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It’s getting harder to live in the now, says Charles Assisi

It’s getting harder to live in the now, says Charles Assisi

All things considered, I can expect to live to the age of about 75. That sounds like a long time to accomplish much.

But in a bathroom epiphany , it occurred to me that when thought about in units, 20 years is barely 1,043 weeks. And 25 years is a little over 1,300 weeks. At my current age of 49, it appears most of my 3,910 weeks have been used up. Does this mean I ought to trim my ambitions? Is this what the Roman philosopher Seneca meant by “the shortness of life”?

Other questions occurred as well: What have I done with all my time? What do I plan to do with the time that’s left? I’ve spent much of my time “preparing for the future”. Lately, I’ve been working on crafting my future, particularly with respect to work. On writing that down, the ridiculousness of it makes itself evident.

These efforts don’t address the present. Suddenly, the wisdom of the British writer Alan Watts, who interpreted ancient Buddhist and Indian texts, starts to fall into place. Most of us neither appreciate the present nor know how to live in it. And we don’t teach our children how to do this either.

That is why Watts’s polemic against contemporary education still feels relevant. It was first published in the late 1960s, and slammed a system that claims, interminably, to be preparing children for some future stage of life. “What a hoax,” Watts wrote. “As a child, you are sent to nursery school. In nursery school, they say you are getting ready to go on to kindergarten. And then first grade is coming up and second grade and third grade … In high school, they tell you you’re getting ready for college. And in college you’re getting ready to go out into the business world … [People are] like donkeys running after carrots that are hanging in front of their faces from sticks attached to their own collars. They are never here. They never get there. They are never alive.”

Is something the matter with us then? What prevents us from living in the moment? Does it have to do with how afraid we are of stillness, of silence?

Ironically, it is possible that we lived more fully before the age of the machines. Lifespans were admittedly much shorter; but the moments were lived differently. Since the dawn of the industrial age, machines have been propelling us ever onward, eating away into our moments of stillness, peace and silence.

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In a system designed for infinite growth, there is now no room for pause. Advertising and push content invades every space, from the TV screen and social media to the home screen of the smartphone. Even at the ATM machine, what could be a few moments of pause are disrupted by messages that hard-sell products in the bank’s arsenal.

We trade our moment of silence and pay attention. Whatever for?

At online checkout counters on e-commerce sites, merchants don’t miss the opportunity to display products their propriety algorithms think we might be interested in, even as an invoice is generated. Where will it go next, this push to grab our attention and impede our silence? And why do we part with both so readily?

At airport security checks, where we once placed shoes, belts and other objects in a tray in peace and passed on to the scanners, there are now advertising leaflets clamouring for attention. There are ads, in fact, right there on the baggage tags, the bookmarks, the coffee cups.

If we are to do more with the time we have, perhaps we must begin by reclaiming silence. Research has shown that spells of silence and inactivity can help lower blood pressure, decrease heart rate, reduce muscle tension, increases focus, creativity and communication skills. Coupled with a few minutes of meditation, this could add years to our lives. I might still live to 75, but in those years, finally, will be a chain of reclaimed moments in which I simply, defiantly, lived in the now.

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