Bubbles burst and get blown again. Grass gets mowed and grows again. What’s short-lived often lives again. What’s done is done but invariably gets done again. Each keystroke I’m making right now is repeatedly lost forever and replaced by the next until words appear. The words may endure briefly but will soon be forgotten as newer information becomes available. It’s an old sentiment that there’s nothing new under the sun, but it’s one that’s difficult to disagree with.
It might seem like that renders a lot of our daily efforts pointless — if what I’m doing won’t be remembered for long then why bother? — but the ephemeral yet familiar nature of everything we encounter is the most helpful thing to remember when trying to implement the “live in the present” advice we’re always hearing.
My interpretation of why living in the present is thought to be good advice is because the past is gone and the future is not yet here. What’s gone can’t be altered and what’s to come might not arrive. Concentration on those two things is time wasted. Learn from the past but let it go. Plan for the future but don’t obsess. Live in the present.
The knowledge of the following three things helps us live in the present:
- Everything is short-lived.
- Everything has happened before.
- Everything will happen again.
But how does that knowledge help?
Tibetan Buddhists have a tradition that involves the methodical and time-consuming creation of beautiful geometric patterns called mandalas. After many hours spent applying coloured sand to the arrangement from small tubes, and following accompanying ceremonies and viewing, the intricate works are completely dismantled. What required so much effort and concentration to create is consigned to the bin with no record kept for posterity.
Wow, all that effort just to dump it when it’s done, what a waste of precious time!
When I have a problem in my life, it can seem like I’m the only one in the history of existence who’s ever run into this particular scenario. I struggle with thoughts of “why me?” and curse my rotten luck. But this reflexive reaction soon gives way to something more productive — the search for a solution. Lo and behold, someone has encountered this before! I can find advice and support on any issue you can think of, and in today’s connected world, that’s easier to do than ever before.
After solving the problem, or at least moving past it, I become equipped to help others with the same thing in future, and so the cycle continues.
Everything Is Short-lived
The destruction of a sand mandala is itself a ceremonial event. Crowds gather to watch the colourful arrangement be brushed into nothing more than a pile of grey dust. This act of annihilation symbolises the ephemerality of life and the world. In carrying out the hard work, arduous and complex as it is, and then ruining that work, the Tibetan monks reinforce their appreciation of impermanence. They accept that the world is in a constant state of flux.
“The universe is change”, wrote Marcus Aurelius, “our life is what our thoughts make it.”
This appreciation of impermanence helps us live in the present; we should focus on right now because what’s gone is quickly forgotten by all and what’s to come can’t phase us if we accept that, as the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus put it, the only constant in life is change. Fate leads the willing and drags along the reluctant.
Everything Has Happened Before
In his book, Call Sign Chaos, the retired United States Marine Corps general, Jim Mattis stresses the importance of learning from what has gone before us:
“Living in history builds your own shock absorber, because you’ll learn that there are lots of old solutions to new problems.”
We can do this, Mattis says, by reading books — as many as possible. If you have a problem, you can bet that someone else has had it before you. You can also bet they’ve found the solution and documented it in a book. If you take the time, you’ll find it. Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.
Everything Will Happen Again
Listening to what history teaches us, finding old solutions to new problems, helps us appreciate Marcus Aurelius’s assertion that nothing happens to any man that he is not formed by nature to bear. We have the strength to live in the present, come what may in the future.
“Reading sheds light on the dark path ahead. By travelling into the past, I enhance my grasp of the present….Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before…..Ultimately, a real understanding of history means that we face NOTHING new under the sun.”
- Jim Mattis
This “nothing new under the sun” sentiment is something Mattis drew from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, a book he always kept with him while on deployments. The full passage, which again reinforces the notion that we’ve seen it all before, goes like this:
“So with everything that befalls have ready-to-hand: ‘This is a familiar sight.’ Look up, look down, everywhere you will find the same things, of which histories ancient, medieval, and modern are full, and full of them at this day are cities and houses. There is nothing new under the sun. Everything is familiar, everything fleeting.”
Look up, look down, find the same things.
Learn, Plan, Live
Learning from the past equips us. It’s madness not to make use of the wealth of historical knowledge that’s freely available. Planning for the future steels our resolve. Although there will be new challenges for us, they won’t be new to the world — knowing this makes us less vulnerable to disruption when they arrive. These attitudes to the past and future leave us free. Free to live in the present.