Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well I have others.
I’m a big believer in practicing what you preach. And sometimes pragmatism trumps all. I haven’t had time this week to pen a new blog and so I’m publishing one of the earlier blogs that I had written fittingly enough on the topic of pragmatism.
One of the confusing issues in pursuing personal growth is the conflict between principles and pragmatism.
An example is the concept of present moment living. The theory is all that exists is the present moment, the past is dead history and the future is imagined fantasy. The present moment is real and all else is illusion. And the more we live in the present moment, the better we will function and the richer our lives will be. Spiritual gurus have mastered the skill of present moment living, the rest of us have to be satisfied to visit but never permanently relocate. Our minds are constantly flitting back and forth from the past to the future. If you can attain spiritual perfection and are always in the present moment, you are blessed and don’t need to concern yourself with the future. You will be that rare person who won’t be yelling and screaming on a plane that’s going to crash. You will be enjoying the present moment. I mean air-plane crashes aren’t crashes until they crash and maybe they won’t crash and why cause unnecessary suffering by living in the future. The power of present moment living is demonstrated by the monk in the following Zen story:
A monk was being chased by two tigers. He came to the edge of a cliff. He looked back—the tigers were almost upon him. Noticing a vine leading over the cliff, he quickly crawled over the edge and began to let himself down by the vine. Then as he checked below, he saw two tigers waiting for him at the bottom of the cliff. He looked up and observed that two mice were gnawing away at the vine. Just then, he saw a beautiful strawberry within arm’s reach. He picked and enjoyed the best tasting strawberry in his whole life!
Although only minutes from death, the monk could enjoy the present moment. Our life continually sends us “strawberries”. But do we let ourselves enjoy the strawberries or do we use our valuable consciousness worrying about the tigers? Notice that the monk fully responded to the physical danger in the most intelligent way. He ran from the tigers – and he even scrambled down the cliff while hanging onto the a vine. And having done this, he remained fully in the present moment to enjoy whatever life offered him. Although death was only minutes away, he did not let thoughts of the future terrify him. After doing everything he could do, he used his precious consciousness to fully enjoy this moment of his life.
Now all the above sounds wonderful – and is wonderful – if you are willing to devote yourself to a life of meditation to achieve that level of spirituality. In our fast paced western oriented culture most aren’t willing to become Zen-like in their spiritual practices. So I think a more pragmatic approach will have a wider audience and be more effective for most. I have great admiration for those who reap the benefits of serenity by spending hours in meditative practice. I flame out after about 20-30 minutes and have never had the discipline to make it part of my daily routine. So I think that there might be a viable compromise between a life totally dedicated to present moment living and what is realistic for most of us.
It would mean focusing on the present moment but understanding that we will not be able to totally drop all connections to the past and future. We will strive to live as consciously as possible in the present without losing the wider context of our history and our plans for the future. Living consciously by this definition would mean learning from the past but having the awareness of not being held in bondage by the past. It mean acknowledging our opportunity to change regardless of how hard that may be. It would also mean that it’s desirable to have plans for the future but acknowledging the reality that everything never goes according to plan. Present moment living would dictate that when detours happen (and they will), we must then assess where we are, make adjustments and go forward. It doesn’t mean that we will have the ability to factor out all pain and disappointment but that we will learn to accept that this is part of living and move on.
Present moment living cannot be used as an excuse for abdicating responsibility for one’s life. The theory is misunderstood and misapplied when aphorisms such as “Live today for tomorrow you may be dead” or “Eat desert first life is short” control one’s life. The subtext here is to live irresponsibly. That’s just a form of instant gratification that doesn’t take into account that the future will happen.
We need to learn how to balance and integrate these competing, conflicting needs into our life. Those who attempt to follow a purely spiritual path or adhere strictly to some philosophical stance on life may experience significant inner conflict by trying to “rise above” our human experience. We are torn between human needs and our desire for spiritual fulfillment. It isn’t a question of abandoning a need, but to find the appropriate balance that can help you live your life in a more effective and fulfilling way. The idea is to face reality and work with it. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that the mark of intelligence is the “ability to hold two or more contradictory ideas in one’s mind and still be able to function.” You have to learn to co-exist with principles and the reality of your existence. As some Arabs would say “Look to Allah, but remember to tie up your camel.”