“I used to think about the future and then it became the present, so I thought about it quite often then and then it was in the past, so I didn’t think about it that much.” Father Ted
One of the things that has frequently tripped me up over the years is the notion of future. It’s easy to get lost in it and for concerns and insecurities about the future to overwhelm us, causing untold stress and turmoil. In fact, when it comes to mindstuff, the ‘future’ can be like a gaping black hole, ravenous, all-consuming and virtually impossible to escape.
The ego loves its security and in a world where security is ultimately an illusion (after all, anything at any moment could compromise your sense of security), that can be something of a problem. The future is the great unknown and that is something that utterly terrifies the ego!
To minimise this sense of unease we adopt all kinds of strategies for trying to control circumstances and outcomes as much as possible. Again, going back to what I wrote previously about control, that can only work to a limited extent. We can pursue the things that we think will bring us fortune and security and we may even succeed; but even when we do, it’s rarely enough to dispel our fears and insecurity. This is because our insecurity is a structural component of the ego.
In a sense, our insecurity over the future is a legitimate concern, because we really don’t know what the future holds. Bad things can and frequently do happen. I think it’s likely our fear of the future/unknown is a survival mechanism that’s developed to protect us from potential harm by always keeping us on our toes. Yet in our modern world, where our immediate physical survival isn’t usually an issue, this survival mechanism has become a stress mechanism.
In this media-dominated information age, it’s virtually impossible to escape the news and the news is rarely good. We don’t just leave it at that though. We take what’s happening and project it into an imagined future, playing out all kinds of horrific scenarios in our minds. Sometimes it’s necessary to project ahead in this way as it allows us to make prudent choices that avert unnecessary catastrophe. If I’m walking along a train track and a train appears in the distance, it’s prudent that I project into the future and realise that if I don’t step aside, I’ll get squished.
There are times when this is a useful practise and times when it becomes highly dysfunctional. For we tend to get lost in our imaginings, creating entire alternate realities in our minds. We forget that it’s just fantasy and actually believe that what we’re imagining is real. I believe it’s this tendency that creates much of our anxiety and fear over the future.
Two things have helped me to deal with this. The first is the recognition that the future is actually an illusion of the mind; and so, for that matter, is the past. The only thing that actually exists is the present moment and that present moment NEVER ENDS. In spite of this concept we have of past, present and future, there’s never an instance where the present becomes the past, or becomes the future. It’s a continuing, unbroken, unfragmented whole.
The present moment just IS — and it always will be. Of course the CONTENT of the present moment is always changing and it is from this that we’ve derived the notions of ‘past’ and ‘future’. But past and future don’t actually exist. However hard you were to look, you could never actually find them because the only place they exist is in the mind; the past as memories and the future as imagination, expectation or anticipation.
What a terrible mess we get ourselves in over something that exists nowhere other than our own minds! However long we wait, the future will never arrive. All we have is this moment, this timeless, eternal moment, the form of which is continuously shifting and changing.
The second thing that’s helped me deal with this structural insecurity is the recognition that I’m not what I think I am. Along with the concept of time, another core human assumption is that we are our bodies. I’m not going to go too deeply into this for now and I’ll assume that if you’re reading this you’ve already got some sense that what you are is something more than just a bag of bones, tissues and liquids.
But even when, on a conceptual level, we know that we are something deeper than the surface-level appearance, it takes a while for us to fully embody and integrate that realisation. In other words, we usually still act and react as though we are just our bodies. And because we know that ultimately our body is going to die, we have a fundamental insecurity that underlies every second of our existence, whether we’re aware of it or not. I’d even go so far as to say that the root of our fear of the future is fear of the termination of the body.
But when the realisation that we are something far transcendent of form takes root not just in our head, but in our heart and our gut, this underlying existential insecurity begins to loosen its grip. When we truly know with the entirety of our being that we are eternal and deathless, then we cease to fear the inevitable dissolution of our form. Our bodies change throughout the course of our lives and the content of our minds and psyche changes from moment to moment. But this timeless awareness that we are remains unchanged.
If you’ve ever explored and moved into this primal awareness, you’ll notice that it at its core is a deep and expansive acceptance. It doesn’t hold life to ransom and it doesn’t have demands or like and dislikes or even goals and directives. It just allows life to be as it is. It remains open, untouched and untouchable.
Knowing what we are and questioning the content of our minds lead us to a deeper and infinitely more secure state of being. Life still happens around us and at times it’s distressing and grim, but when we’ve removed some of our investment of ‘selfhood’ from what is ultimately transient and insubstantial, we experience far greater freedom than ever before.
The need to desperately control the future lessens. We come to see the primary importance of living well in the present moment. We can surrender to a greater intelligence, of which we are an inextricable part, and allow that intelligence to guide us rather than our fears and doubts.
When we surrender to the flow of life, we come to see that that no matter what the ‘future’ (or, rather, the forthcoming configuration of the eternal present) holds, we will be fine. That which we are is ultimately untouchable. Whether our future contains fortune or misfortune, we will be fine. We will always be fine.
When we’ve let go of our insecurities, our attachments and our desperate need to control life, we’ve let go of the very obstructions that make life difficult in the first place. And when we do encounter life’s inevitable challenges, we deal with them with greater ease and grace, always returning to our innate sense of balance and wellbeing.
I believe that when we’re in this Tao-centred state of being, connected with the flow of life and the truth of what we are, then life is often kinder and gentler. Moreover, our state of being has a positive effect on those around us and the world at large.
So why worry about the future when we can instead move our attention inward and allow life to guide us? We can flow gently and smoothly with the current of life and be led exactly where we need to be.
Maybe life really CAN be that simple? Even if I’m wrong, what a way to live!