Living in the Present
The Work Is The Way
Let’s start with a quote from Alan Watts, writing in The Way Of Zen:
“According to convention, I am not simply what I am doing now. I am also what I have done, and my conventionally edited version of my past is made to seem almost more the real “me” than what I am at this moment. For what I am seems so fleeting and intangible, but what I was is fixed and final. It is the firm basis for predictions of what I will be in the future, and so it comes about that I am more closely identified with what no longer exists than with what actually is!”
Think about this as we consider the following points:
Can you change the past?
Not only is the truth of the past fixed and immutable, your remembrance of that past is also mercilessly revised, selectively edited and hugely subjective. You don’t mean to do it, but you do - the past itself no longer exists, but what is more important is that your version of the past never existed. This doesn’t stop us from worrying about the past because humans naturally carry the weight of consequence.
The gravity we attach to consequence is borderline superstitious, especially when you consider that, in the vast majority of cases, being in trouble is basically a fake idea. What most of us think of as “being in trouble” is more accurately described as “we want people to love us / give us approval / not reject us.” This desire is usually born out of our own inability to love or accept ourselves.
Should you worry about the future?
Define “worry.” You can certainly prepare and do your best in whatever you do, and a large part of the process of doing your best is to not do things that are obviously foolish, or that go against your best instincts, or that are plainly illogical.
But the future, as it actually truly is, exists as an infinite number of possible realities, all of which are independently manipulated by a completely unknowable array of systems that are entirely exterior to your own life. So obsessing about the ten possibilities you can imagine, even if they are statistically likely, in no way prepares you for something like a meteor crashing through the cosmos and exploding over your office building on the day of your big meeting, breaking all the windows and injuring some co-workers. Consider that this actually happened in Russia this year and you watched it on YouTube.
So, by all means, cross your t’s and dot your i’s. But actually worrying about the future is a useless form of fear. Either you can solve a problem or you can’t, and you already know which of those is true.
How can I be mindful of the present?
If you aren’t governed by fear of the future and you aren’t paralyzed by a vision of yourself that no longer exists, you are in a position to live in the fluid present. The main barrier to this is a need to feel like we are capable and prepared and that we know what’s going on and that we are an expert and that we are in control. We think this makes us better at handling a situation in the moment but it actually shuts off the opportunity to approach things as a beginner, to be open to possibility from moment to moment. We do this because of ego.
Ego is the culprit in our worry about the future and our obsession with the past. It is the construct of ourselves that we’ve built for ourselves, which we use to inform our own decisions in a terrible, emotionally incestuous cycle. Alan Watts has something else worthwhile to say on this point:
Ego is a social institution with no physical reality. The ego is simply your symbol of yourself. Just as the word “water” is a noise that symbolizes a certain liquid without being it, so too the idea of ego symbolizes the role you play, who you are, but it is not the same as your living organism.
- Buddhism : The Religion of No-Religion
Your ego is a metaphor for you, but it isn’t you. You are the only one who cares about it. It is actually almost more of a bad pun or a euphemism, something that lurches out into the world with a sly, oily wink, embarrassing everyone but the person who should be most ashamed. Another word for ego is pride, and for wisdom on pride I turn to a well-known Zen master, Mr. Marsellus Wallace:
Night of the fight, you might feel a slight sting. That’s pride fuckin’ with you.
Fuck pride. Pride only hurts, it never helps. You fight through that shit. ‘Cause a year from now, when you kicking it in the Caribbean, you gonna say to yourself, “Marsellus Wallace was right.”
- Pulp Fiction
Marsellus Wallace was right.
Does all of this sound dumb? Consider this: I recently gave a talk on Zen and startups and afterwords, the founders of another ad agency asked me how Swash Labs handles pricing. They described a situation that is familiar to me: an estimate for a design project was given, and the client asked for revision after revision after revision. Unbillable time stacked up and they started to actively lose money on the deal. They felt they couldn’t bring it up because no provision for limited revisions was made in the original agreement.
“Why don’t you just state your case and explain the situation to your client? What’s stopping you?” I asked.
“We don’t want him to be mad at us,” they said, not unreasonably. “We want to have a positive experience.”
“When you say you don’t want him to be mad at you,” I said, “what you’re actually saying is that you want him to write you a check.”
“Well, yes,” they said. “There’s also that.”
This is a tough situation to be in for new businesses. When you’re starting out, you have no clout and your reputation is a blank slate. You are trying to be good to your clients but you also have to be very careful about money and time because those are the gas in the tank. And so entrepreneurs that aren’t out slinging A Rounds from VC firms sometimes have trouble balancing the development of a client base against not getting taken advantage of, between making relationships and making money, between building trust and building a business.
If this other ad agency’s founders were perfectly confident in their abilities and properly valued what they do - if, in fact, they loved and accepted themselves - it would be much easier for them to have the necessary talk about time and money. But when you’re starting out you chase money and jealously guard potential checks because you’re afraid they will be scarce because you’re afraid new clients and work will be hard to come by because you don’t know if you are good enough because it all might go in the ditch at any minute because you’ve failed at things before and maybe you are wrong to believe in yourself now.
The list goes on.
This is how we turn good ideas into commodities. This is how we accidentally teach people to take advantage of us: fear about the future, based on an imperfect past vision of ourselves that no longer exists. It is a terrible weapon we are all too happy to wield against ourselves.
Another well-known Zen master named Babe Ruth once said that yesterday’s home runs don’t win today’s game. This is absolutely true, but it is equally true that yesterday’s disastrous defensive error doesn’t lose today’s game. You only are what you are right now, and you only exist in the world as it actually is right now. There is no existence outside of right now.