The Problem With Living In The Present

20.9.17

It isn’t always easy to live in the present.

 I mean, the present is filled with catastrophic climate change, a depressing housing market, rent to pay, gym classes to skip, that argument that you have since realised you were actually wrong about but now it’s too awkward to admit so you’re just sticking with it.

Every day we are given two choices: we can either fantasize about what we want for dinner tonight, or we can “be in the moment” with the violence in Syria, hurricanes and earthquakes that just won’t quit, and the disturbing state of American politics.

And besides, despite what yoga and meditation keep trying to tell us, is “living in the present” really the best advice to be dishing out anyway?

I read an article on the New York Times this week that tackled this very idea and the conclusion the author came to was both beautiful and had a lot of merit. As he said, to live solely in the present would be a mistake. To live “as if every day were your last” is simply bad advice. A recipe for recklessness. It suggests a complete disregard for the future, and frankly it’s irresponsible.

So what the author proposed instead was a different interpretation of living in the present that was inspired by Aristotle. (And this next part might sound a little complicated but stick with me okay).

There are two types of activities we engage in: telic activities and atelic activities. Telic activities are those where the activity can be completed. Like washing your face or reading this article. There is a destination to arrive at. A finish line, so to speak. Once your skin is clean or you reach the bottom of this page, the goal has been achieved. Aristotle described it as, “If you are learning, you have not at the same time learned.” By contrast, atelic activities are those which don’t aim towards a final state; like spending time with your girlfriends or reminiscing about your childhood. No matter how much time you spend with your girlfriends you can’t “complete” that activity. You can’t finish it and then tick it off your to-do list.

The beauty of atelic activities is that they are fully realised in the present. Aristotle described it like this, “At the same time, one is seeing and has seen, is understanding and has understood, is thinking and has thought.” There is nothing you need to do to achieve an atelic activity except what you are doing right at this very moment. If you’re spending time with your girls then you’ve already succeeded. You have arrived. Tick.

The issue with telic activities is that you become fixated on where you are heading and you place all your joy and satisifcation in the future. The joy is in having a clean face or in finishing this article and you completely disregard how you got there. I have this exact problem with my writing. I’m always looking forward to the end of the writing process; the final essay or article and how good (hopefully) it might be. Hunter S, Thompson described writing as “the opposite of sex: you only enjoy it once it’s over.” But what about enjoying the messy middle? The regurgitating of ideas onto a page? The swapping of average words for more beautiful ones? The removing of sentences that don’t add value to your story? The brainstorming of titles and punch lines?

At the end of the NYT article the author prescribed his new take on the idea of being present, “To be present is to care about the process of what you are doing and not just the projects you aim to complete.” He suggests we shouldn’t fixate on where we are going, but instead learn to love the activities that gets us there, no matter how significant or insignificant they might be.

My advice would be to choose a mundane task, like making lunch or walking to the bus stop, and try to be as present as you can in the process. Be conscious of the feeling in your feet as your weight distributes from the heels to the toes, be conscious of what the weather is like in the exact moment you step outside the front door. What’s the temperature. Are you warm or cold. Disregard where you are going entirely. Find joy in the details. And see how that feeling adds joy to other parts of your day.

As the author said, “The point of political protest is to change the world. But the process matters too. We protest to make the present count for something, no matter what the future holds.”