One morning last week I saw a lovely sunrise. As the colours of pink, yellow and gold spread across the pale blue sky, I grabbed my phone to try to capture the beauty I could see. I failed dismally. And deep down I knew that I would. At the time, I was somewhere south of York, traveling on a train at around 120mph, so it wasn’t quite like standing in a field and experiencing the fresh smells of the earth, the cool air blowing across my face, or the sounds of animals and birds heralding the start of a new day. Nevertheless, the sky alone was immensely beautiful, a sacred moment to stop and savour. For some reason, I couldn’t just accept that moment joyfully and then, when it had passed, let it go. No, I had to try to retain and keep hold of it with a photograph.
I’m not alone in this. Go to any concert, fireworks display, or beauty spot and almost everybody is so busy trying to photograph and record the moment for the future that they’re barely present at the time itself. Earlier this year I was at a world-famous art gallery. I saw one man take a photograph of each painting followed by a photo of the information panel about that piece of art, before moving on to do the same with the next picture. He never once stopped to look at those stunning paintings by Van Gogh, Rembrant and Monet. But all of this is simply an external expression of an inner conversation that goes on in our heads most of the time. I have gone to rock concerts and been thrilled by the music and lighting, only to discover myself thinking ahead to what it will be like to tell my friends all about it, rather than just immersing myself in the experience. How crazy to be doing something really enjoyable, (that I had looked forward to) but wanting it to become a past event so that I could tell people about it in the future!
Living in the moment really isn’t something that we humans find easy to do. Animals, birds, fish, trees and flowers are present because they know no other. Young children also live in the moment until we teach and train them to do otherwise. Interestingly, many people who have life-threatening or terminal illness seem to rediscover the child’s ability to focus on the present. In doing so they can become inspirational people, celebrating the now. Generally however, our minds dwell in our past and our futures, constantly playing and re-playing our failures and successes, anticipating our hopes and dreams. For many of us, the future is not just plans and ideas; at the heart of our thinking about the future lies a whole heap of worry and anxiety. In anticipation of some forthcoming event or activity, I imagine every possible scenario, including – in fact highlighting – the most disastrous options possible. Whilst this means that I plan quite well for most contingencies, what a price to pay! It is exhausting! And my self-generated doomsday scenarios never do occur, (fortunately, because they can be of disaster movie proportions). Only one of the many outcomes I’ve considered could possibly happen anyway, and when the future event does come around, it is never, ever quite as I imagined it. Worrying is an illusory comfort blanket, unnecessary and exhausting. Most important of all, it means missing out on the completeness and the joy that can be found in embracing the present. The past is gone, the future is always just that. Because in the words of the Flaming Lips, All We Have is Now.
People in 12 Step recovery get how important the present is – working the programme one day at a time is a central understanding. Rather than dwelling on the past or future, the only option for getting well is to focus on the present. “If we don’t take that first drink today, we’ll never take it, because it’s always today,” wrote Richmond Walker, author of 24 Hours A Day, AA’s first book of meditations. From its earliest days, AA built on this ‘one day at a time’ approach to recovery, though the source of this principle seems to have been lost in the mists of time. The early AA meetings were very influenced by the Oxford Group so possibly it came from there, and many of those meetings also included saying the Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus taught his followers. Give us today our daily bread – not tomorrow’s or next week’s bread – just what we need today. This prayer comes in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount manifesto. In it he saw the importance of living today and urged us to live in a trusting relationship with God each day, as the flowers and the birds do, rather than worrying ahead. “Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?” If we feel unsure and anxious about future events, it can help to remember that in the past we have always had the energy and resources to deal with any particular present moment when it arises. God gives us what we need, when we need it. If I need to do anything about the future now, then I should do it – for example, buying a train ticket in advance to secure a seat and the best price, but after that, letting go, and not worrying about whether the train will run to time, whether my seat might already be occupied and so on. Whatever happens on the day of travel will be fine, because I will be able to cope with it at the time. We need to keep reminding ourselves of this to correct our false thinking and the compulsion to worry, affirming instead that we are precious and cared for, each and every day and that we will receive the resources and energy to cope with things as and when they arise. Life isn’t always sugar coated, but nothing, absolutely nothing can separate us from this loving provision of God. We just need to let go and trustingly, surrender to it.
For the last 5 years or so I have practised mindfulness meditation and found it really helpful. Just taking time out to focus on my breathing, learning to take a step back from the busyness of everyday life and to be present to the moment. It has helped me to become aware of my incessant brain activity – the movies of my past and future playing with monotonous regularity, to the exclusion of the present. Meditation has also helped me to become just that little bit more aware of the times when I am getting preoccupied by the past or future, and the need to return to the moment. Reminding myself of God’s loving care for me. As step 11 says, prayer and meditation is about “improving our conscious contact with God as we understand him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” Being present enough to show gratitude for the many joys we can experience each day. Being present enough to pray when difficult situations arise, wanting to respond to that moment in the right way, humbly seeking ways in which to respond well and to bless others.
On the train home last week, there was also a glorious sunset, neatly book-ending my day. It was like the heart of a steel foundry furnace, stretched out across the sky. This time, instead of trying to capture or share the experience, I managed to simply accept it with a sense of wonder, full of gratitude for its beauty and a sense of transcendence. As I watched, the orange and red extravaganza gradually gave way to crimsons and purples before finally surrendering to the darkness of night.
Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today. Jesus of Nazareth
Life will be over sooner than we think. If we have bikes to ride and people to love, now is the time. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
God is a God of the present. God is always in the moment, be that moment hard or easy, joyful or painful. Henri Nouwen
Stop acting as if life is a rehearsal. Live this day as if it were your last. The past is over and gone. The future is not guaranteed. Wayne Dyer