Predicting the future: A futile exercise

Buddhists advise us to live in the moment. It seems simple, but it is probably one of the hardest things we can do as human beings. Being aware of time gives us consciousness, and is our curse. As Jonathan Franzen says in The Corrections:

The human species was given dominion over the earth and took the opportunity to exterminate other species and warm the atmosphere and generally ruin things in its own image, but it paid the price for the privileges: that the finite and specific animal body of this species contained a brain capable of conceiving the infinite and wishing to be infinite itself.

We obsessively live in the past, wishing we could get a “do-over” or just trying to figure out why things happened the way they did, usually an exercise in futility. But we are even more obsessed with the future. Turn on the TV or NPR, surf the blogs, open the newspaper. You will find story after story, one “expert” after another, trying to tell us what will happen. How will the Senate vote on healthcare; what will the 2010 election results be; what will happen to the economy?

Stand back from all this noise and view it as a whole, and it quickly becomes meaningless. What makes these pundits’ predictions any more accurate or trustworthy than the predictions of the ancients reading the future in the entrails of their animal sacrifices, or the old lady trying to find a pattern in her tea leaves?

We look into the future and what we see is the darkness of the abyss. Hardly comforting. So we try to do the impossible: We try to act like we know what is going to happen.

That’s why “live in the moment” is such great advice, even if it is so difficult to achieve. Think of the concept of flow, of being so focused and in tune with what you are doing that time effectively ceases to exist. It may occur when you’re fixing a car or shaping a vase from clay or taking a run or talking with friends. For me, it usually happens when I’m writing, cooking, gardening, organizing or am caught up in a project that has me fully engaged. Regardless, at that time of flow, you are truly in the moment. The past and the future have lost their significance. For many people, including me, it is these times of “flow” when they are happiest.

If we all spent more time in flow (or pursuing those activities that bring about that state) and less time worrying about the future, I think we’d actually achieve that other elusive element of human existence: peace.


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