Living for the Future is Bad For Your Health

In a talk at the Mindfulness & Education Conference at Omega Institute in 2013, Lama Dawa Tarchin Phillips asked the audience how many of them do what they do to create a better future for our kids. About a third of the group raised their hand, which he said is about average.

He explained that from a Buddhist perspective, the challenge of imagining a better future is that you will accept collateral damage along the way.

Sometimes the collateral damage will involve others, but often it involves you.

In order to get to this mythical future where everything is better, you become willing to accept things that are harmful to you, like overworking and excessive stress, and you ignore the relationship with the one person you’re really here to take care of—you.

Interesting. I hadn’t thought of it that way before.

I have experienced how spending my mental time in the past or the present keeps me from enjoying life—indeed, how it can make me outright miserable. But it hadn’t occurred to me that it was harmful.

As I reflect on the idea, though, I see that it’s true. I’ve restricted, binged, slacked off, overworked, obsessed about, ignored, and exercised to the point of injury to get to some future, better place or self. All at my own expense, and probably at the expense of others, too.

But how to take action without something to work toward? How do I operate if not from the motivation to make change for the better?

“I do not want to foresee the future. I am concerned with taking care of the present. God has given me no control over the moment following.” —Gandhi

If past and future are not helpful, maybe the present moment is. It is here where life unfolds, so perhaps it is here where the answer about what to do next resides.

Currently, that’s where I’m experimenting—right here in the present. I recently took on the practice of asking Life, “What’s next?” With some guidance from my teacher, Cheri Huber, I’ve refined that question to, “What now?”

I ask the question, then listen for the cues that Life sends my way. I practice choosing the things that take me away from suffering and toward freedom. (I’m noticing, coincidentally, Life’s suggestions rarely align with what the voices in my mind say is the right thing to do, the next career to have, or the reason why it’s ok to eat the whole pint of ice cream for dinner.)

As I remind myself that resistance is futile—life unfolds as it does, and to resist that is an express train to suffering—I see that I don’t actually know better how it’s all going to turn out or what’s coming next. Really, it’s all quite unpredictable.

With that realization comes a surprising sense of relief! I don’t have to figure it all out. I don’t have to know better. I don’t have to prepare, plan, or make the right decision.

I can be in a dance with Life, letting it take the lead while I show up and sway to the music. It’s still important that I dance, but I don’t have to know the steps before beginning to move.

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