Something to Look Forward To (written 2015)
It's a habit in our home for my husband and I to compare our agendas for the day as we finish breakfast. This is helpful in case we've forgotten each other's plans ( a dentist appointment made months ago or lunch with a friend), if we need to team up for some items on the list (bathing the dog) or we're going in different directions but both counting on using the same vehicle (the truck for hauling or the jeep for more economical gas use). But I've also noticed there's a tendency in this planning for me to build expectations of the day around some “event”. Instead of a flow of moments, in this critical window of time, I am in danger of seeing the day as a page in my daybook, with tidy boxes for various activities. My mind immediately responds to the boxes with emotional labels. I like this, I don't like that. In this mental image, the enjoyable bits appear in highlighted marker and the boxes in between are shadowed grey.
I've been a practitioner for many years and it is my ongoing intention to develop continuity of mindfulness. So in cases like this, I follow the instruction to investigate. It seems a human tendency to think of our lives in segments of some kind: two weeks till a child's birthday, then a week until an uncle's visit, then just three weeks until vacation. We lean forward and rush through the time that is mere filler on the way to the next highlighted event.
Waking, we might be looking forward to that first coffee. We coax ourselves through mundane tasks by anticipating the ones we'll enjoy in the day. During a meal, we anticipate dessert. At concerts we wait to hear our favorite song. On days when we're tired we yearn the whole day for our bed. On nights we can't sleep we yearn for the alarm, and the night to be over. Experts who advise procrastinators and teach time management skills, make use of this human tendency, by telling us to break large tasks into smaller ones, and to build in rewards when we reach certain points in the process.
My ongoing investigation was nudged recently in reading a novel where a lovable and self-indulgent character justifies her various addictions, from food to cigarettes, by saying “you need something to look forward to”. Do we need something to look forward to?
Where does this perceived “need” come from? There is some fallacy at work here about the nature of happiness. When pleasure and happiness are seen as the same thing we form confused priorities and make mistaken choices. It isn't only that we have been conditioned to expect instant gratification, it is also that we have internalized the belief that everything should entertain us. From the food we eat, to the news we watch, to the work we do, we seem too often to be guided by two standards: It should be “fun”, and if it can't be fun, it should be over with quickly. Where does this idea come from?
The nature of the mind itself, I think, is at the core of this. It's easy to get a baby to eat candy, much harder to convince him/her to eat oatmeal. Our mind is a baby. What stimulates and entertains, what draws our attention is like candy. TV or study for an exam? Do your taxes or read a good book? Hmmm. We've all been there. It looks like it's a matter of self-discipline, of will power, to learn to do the harder, less appealing thing. But practicing mindfulness reveals that this is not the case. Will power is not at the center, it's seeing how the mind works, so that we break through the confusion that makes us think we're making choices by always doing what we want.
We can be a puppet on the string of impulse for our entire lives. Or we can begin to pay attention. We can see the window of choice. And gradually, seeing this, we are given the opportunity to act in ways that are not instantly gratifying or instantly pleasurable. And here's the thing: When we do this, we discover a deeper happiness. I don't mean passing the exam or avoiding interest on our taxes. I mean discovering the joy inherent in each and every thing we do. The “something” to look forward to is passing by while our head is turned. It's here, in this moment, whatever it holds.