Have you ever felt the tension between living fully in the present and preparing for a fulfilling future?
As a professional coach, this question is always with me. It is with me as I work with clients on how to build different futures, and as I reflect on my own vision and plan my days. I sometimes sense a tension between the present and the future – meaning that I or clients will get so caught up on future goals that we will miss out on living in the present. Indeed, the philosopher Alan Watts put it simply when he said:
We thought of life by analogy with a journey, with a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at the end and the thing was to get to that end. Success—or whatever it is, or maybe heaven—after you’re dead. But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing and you were supposed to sing, or to dance, while the music was being played.
So, what Alan Watts is pointing to is a tension in our worlds between living for the future – for the journey and getting to the end – and enjoying the dancing and music, by which he means today. If we are focussed on outcomes in the future, how much of the singing and dancing can we enjoy today?
The classic example is working long hours so we can retire in some comfort. And yet, we might be dead by then. My own father died at 44 so I have an idea of what that looks like. Now hopefully we will still be alive but the point is that you are definitely alive today. And let’s be honest, if we were instead living just for today, how long would our to-do lists be?
The conundrum is clearly that if we do hope to be alive tomorrow and next year it surely makes sense to plan and work for that? So a key word feels like “balance”, which is in a sense hedging our bets. We may not live to enjoy the mythical better future so let’s enjoy today but in a way that is mindful of our possible future selves. As the Buddhism teacher Thich Nhat Hanh said:
“If you are grounded in the present moment, you can bring the future into the present to have a deep look without losing yourself in anxiety and uncertainty. If you are truly present and know how to take care of the present moment as best you can, you are doing your best for the future already.”
Indeed, the future emerges from the present moment and in that sense making plans for the future is part of our purpose in this moment.
* Some of the above is extracted from Episode 3 of my Time Academy Podcast.
Question in the Image:
- How can I balance living fully in the present while also preparing for a fulfilling future?
Want to Read More Around This Topic?
Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm by Thích Nhất Hạnh (link to Amazon.co.uk). I really could have picked so many books by Thích Nhất Hạnh that echo a similar message. I chose this purely because the quote above was taken from this book. Thích Nhất Hạnh teaches us here to master the practices of mindfulness and in doing so learn to move past the fear to live a mindful and happy life.
Nurturing Curiosity – Daily Practice: This is part of the Nurturing Curiosity series of tools, insights and questions designed to help nurture curiosity as part of our daily practice. In point of fact, every interaction we have is an opportunity to question what we are observing and how we and others are seeing the world. Also remember that questions come in many forms throughout our day – every time I see a traffic light, I remember Thích Nhất Hạnh’s invitation to ask “Where might I see meditation bells?” In truth they are all around us – what the Japanese call SukiMa (brief openings in space and time) – and offer moments of calm no matter what is going on outside.
What Thoughts Would You Like to Share? My name is Tom O’Leary, and I envision a world in which curiosity shapes leadership. In this world, leaders aren’t boxed in by traditional thinking or established playbooks. They are open to fresh ideas and diverse perspectives, fostering a culture of exploration and learning. My mission is to shift leadership focus from authority, over-measurement and control to curiosity, learning and innovation, empowering leaders to prioritise the essential. My journey, lived in a number of countries and through various languages, has always been driven by a profound sense of curiosity. In fact, life has taught me that possibility lies not so much in seeking answers but in learning to ask better questions – the ones that help prioritise what is truly essential. I welcome your thoughts, feedback, or personal experiences related to these questions or any insights they may have sparked.