When I read The Wisdom of Insecurity by the philosopher Alan Watts during college in the 1960s, it turned my world around. He hammered home a point that is as simple as it is startling: life only exists in the present moment. Rather than blindly pursue a happiness that continually eludes us, we need to open to what is here now.
As Watts puts it,
“If happiness always depends on something expected in the future, we are chasing a will-o’-the-wisp that ever eludes our grasp, until the future, and ourselves, vanish into the abyss of death.”
Very simple, very profound, but misleading?
Buddhist psychology echoes a similar view. We create suffering by clinging to how we’d like things to be rather than being mindful of what is. Oftentimes “what is” is something unpleasant or uncomfortable — sorrow, fear, or grief. We experience the insecurity of not knowing if we’re loved and understood, or uncertainty about our future security.
Much of our lives are driven by a quest for security. Watts suggests that we need to embrace unavoidable insecurity in order to feel secure:
The desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum.
The willingness to let go allows us to be more fully present with the rhythm of life.
Watts makes some compelling points, reinforced by the wisdom of German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm: “The task we must set for ourselves is not to feel secure, but to be able to tolerate insecurity.”
The popularity of mindfulness practices attest to a growing recognition of our need to live more in the present moment. There’s a pervasive longing to experience more aliveness, presence, and connection.
Is there a hidden danger of being too much in the present?
It is easy to misunderstand what it really means to be in the now. I’ve noticed a tendency in some people to make so much effort to be in the present that they lose connection with the present moment. It can become a preoccupying head trip rather than actually living in the moment.
Another potential pitfall is that we may mistakenly believe that living in the moment means refraining from planning for the future. We might also think that experiencing emotions such as fear or hurt take us out of the present. We may think we’re not being spiritual if we’re experiencing basic human feelings.
An essential part of being present is to consider our future needs and plan wisely, as well as make room for the full range of human feelings. Our feelings often signal messages that our body is trying to give us. Fear may be telling us to avoid a certain situation or to begin a retirement savings account. Attending to feelings that arise in the present moment can be a reliable guide for our lives.
As expressed in my book, Dancing with Fire:
Popular spiritual books encourage us to be in the moment, but they often overlook an important aspect of ‘being here now’ — making room for the feelings and longings that are happening right now.
If we understand “being in the now” as making room for a full range of our human experience, then we might be more relaxed around our experience. Sometimes what we experience is not very safe or secure, as Watts and Fromm suggest. Saying it another way, we often feel vulnerable; to be human is to be vulnerable.
Becoming more comfortable with our vulnerability actually helps us feel more secure. Rather than fighting life, we go with it. We find more inner peace as we embrace our experience just as it is.
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