It is, of course, a very common experience to have a great sense of excitement as you look forward to something, only to have a sense of anti-climax once what you have been anticipating actually comes to pass. This is one of the ways in which the idea that the journey is more important than the arrival has a degree of truth.
In a similar vein, Buddhist thought includes the idea that it is wise to disengage from worldly pursuits, as the acquisition of one ‘prize ‘ or reward, one achievement of a goal, simply leads to our formulating the next goal and anticipating the next achievement. Perhaps it is not realistic to expect such disengagement on a mass scale, so we are likely to continue to face the challenges involved in what amounts to reaching what we think is the top of the hill, only to find that there is a another summit beyond it (and quite possibly another one beyond that).
What is particularly important about this is that, if we are relying on reaching that summit, whatever it may be, for our well-being and happiness, then we are limiting ourselves to relatively brief moments once an achievement is gained. We are missing out on the satisfactions to be gained from enjoying the journey; we are letting our lives pass by: the present moment becomes dominated by future aspirations, many of which will never come to fruition, of course, however skilled, committed or fortunate we may be in our endeavours.
This is partly what mindfulness is about – savouring the present moment, rather than allowing ourselves to get bogged down in the past or sacrifice today’s joys to tomorrow’s hopes.
I am not suggesting that we should not have goals or aspirations. On the contrary, I see them as very important. What I am suggesting – quite strongly – is that we need to be aware of the common danger of being so future oriented that we lose sight of what the present offers. To return to the journey analogy, we can so easily be focusing so much on the destination that we miss the spectacular scenery along the way.
As in so many things, it is a matter of balance. We need to have a balanced ‘temporal sense’, by which I mean not losing sight of our past and its importance, but not allowing it to dominate or distort our present either (as will often happen when people have been traumatized); equally, not losing sight of the future and our hopes for what that will hold for us, but also not letting that anticipated future steal the precious moments of the present.
On the surface, this sounds simple and straightforward, but in reality, it can be quite complex and challenging. The pitfalls involved are not only of significant proportions, but also relatively common. So many of people’s life problems will stem from this existential challenge of a balanced approach to time. There will be those who are ‘living in the past’, struggling to get beyond old hurts, for example (hence the use of the word ‘trauma’ which means ‘wound’ – it is as if certain life experiences can leave a scar) and who therefore face an emotionally and spiritually impoverished life. There will also be people who are ‘living in the future’, as if there is some sort of personal utopia they are working towards, a utopia that will never materialize, of course (not as a utopia, anyway). For example, those who are bitten by the bug of ambition will often find that achieving their ambition was not as wonderful as they had envisaged (and it is likely that they will very quickly formulate another ambition anyway).
‘Savour the moment’ is too simplistic a slogan, but it is helpful in alerting us to the need to get our ‘temporal balance’ right.