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LtQ: What do you want to be when you grow up?

Last week’s question was about place, about being where you are. This week’s is about time, and you probably won’t be surprised that it’s about being when you are.

What do you want to be when you grow up? I wish I knew. It’s good to have goals, and to know what you want to be or do. I envy those people who do know, whether they want to research climate change or be ordained or practice medicine or write or play rugby for the Chiefs or learn to walk again, and therefore have a reasonable shot at achieving that being or doing.

What is less good, however, is to live in the future.  When we’re at work, we dream about our next holiday. When we’re on holiday, we worry about the work piling up. Instead of thinking about the steps we need to take to reach our goal, and focusing on the first one, we look at the goal in the distance and worry that we aren’t nearly there yet.

For that matter, it’s not good to live in the past, either. We might dwell on memories, where we’ve failed or been hurt, memories that are intrusive. And nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. There never was a golden age when everybody enjoyed all their rights and were healthy, happy and successful.

Which leaves us with the present. It’s become a bit of a cliché, but it really is all we have. Life unfolds in the present.

Yet, as Anthony de Mello maintained, most people are asleep. We need to wake up, open up our eyes, see what is real, both inside and outside of ourselves. The greatest human gift is to be aware, to be in touch with oneself, one’s body, mind, feelings, thoughts, sensations. He wrote in his book Awareness (pdf): “So begin to be aware of your present condition whatever that condition is. Stop being a dictator. Stop trying to push yourself somewhere. Then someday you will understand that simply by awareness you have already attained what you were pushing yourself toward.”

We human beings have this great gift of being able to step back from ourselves, to undertake our thoughts rather than let our thoughts control us. De Mello called this awareness. Others call it mindfulness. When you become aware, you become an observer of your thoughts from moment to moment, without judging your them, without grasping at them or suppressing them, and without all those shoulds and oughts. Moreover, you realize that you are not your thoughts and that you don’t have to react to them.

The problem is how to become aware in order to live more in the present, because if you are not aware, you are not aware that you are not aware. But I presume that if you are reading this, there is a chance that you have at least become aware that you are not aware.

After that, it takes practice. And if you want to be aware in crisis situations, practise awareness when you are not under stress. So here are a couple of exercises, and there is plenty more guidance in de Mello and online.

  • Breathe. Try it a few times right now… breathe in… breathe out. Don’t try and change your breathing, but just become aware of it… in… out…
  • Be present to your surroundings. What can you see, hear, smell, touch, taste? Appreciate that cloud for its cloud-ness, instead of looking at it with foreboding of rain. Don’t let that road drill jar on your nerves. Just acknowledge that it is there.

Two final quotes from Awareness. “The neurotic is a person who worries about something that did not happen in the past. He’s not like us normal people who worry about things that will not happen in the future.” Um, yes, but… “There’s only one reason why you’re not experiencing bliss at this present moment, and it’s because you’re thinking or focusing on what you don’t have. Otherwise you would be experiencing bliss. You’re focusing on what you don’t have. But, right now you have everything you need to be in bliss.”