I was re-reading a passage from “A complete idiot’s guide to Zen living” by Gary McClain and Eve Adamson when I was struck anew by a very simple concept (don’t be misled by the title – it’s an excellent book for both newbies or otherwise and it’s a reference guide I regularly come back to).
The idea was posed in a very simple question which read: If you were to write an autobiography what would you start the first chapter with? Is it going to be something along the lines – “Someday I’m going to be….” or something like “Today I lived…”?
The question is raw and simple as it can get yet it’s profoundly intriguing. The answer defines whether you are living in an illusory self-definition of yourself or one in which the concept you have of yourself truly reflects who you are.
Bang! It zapped me right between the eyes. It very much points at one of my failings and shortcomings. I don’t want to sound like I’m beating on my chest in guilt, but I do have to admit that I sometimes conceive of myself in terms of what I want to be or achieve rather than what I am doing at the moment. I envision myself by means of my potential self and not my actual self.
Did this ever occur to you? We are all driven by some goal or mission that we want to reach in life be that having a successful career, being leaders in a particular field, having a life full of rich experiences and inspirations and so on. And yes, we all day dream about it with our mind floating away into some imaginary future episode of our lives where everything is as we think it should be.
We project this future autobiography in our heads. We design the plot, characters and scene settings down to the slightest details and enthrall ourselves in this self-created fantasy minutes or even hours at a time only to have our playback paused or interrupted only by someone or something.
Isn’t this normal and kind of OK? don’t we all do that? Don’t we all have aspirations and dreams about how we want ourselves to be in future? Aren’t goals and visions of my self in the future necessary to make me thrive forward?
Yes and no. Yes goals are important and so is visualizing yourself having or living those particular goals but identifying yourself with what you want to be rather than what you are, presents a series of problems which are not apparent at first. Here are a few:
1. It diverts your attention, energy & focus from the present – the only time you can act to change your future.
2. It gives a false self-identity based on mental clippings and cuttings of your imagination rather than a faithful self-portrait of the present self
3. It undermines your current efforts. By attaching yourself to an autobiography based on your imagined future self (me as a social entrepreneur – me as a Yoga school owner, etc), you might find it hard to appreciate the small steps you are taking NOW in the present. This is because everytime you succeed in making a small step you see it as insignificant because in your head it still feels a long way from the destination. This deflates your efforts and demotivates you.
I often fall prey to all the three problems listed above.The first point is pretty clear to most of us (especially those with good background reading in personal development).
We spend a lot of our waking time wishing and daydreaming about that time and place we want to reach in our life and in so doing we do not realize that we are stealing away that very scarce and precious time we have to act and make things happen. That time is now in the present.
Here is a quote from Zen and the beat way, by Alan Watts:
“The concept of time is one of the great ways in which we are fooled. We believe that the past and the future are, as it were, more solid and of longer duration than our present…We live in a sort of hourglass with a big bulb at one end (the past) and a big bulb at the other end (the future); we are at the little neck in between, and we have no time. Whereas when our vision becomes changed, we see that…we have in, in fact, an enormous present in which we live and that the purely abstract borders of this present are the past and future.”
The second problem is more subtle and slippery. This is because it is not immediately obvious why it is a bad thing to have a ‘pimped up’ self-image. In fact a lot of self-help books would tell you that your self-image is the blueprint of success. A strong self-image gives you confidence in your actions. This is true on many counts. But what the self-help advice is saying is that actually one should have a solid and undistorted image of oneself rather than one which is skewed because a) it either is negative or underestimated (hence the cause of lack of confidence) or b) that it is based on some idea we have about what is perfect or not.
The latter is the root of our illusion with ourselves and it is a theme which has been addressed many times in zen philosophy. So yes, it is good to have clear goals of where you want to be but to have an image of yourself which does not reflect where you are now can cause dissilusionment, frustrastion, dissatisfaction and will make you give up. Besides, we can very easily attach ourselves to an idea of what we ought to be or achieve which is not fully authentic but influenced by peers or social values at large.(think of advertising)
The last point is one which I believe to be the major cause of my quitting certain side projects. It is what I call ‘the commensuration problem’. If you have a goal and a hundred or so steps along the way (which require work and perseverance in different degrees), the evaluation of each goal has to be commensurate with the level of progress you are achieving and not the finishing line or the end goal. That is to say that whenever you progress a tiny bit forward you don’t each and every time cross-check it with how many more steps are still needed to achieve the goal but with how much you moved forward from your starting line.
Well this is another way of saying that you should focus on how much the cup filled up and not how much left there is for it to be full.
When we look at ourselves and see what we want to achieve rather than simply and honestly what we are (and trust yourself you are just perfect the way you are) we tend to fall very easily for this ‘commensuration problem’. We tend to think “Hey where did this task get me?…What? am I still at this stage? It’s hillarious, I should be there already by now! (In fact I am there already in my head). Gosh this is getting tiring! It’s such a long way till there!”.
You get the point. This is one danger of writing your ‘future autobiography’ in your head rather than your present and actual one.
With this thought in mind I think I will allocate some time to ponder about this. I would love to rewrite my autobiography and yes, feel confident and serene about what I am doing write now, like writing this article, having fun with my wife and daughter, enjoying summer and working hard to follow my dreams. I think this is a good start for a first chapter.
What about you? I would love to hear what you think.