“Not even for a moment can a man be without action”
The Trumpers and Trumpettes are flying high on a reality disconnect. White Christian Nationalists have confused Christianity with fascism, and anti-vaxxers are fighting for their right to die early — and let’s not forget California is burning, Europe floods, and the American West thirsts for water. The headlines each day are too depressing, causing anxiety to build and stomach acids to churn. What’s a person to do? My suggestion is to chill, relax, and put it all in perspective. Start with the here and now, our shared common reality called the present moment. It is the only fundamentally real aspect of our lives.
Our brains are in the habit of synthesizing information to create an impression of what’s happening around us. Very cleverly, the brain evolved to throw out most of what it detects, allowing us to focus on survival. Who cares if a shiny red apple is hanging from a nearby tree when we are running from a pack of hungry wolves? The brain will pass on considering the apple. The conscious brain ignores most of its incoming data to keep us from becoming overwhelmed. Because of this tendency to ignore most sensory input, our impressions of the past are an imperfect and incomplete assemblage of memories. The past is a string of events, and the little of it we remember is probably not exactly what happened.
But I have no problems thinking about the past, and I am quite fond of my imperfect memories. For the first eighteen years of my life, I spent almost every day in contact with my parents. I have wonderful memories of those days, but I certainly can’t provide a blow-by-blow description of how those years passed.
So, the past is gone and the future is a set of expectations, plans, and aspirations we adopt as we imagine what may happen. But remember, the future has not happened and thus does not exist. With only faded recollections from our past and vague aspirations for the future, we are left with the present as the only real point of existence. But here is the rub; the present is only the interface between the past and the future, the length of time it occupies is zero seconds — it only marks a transition, and it disappears as soon as it arrives. From the perspective of humans, all action occurs in this transition or inflection point — the present moment.
Great, the only bit of reality in our lives doesn’t technically exist. But it’s not as depressing as it seems. There is a lot to work with when we embrace this understanding. We should first remember that dwelling only on an imperfectly remembered past means we’re not engaging with the only functional part of our life, the present moment. Likewise, dreaming about a better life waiting for us in the future also entails not engaging with the present.
These facts about the present are no secret, and people who understand the nature of our reality constantly try to connect us to the moment at hand. Whole businesses exist around teaching us to be mindful of the present. Not to be too cynical but charging people to tell them the present is their only reality seems a bit opportunistic.
But there is something of value here. Despite the fact our memories are imperfect, they do capture our perceptions of distinct points in time. Collectively these memories form a pattern, a personal trajectory through time, leading to who we are in the here-and-now. We are, in essence, the culmination of our genes and all the events, interactions, and decisions from our past. Determining our future means influencing our trajectory to send it in the direction we desire.
I once had someone tell me a person can completely alter their life trajectory in a single moment. When I asked for an example, they pointed to Paul of the New Testament. I considered Paul to be an interesting subject for them to use since I once had a professor who believed modern Christianity was more influenced by Paul than by Christ. Perhaps it was a bit of a heretical comment, but he was sincere.
Their reasoning used established facts. Before his conversion to Christianity, Paul spent his life pursuing Christians to persecute them. He was known as Saul during those earlier days. In a single metaphysical revelation, he switched from being a persecutor to a proselytizer. Subsequently, he became the most influential force within the early Christian movement. They maintained Paul was an example of a person who abandoned his previous trajectory and launched on a new path.
I listened carefully but perceived the story differently. Before his conversion, Saul was an obsessive zealot pursuing his inner convictions with abandon. After his conversion, Paul was an obsessive zealot pursuing his inner convictions with abandon. This part of his trajectory was the same before and after conversion. His trajectory was always one of a man completely driven by his religious fervor. But it is true he changed the focus of his inner conviction. He used events from a specific moment to refocus his future, but he didn’t abandon his psychological core, developed and honed during his pre-conversion life. The present is our opportunity to change the future. However, the best we can do is create a new point on our trajectory.
Another way of understanding the present is through its functional role as the only point of action in our lives. The past and the future are both abstractions. All action occurs in the present. A bullet fired ten years ago is not going to rocket forward in time to strike you, nor is a potential car accident in the future going to send you to the hospital today. For human beings, all efforts to direct the future must occur through action in the present moment — action is everything.
Thinking about acting is an acceptable way to plan, but plans without corresponding action accomplish nothing. Action is the link binding us to the rest of the world. Life is a kinetic experience. Without action in the present moment, the universe becomes static and frozen.
Anxiety builds when we are driven in directions we don’t want to go by forces we can’t control. Past or current events thwart our ability to move towards a future we desire. Our anxiety is wrought by our internal projections of this unwelcome future, a future that does not yet exist. Contemplating this undesirable future causes stomach acids to flow. One solution is to stop excessively dwelling on the future and act in the present to change your trajectory. Perhaps you change jobs, engage with community help organizations, join a PAC, climb mountains, or create art. Comfort, solace, and meaning flow from taking action.
Carlos Castaneda reflects on the nature of action in his sagas about the shaman Don Juan,
“A warrior lives by acting, not by thinking about acting, nor by thinking about what he will think when he has finished acting.”
“The flaw with words is that they always make us feel enlightened, but when we turn around and face the world they always fail us, and we end up facing the world as we always have, without enlightenment. For this reason, a warrior seeks to act rather than talk, and to this effect he gets a new description of the world — a new description where talking is not that important, and where new acts have new reflections.”
The Bhagavad Gita acknowledges the central role of action in the present moment:
“For not even for a moment can a man be without action. Helplessly are all driven to action by the forces born of nature” (Bhagavad Gita 3:5)
Life is a kinetic experience. We act, and the universe responds, pushing back, giving essential feedback, and letting us know we are alive. Action is a state of being. We are born into it, and it is all we know. Action in the present is a solution for dampening anxiety and maybe even eliminating it from our lives.
Changes to our future only occur through action in the present. Every action we undertake in the fleeting transition between past and future nudges our trajectory and alters our future. Once we have acted and done what is possible, we need to move on to our next task and let our actions take hold in the world around us. Don’t engage with anxiety by trying to live in the past or the future. Instead, continue to embrace the present and influence your trajectory with more action.
Perhaps we should reflect on an interpretation of Verse 15 in the Tao Te Ching.
We are defined by our qualities.
The wise person understands we are not static beings.
Action is the expression of our inner existence.
We are kinetic.
The wise person is alert, cautious, and patient, but always in fluid motion like water in a stream.
Receptive to the Universe, a wise person allows their actions to flow from within.
He is a vessel filled with an undefinable Truth, and his actions spring forth as the Tao spills over the brim of that vessel, returning to the Void.
A person of true intent exists in the present and is receptive to all things.
She is defined by her actions and not by her words.
All tasks are done completely, and when a wise person is finished with their tasks, they move onward like a flowing stream.
Learning from Dante (by WM House; Medium)
The Wheel of Time (by Carlos Castaneda) — 2001, Washington Square Press
In Search of a Path (by WM House; Amazon Books)
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