Reading: Four Thousand Weeks, by Oliver Burkeman

‘Abandon any hope of fruition’ is Pema Chodron’s 28th Compassion Card.  The commentary on that injunction reads ‘The key instruction is to stay in the present.  Don’t get caught up in hopes of what you’ll achieve and how good your situation will be some day in the future.  What you do right now is what matters.’  I pinned this card to my notice board a few years ago when I bought the set of cards. 

I’ve just finished reading the book Four thousand weeks,  and I find the same injunction there.  In Chapter 8 ‘You are here’ Burkeman discusses the way we treat time as something we own, and have control over.   He says we talk about ‘using time well’, in a way that he describes as treating it instrumentally, as a means to an end.  His view is, ‘It turns out to be perilously easy to over-invest in this instrumental relationship to time – to focus exclusively on where you’re headed, at the expense of focusing on where you are – with the result that you find yourself living mentally in the future, locating the ‘real’ value of your life at some time point that you haven’t yet reached and never will.’

Balancing the idea of not viewing time instrumentally with the idea of setting goals that are in the future is tricky.   For example, suppose I want to run in a reasonable time in marathon in the future and register to do one 6 months out from now.  That means that in each day up to the marathon I have to train to do it, following a training plan that is designed to take me to the point when I can successfully complete the marathon. 

Burkeman tackles planning in Chapter 7 ‘We never really have time’.  He says that ‘The trouble with being so emotionally invested in planning for the future, though, is that while it may occasionally prevent a catastrophe, the rest of the time it tends to exacerbate the very anxiety it was supposed to allay.’   Does this mean that it is not worth planning or preparing for a future event?

Not at all.  The planning and preparation increase the chances that things may turn out as planned – I may get to run the marathon successfully, but equally, I may not because I can never know if my training efforts will prove successful until the event has taken place and become the past!

Accepting that we have no control over the future and that it’s uncertain and unknowable (but not necessarily unimaginable, according to South African economist Ludwig Lachmann) brings a certain calming sensation – at least to me. 

I could follow Jiddu Krishnamurti, who confided “You see, I don’t mind what happens.” Jim Dreaver, telling the story of the statement comments, ‘I don’t mind what happens. That is the essence of inner freedom. It is a timeless spiritual truth: release attachment to outcomes, and—deep inside yourself—you’ll feel good no matter what.’

If I didn’t mind what happens – had no attachment to outcomes – then would I feel good?  Well, I don’t know because the answer to the question lies in the uncontrollable future!   But maybe I don’t mind whether I will ‘feel good’ or not.   Maybe I’ll be able to cope with whatever emotions I do feel if I release my attachment to the desired outcome. 

It reminds me of another snippet that came my way this week, this one from the Daily Stoic ‘ ‘“Moments are torn from us,” Seneca wrote. “The whole future lies in uncertainty.” Fortune behaves as she pleases, he wrote. As we’ve talked about before, life comes at you fast. It doesn’t rhyme, it doesn’t reason, it doesn’t care about your wants or needs—it just is.  All we can do is accept the uncertainty of it all and heed Seneca’s command: “Live immediately.” And be prepared.’

The uncertainty and the uncontrollability of the future is obvious – for example, going running this morning, I didn’t know for certain I would return, or return in one piece.  The roads were a bit icy, there were cars, anything could have happened (but didn’t).    World events – climate change, wars, pandemics, etc, all make clear that the future is uncertain and the only moment we have is not in the future (or in the past) but now. 

Years ago, I studied T. S. Eliot’s poem Four Quartets which opens ‘Time present and time past/are both perhaps present in time future/ and time future contained in time past.  If all time is eternally present.  All time is unredeemable’.  I enjoyed those words then and still do (now!)

But what is ‘now’?  Will Self, voicing his point of view on time says,  ‘if our perception of time as moving ever forward like a river is purely subjective, and the whole span of time – together with all actual events – has already transpired, then nothing we will ever do or say can alter the future, let alone the past.’   Quite frequently, the New Scientist has articles on time –  the arrow of time, the forward motion of time, time as a river – with little resolution on what time is and what is the ‘now’ of time. 

Burkeman doesn’t think of time as a ‘thing’ which we can own or ‘have’, but rather as a non-optional ‘now’ state.  He says ‘Living more fully in the present may simply be a matter of finally realising that you never had any option but to be here now’.   

I tentatively agree with that statement, but I’m going to think of it more fully (Ed. Is that an intention that will never be realised?).   My current thoughts are:  I am here now, and I have plans, and I do much planning for the future, and I don’t/can’t know whether any of them will pan out.  

The knowledge that I can’t know even what the next second holds, doesn’t stop me planning with outcomes in mind (e.g. completing the marathon). However, I’m also practising taking the view that Pema Chodron, Krishnamurti, Burkeman, and others hold, that we live in uncertainty and all we can do is work with now and relax the attachment to outcomes. 

I smiled when I found that the word for the day today (27 February) is ‘Joy is the happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens’.  (David Steindl-Rast).

Having read Burkeman’s book, I’ve picked up on the two chapters that stuck with me – planning and ‘now’.  

Have you read the book?  What chapters have stuck with you?  Let me know.

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