Living in the Present

Task 8

A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by or like a watch in the night . . .  Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Psalm 90:1-4,12

Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own.  Matthew 6:34

When people are in a heavenly state of love or good feeling, if they feel no impatience, they are in an angelic state suspended from time. Arcana Caelestia #3827

To God, what is going to happen and what exists now are the same thing.  In fact for Him the whole of eternity is here and now. Arcana Caelestia #2788

What has time got to do with spiritual life?  What is the relationship between the way we handle time and our spiritual life?  The issue is learning to live in the present.

If we do not live in the present, what is the alternative?  You either live in the present, or in the past or in the future.  When do you live in the past?  You do it in the present.  When do you live in the future?  You do it in the present.

“Not living in the present” is really describing a way of using our mental energies.  There are two pitfalls for each direction that we look.  When we look back, the pitfalls are:  “It was great,”  or: “It was terrible.”  “It was great” can bring up dissatisfaction with the present.  “It was terrible,” can reawaken painful memories.

When we live in the future the one pitfall is: “It’s going to be great”, and the other is: “It’s going to be terrible.”  “It’s going to be great” can lead to dissatisfaction with the present, and “It’s going to be terrible” brings up worry and anxiety.  There is nothing wrong with enjoying memories of the past, or looking forward to something in the future.  The problem lies in the negative emotions of regret and fear that can come in.

It is easy to go through your life waiting for something to happen.  What does that do to the quality of your life now?  You spend your life waiting.

What value is it to remember some past event and then feel bad about it?  What does that do to your spiritual life?  If it makes you feel worse about life, it probably comes out of the basement.  It does not improve the quality of life.

I would like to illustrate this with the case of a man working on a conveyor belt.  His job is to sort oranges.  The oranges are coming past at great speed.  Some are good and some are bad.  When he sees a bad orange, he takes it off the conveyor belt and pitches it into the waste basket.  There is only a very short section of the belt where he can actually touch the oranges.

If he looks to the left, he sees the oranges that have already gone past.  He can say: “Oops, I missed a rotten orange.  That is so terrible.”  Of course, by the time he’s done that, many more oranges have passed him by.  If he looks to the right, he sees the oranges coming toward him, and says: “Oops, there is a rotten orange coming toward me.  This is terrible!”

Again, if he is looking to what is coming, he cannot deal with the oranges right in front of him.  The only value of looking at the oranges that are about to come is that it could help him grab the rotten ones when they come within his grasp.  If he’s going to do his job, the only way he can operate is in the present.

The only time we can work on the quality of our life is in the present.  Think of the psychic energy we spend dreading or looking forward to something in the future.  Think of the energy we put into regretting the past, or saying “it used to be good but it isn’t good anymore”.  This attempt to live sometime other than the present comes from the beasts in the basement.  Once they get us away from the place where we are living, we end up in some kind of negative emotion.

Sometimes we look at children and we marvel at their ability to live in the present.  We envy them.  But we have a choice about that, too.  We can actually stop and change our attitudes.  When we see ourselves slipping into regret abut the past or worry about the future, we can bring ourselves back into the present. Dwelling on the past or future is of no value.  It just tortures you.

When I go out to eat, I struggle with time.  First of all, I have this thought in my mind that we’re supposed to be there at a certain time.  Of course, with restaurants you don’t have to do that, but even so I get impatient.  There’s the thought:  “We’re going to be late.”

After we get in the car, I can’t wait until we get to the restaurant.  When we arrive, I can’t wait until we get inside the door.  We get inside the door and the hostess says, “Just wait here, I will put your name down.”  Now I can’t wait until the table is ready.

Finally the table is ready.  I sit down and now I can’t wait until the server comes and takes our order.  Then I can’t wait until the food comes.  When the food comes, I start eating the peas and I can’t wait until I get to the french fries.  When I’m eating, my main course,  I’m thinking about the desert.  And then I can’t wait until we get the check, we can pay and can get back in the car to go home.

Have you ever done that?  Have you ever spent an entire evening being just a little bit out of the present moment?

This is an example of going through the whole experience of eating out, missing it by just a few minutes or a few hours.  It’s really hard to just eat the peas or drink the iced tea.  It is hard to be in the moment instead of in constant anticipation.

What are some negative emotions attached to living in the past or the future?

Guilt    Anxiety    Regret    Shame    Sadness    Fear    Anger

I think if we stayed with it, we would find that every negative emotion in the book is related to living in the past or in the future.  And, of course, you can only live in the present.  By trying to live in the future or the past, we still live in the present but we spoil its quality.

A counselor is called to the bedside of a cancer patient because the nurses believed that the cancer patient couldn’t handle the constant pain.  The counselor sits with the patient and says: “What is it like?”  The patient says:  “Oh, it’s awful.  I have these terrible pains.  I’m never free of pain and I think I’m going out of my mind.  I can’t do anything.  I can’t think of anything.  I’m always in pain.”

The counselor says: “Are you in pain right now?”  The patient looks puzzled. She stops and reflects and then she says:  “No, but I was a few minutes ago.”  “What are you experiencing right now?”  “Well, nothing.  But I’m going to feel some pain pretty soon.” The counselor continues to work with the patient, eventually making a map of the patient’s pain.  There is a burst of pain, then it subsides.  Then there is a long time without pain.  It turned out that there was two minutes of pain and then maybe 20 minutes without pain. This made two out of twenty minutes in pain.  Ninety percent  of the time this person was pain free.

She believed herself to be in constant pain.  With the help of the counselor, and by living in the present, she got up out of bed and resumed normal life, pausing to deal with the pain as it came up.

You see what was happening?  The pain was being magnified by remembering it and by anticipating it.

Jesus said Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.   The pain is bad enough when it hits you.  Don’t keep dwelling on it afterward or anticipating it ahead of time.

Looking to the future with anxiety and to the past with regret take away all the happiness of life.  So if you want to enjoy life, just learn to live in the present.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we did not have to live with the limitations of space and time!  Sometimes it seems as if these are two big enemies.  How often do we hear people say: “There are not enough hours in the day,” “I just haven’t got time,” and even, “I have to much time, it’s driving me crazy.” And then there are all the complaints about space – “My children live too far away,” “I’m not able to be with you physically, but I am certainly there in spirit.”

What would life be like without these limitations?  The answer is simple. It would be heaven!  When people pass from this world to the next, they leave behind all concerns about these external things.  There are no clocks or calendars in heaven. This does not mean that eternal life is always the same. It is constantly changing.  It has a flow and a direction to it, the way time does in this world, but it is not measured. The angels simply go through the various phases of their life corresponding to our morning afternoon and evening, without having to be told by the clock what to do and when. Imagine what your life would be like if you just finished whatever you were doing and then went on to do the next thing, not because the clock told you to, but because you were ready.  This is what heaven is like.  Many people enjoy retirement because it has a similar quality.  It is interesting how our vacation time and our time off, begin to imitate the time of heaven, which is just a natural flow from one state of mind to another, and one activity to another.

As we grow spiritually, we learn how to honor the fact that our spirit, even as we live in this world, operates beyond the time-space framework. And it is interesting to note that many human inventions are designed to make the world more like the spiritual world by overcoming, at least to some extent, the limitations of space and time.

One reason it’s simple is because we can’t not do it – the present is the only place we can possibly live. But that depends on the meaning of “live,” which can be interpreted as “where you focus your attention,” which could be on the past, the future or the present. So a more detailed version of the task is: When you notice your attention going toward the future or the past, bring it back to the present moment.

A word that seems to pop up frequently, especially when focusing your attention on the future, is “worry.” Jesus talked about this in Matthew 6:25-34

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. 

Swedenborg wrote about this passage in Heavenly Secrets #8478, a rather long quotation (worth reading) that discusses how worry about the future robs us of happiness, and explicitly ties faith in providence back to the concept of peace. Some excerpts:

[In reference to the rule forbidding the children of Israel from collecting more than one day’s worth of manna]: “It does not mean the care of procuring for oneself food and raiment, and even resources for the time to come; for it is not contrary to order for anyone to be provident for himself and his own. But those have care for the morrow who are not content with their lot; who do no trust in the Divine, but in themselves; and who have regard for only worldly and earth things, and not for heavenly things. Those who trust in the Divine … do not think of the morrow with solicitude, still less with anxiety. They know that for those who trust in the Divine all things advance toward a happy state to eternity, and that whatever befalls them in time is still conducive thereto.”

“They who are in the stream of providence are all the time carried along toward everything that is happy, whatever may be the appearance of the means; and that those are in the stream of providence who put their trust in the Divine and attribute all things to Him… Be it known also that insofar as anyone is in the stream of Providence, so far he is in a state of peace.”

Peace, perfect peace
I cry for peace in this neighborhood.
Oh, love, oh, love, perfect love
I beg you for love in this neighborhood.

No water can cool this fire,
Only the Lord can save us.
I cry for peace in this neighborhood.

I take a look inside and this is what I see:
We need more love, we need more love in this community.
Oh, I take a look inside and this is what I see:
We need more love, we need more love in this community

Whenever you feel regret or anxiety, observe any connection with the past or future. Let go and bring yourself into an awareness of something positive in the here and now.