Sunday, March 27, 2011

Finding stability in changing times

Last week I was having a discussion with a good friend of mine, Len Doherty. Len was kind enough to allow me to use our discussion as the basis for this post. Looking at the storyboard of Len’s life, I think everyone would agree that it is one of a very successful man. In his early 20s, he played professional soccer for Arsenal in the English Premier League. After injuries curtailed his soccer career, he founded Horizon Optical, which is now a leading independent prescription company in the UK ( He has a wonderful family and has achieved virtually every goal he set himself.

But, Len said that something was missing. He said that he was having a little difficulty adjusting to the fact that things around him were changing. He is now 62 and transitioning out of something he had worked hard at for over 30 years. His children have grown up and are leading their independent lives.

Len’s predicament is something we can all relate to, whatever our age or station in life. When we work hard at something using most of our productive years trying to achieve success, we find ourselves fulfilled after we achieve that goal. However, once that goal is reached, sometimes we are at crossroads, uncertain where to direct our energies. We know we have to pick a future course, but find it difficult to let go of the security of the past. The sense of security we get by dwelling in the past stems from the fact that we have created the platform of today using pillars of support that change with time. Unless we are able to replace these pillars with something that is more under our control and less susceptible to the winds of changing times, we start to feel insecure about the platform we have created. This makes us cling to the past.

When we talk of clinging to the past, it is our mind and thoughts that stay there, while our physical bodies are always in the present. The present is also subject to change. The past has become the present, and our present will become the future. With every crank of the wheel of time, seconds turn into minutes, minutes into hours, day into night, months into years. Our physical bodies change slowly with time, but our minds are virtual time machines. Majority of the time, our minds are either in the past or the future, very little time is spent in the present. Physically transcending time is the realm of science fiction, unless you are able to travel faster than the speed of light. In fact, Einstein’s space time concept suggests that as you travel faster and faster, time slows down until you reach the speed of light, at which point time stops. When time stops, space and time become one and the same. Thoughts can travel faster than the speed of light. If you are looking at the moon in the night sky, it is possible, at least in your thought to be on the the surface of the moon the very instant you are on the surface of the earth, while it takes about 1.2 seconds for light to travel that distance.

So how do you stay in the present both in mind and body? Since what we think and do today lays the foundation for tomorrow, we need to be rooted to the present and have good thoughts today in order to have a good future. Additionally, as we make this a consistent practice to stay in the present, the platform of the future will be based on pillars of this effort and not on something that is subject to change with time, such as the fruits of your actions. As time moves forward, you will one day be standing on the platform you have created for yourselves.

Half the problem of staying in the present is already solved. Your bodies are in the present. The more difficult half is the mind. How do you keep your mind always in the present? Mind is not something you can lock up and attach to yourselves. Mind and thought have the ability to travel in time into a future that you dream about and into the past you wish you could change. This can happen in a flash.

Let’s take a fruit tree as an example. Trees don’t move, they have roots in one place and are physically stationary. Similarly, we physically cannot move into tomorrow or yesterday. Our bodies are rooted to the present time. Although a tree appears to be doing nothing when we look at it externally, there is a lot going on inside. The roots spread out into the ground with the purpose of drawing water and sending it up to the branches, leaves, seeds and fruits. Everyone likes a tasty fruit. If the process of drawing up water from the ground through the roots to the rest of the tree is interrupted or chaotic, the fruits that grow would not be that tasty. The quality of the fruit depends on several factors such as sunshine, soil, water quality etc. But without the roots and the branches of the tree drawing up water, there can be no fruit.

The internal workings of our minds can be compared to the process that goes on inside the tree that ultimately yields a fruit. Keeping the mind in the present is like the tree root drawing water. In order for the tree to be healthy and produce good quality fruit tomorrow, it needs to be able to consistently draw water today. In order for the mind to be peaceful and healthy in the future, it needs to be consistently kept in the present. If you keep your mind in the present, you will not waste energy thinking about the past or the future. By not wasting this mental energy, the thoughts of today become stronger and when directed in the right manner, become tastier fruits (helpful actions) of tomorrow. Just as fruits that comes from a tree are enjoyed by us and not the tree, your good thoughts today results in good fruits (good actions) that are enjoyed by others in the future and not you.

Applying this to Len’s case, he had good thoughts of helping others that evolved into a fruit of a successful business that is being enjoyed by the people working there. This fruit is also being enjoyed by his family and the patients that now have better eyesight thanks to Len’s efforts. A tree continues to produce fruit whether people are there to eat it or not. Whether the tree is in the middle of the forest or in an orchard, it continues to provide fruit. Once a fruit is plucked from a tree, it changes depends on how we use it. Just as a fruit depends on the tree and not the other way around, we should learn to depend on our ability to generate good thoughts and staying in the present and not on the fruits of our thoughts and actions. As time moves, the “present” also moves and we have to keep pace and stay with the present. The mental efforts we put in to doing this will surely yield a fruit (good thoughts = good actions) in the future.  Whether there is someone to taste and enjoy the fruits of our good thoughts and actions should not be our concern. Otherwise we will find ourselves in a similar situation that Len found himself in, that is basing our future platform on the transitory nature of our thoughts and actions, and not on our ability to generate good thoughts and actions. This ability to generate good thoughts and actions is the one stable platform we can safely depend on in changing times.

As a practical lesson, how can we constantly remind ourselves to stay in the present? You have your breath as an aid for this. Since breathing happens in the present and not at some point in the past or future, we can employ the breathing process in making us rooted to the present. Every breath can be a reminder of the present. You can do the following exercise whether you are standing, sitting or walking. Anytime you find your mind drifting into the past or the future, with each inhalation, imagine drawing up energy from your feet if you are standing or walking and from the base of the spine if you are sitting (similar to a tree root drawing up water). As you inhale imagine this energy going up to your brain. You can associate this process with any good thought that you want to empower. Even if you don’t associate this with a thought, the stored up energy that you have generated will be at your disposal to amplify any good thoughts that spring up later. Moreover, continuously doing this will keep your mind rooted in the present and prevent it from escaping to the past or the future. Worries about what has happened and what is yet to come will then disappear.