First posted 12 Apr 2004. Tying together Robert Pirsig, Eckhart Tolle and Nietzsche - early influencers of how I now see the world, this post also touches on music, one of the great loves of my life. Just a taster. Oh, and I got rid of my Vespa a few years ago, so now the maintenance analogies have to find their home in the bicycle world...
Ever find yourself in the middle of a confrontational daydream - hypothesising things that might go wrong in the future and then spinning through in your head how you might deal with them? Or have you caught yourself re-living an event (whether glorious or humiliating) from the past, perhaps second-guessing your actions? Or how about sitting in traffic, in a queue or in a boring meeting at work, waiting to be able to get on to something interesting or important that lies in the near future?
If you're like me, you probably spend a fair bit of time thinking about the past, the future or some alternative and preferable present. We do it so much that we think nothing of it. Yet when you really step back and consider it, as I do whenever I re-visit Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now like I have in the past week, you realise that all this mental hyper-activity is really a useless exercise.
Let's acknowledge up front that of course it is useful to reflect on past events in so far as that reflection generates learning that better prepares us for the future. Likewise, it is certainly useful to think about the future so as to identify things you can do today and along the way to make that future better. Our brains are wonderful tools for learning from the past and planning for the future, and we should stroke them lovingly for the outstanding work they do for us on those dimensions.
The problem is that, at least for me, most of the time spent dwelling on the past or fretting about the future involves little of this useful activity. If learning and planning were all we did, we'd spend a small fraction of the 'non-Now' time we do. No, what we do is mull over things again and again, causing our hearts to race and inducing other fight-or-flight reactions in our bodies. We put ourselves through unnecessary worry, regret or other pain.
Although it is almost too obvious to warrant mentioning, let's just remind ourselves that there is NOTHING we can do about the past. Aside from some science fiction writers and Hollywood producers, no one has found a way to reverse time's arrow. It naturally follows that obsessing on the past (beyond the aforementioned reflection for learning's sake) is useless.
Not quite so obvious, but equally true, is the point that worrying about the future does nothing to avoid or mitigate negative future events. Once again, some planning might help, but beyond that, much of the future-anxiety we experience is driven by phantoms, dreamed up proto-scenarios that may or may not ever materialise.
The whole 'so-what' of this is that all we can ever directly influence is NOW. Every action we ever take is taken in the present. We might as well pay attention to the present, since that is all we ever directly experience.
So at one level, a strictly practical one, I personally am trying much harder to minimise the time I spend with useless, unhelpful and uncomfortable past- and future-oriented activity. Don't get me wrong: I do not purport to be a guru or an expert on this. I just struggle along like everyone else, but I AM doing better at simply recognising when I begin to drift into unhealthy past-or-future zone. And just recognising it really does go a long way toward making it stop.
As for the future (because I tend to be much worse about drifting in that direction than drifting toward the past), I find lists to be very helpful, and here's why. If I think of something I need to do in the near future and don't write it down, it just swirls around in my head until I get it done. And it doesn't swirl around peacefully, it leaves a trail of anxiety. Whereas if I write it down, then I feel it is captured. Then I just cross it off when I do it, whenever that is.
Now some people have problems with lists, because they make these really comprehensive ones that try to encapsulate EVERYTHING they need to do to 'get themselves together.' Having filled page upon page with these details, they then look at the list and are instantly overwhelmed by the magnitude of the project before them. All I can say to this is that we all need to prioritise and schedule among the demands on us. You work your way through that list the same way you eat an elephant - one bite at a time.
A Deeper Level
Now let me turn to a slightly different problem, that of following our minds into alternative, preferred presents rather than directly our minds towards the ACTUAL present in which we sit. This is the category of problem that includes the anxiety in traffic jams, long queues and other 'useless' periods.
At the risk of (once again) stating the obvious. Either we can do something about the situation in which we find ourselves or we can't. In the former case, we should just get on and DO it. In the latter, we can but make the most of it. In either case, the first step is to accept (which is not to say celebrate) the real present, recognise and acknowledge it. Only having done that can we figure out whether we can usefully act. All too often, I just skip this all-important step and move straight into emotional over-reaction, with the accompanying unhealthy physical manifestations of stress and frustration.
Now this is where I could really be a lot truer to my professed world-view. I believe that whatever happens is the best that CAN happen and the worst that CAN happen. In other words, whatever happens, happens NECESSARILY. By better keeping this in mind, I can more helpfully acknowledge what IS and then work WITH it to the limits of my ability.
There is another reason for paying more attention to and granting acknowledgment to the present moment. There is an entire world out there as well as within us. Our real contact with that world, is entirely in the present. If we restrict the attention we give to it by frittering away part of our capacity on past and future ghosts, then we degrade our connection with reality.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig speaks of quality - that characteristic that defines something that is good from something that is not. In essence, quality surfs right on the leading edge of the present moment. It imposes itself on us in its raw, undefined Romantic form in the instant between awareness and consciousness. Once our rational, Classical consciousness - a filter defined by our make-up and experiences - takes hold of it, we analyse it, dissect it and place it into the appropriate category or pigeon-hole. If our awareness is in itself inhibited because our minds are leading us away from the present to battle past or future demons, then we are twice poorer: first in gaining only an attenuated or partial experience and second in what we can extract from that experience.
The mechanics who screwed up Pirsig's bike weren't sufficiently engaged in their work to do a good job. This might have even been the case if they did care deeply about achieving a good final product. The point is that you have to care about what you are DOING, not what any future product of it is. Caring about what you're doing (which is always in the present moment) is the single most important thing in motorcycle maintenance - and of course by extension, the most important thing full stop.
For Nietzsche as well, reality was this pre-rational raw wave within an ever-evolving flux. The front edge of that wave is all we can ever access. In fact, this unmitigated experience is so powerful that we have evolved physically and socially so as to buffer ourselves against it. Given our self-imposed safety padding, designed to protect our sanity, the closest most of us can safely get to unadulterated Being is through music.
Music speaks to us without words, riding a standing wave at the edge of our awareness and the rest of existence, with which that awareness is inextricable entwined and essentially one. For Nietzsche, only a new being, born of man but incomparably braver and sturdier, can 'face the music' without being overwhelmed. It opens the window to not only the beauty but also the terror of existence.
Just to come back to the mortal world, I have to admit that my experience with music has never been this earth-shattering. Yet I do see something in what Nietzsche is saying. Music does help bring me into and hold me in the present moment. It brings my mind out of its self-generated battles and makes it still. Then, whatever I turn to do, I do with a clearer mind. I am able to immerse myself more deeply into that activity, in the DOING rather than the product.
I don't do my own maintenance on my 50cc Vespa, but if I did, I would want to have my MP3 player nearby.