerate becoming friendly with the present moment, except briefly just after it got what it wanted.”
It’s not an easy concept to grasp, but the simplest approach is to think of those life events, relationships, thoughts and situations as “content.” They exist only as “circumstances” rather than a higher consciousness or purpose. How we choose to react and process these various conditions, especially the more difficult ones, tells us a lot about ourselves. Stepping outside of our Being, and becoming a witness or observer to these matters, is the primary action we can take in beginning the process of detachment from them altogether.
I don’t think that I fully comprehended this theory until I put it into practice while working with young special needs children after having navigated the waters of corporate America for nearly two decades.
Under the guidance of an amazingly talented lead teacher, not only did I begin to develop an understanding of my relationship with the present moment, but more importantly, how best to apply it.
Sharon Salzberg, renowned author and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society, captures the essence of this notion when she states, “We learn and grow and are transformed not so much by what we do, but by why and how we do it.”
Therefore; it wasn’t so much about making a career adjustment by refocusing my time and energy each day to those with disabilities (the “what,” if you will, in Salzberg’s declaration), more precisely, it evolved into an exploration of the “why” and the “how” of this life-altering decision. What I discovered rather quickly after making the jump was a need to completely revise my definition of time.
Up to that point, I’d chosen to regard the present moment as somewhat of an impediment; viewing it more as an obstruction that needed to be averted, or better yet, overcome. I would frequently construct a “to do” list at the kitchen table each morning while eating my breakfast; eventually gaining satisfaction throughout the day, as each “task” was crossed off.
This pattern, I soon found out, was completely inapplicable, when working in a public school classroom consisting solely of young children with cognitive, developmental, and communicative deficiencies.
Because the pace of learning and comprehension was significantly delayed within this group, any reasonable measurement of “clock” time had to be abandoned. This left the door wide open to maximizing each potential present moment between staff and student. Never before had I conceived of such totality within a given interaction, without the need or expectation of a specific outcome.
While offering his interpretation of the 7th verse in Lao-tzu’s Tao Te Ching, self-development guru Dr. Wayne Dyer suggests, “When you are tempted to focus on your personal success and defeats, shift your attention in that very moment to a less fortunate individual. You’ll feel more connected to life, as well as more satisfied than when you are dwelling on your own circumstances.”
More recently, I’ve brought that same approach into my current classroom filled with three and four year olds from low-income families. There’s something to be said for “leaving it at the door,” when one walks into work each day, ready to empower others who have no concept of time.