(Don’t) Worry; Be Happy

You may remember the song, “Don’t Worry; Be Happy.” It’s a catchy tune and a fine message, usually. If you practice yoga, you have probably practiced being in the moment, which usually suggests a state of blissful trust in the universe. In other words, you’re without worry.

Sometimes worry is healthy

In the book “Aging as a Spiritual Practice,” author and Buddhist priest Lew Richmond writes about “healthy” worry. He describes the Buddhist concept of the “middle way,” comparing it to a lute string. In order to produce the best sound, a lute string must be in balance, that is, not too loose and not too tight.

My mom (who gave me the book to read) pointed this out once when we were discussing retirement. Realizing I had some concerns about having enough to live on in retirement, she said, “They say live in the moment, but how can you do that?”

Since I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the future, I thought I knew the answer. “You have to be aware of the future and make plans for the future, but it’s probably not healthy to live in the future,” I suggested. It sounded right, at least from a yogi’s point of view.

The future depends on you

I guess the point is if you go through life in denial and truly live only in the moment, you will eventually encounter unpleasant moments. The unfortunate reality of having to save for retirement is one example.

I’ve encountered several people who have sworn to me the “universe” would provide for them, that things would happen “in time.” And I wasn’t too surprised to find out years later that they’d made no real progress toward their goals (if they had any goals to begin with).

On the other hand, if we spend our lives obsessing about numbers (living in the future) or stressed out over how to be sure our lives go according to plan, we’ll likely be miserable for many more moments than if we go through life with trust and awareness of how the present unfolds into the future.

And to be fair, some of those people who trusted the universe either got lucky or truly did have the universe on their side.

Our past does not disappear

Similarly, there’s no real way to be in the present if we have no connection to the past. Our past contributes to what is going on in our lives at this moment. Again, living in the past (brooding, regretting or wishing to return to “glory days”) is not useful. But recalling pleasant memories or appreciating the value of lessons we learned in childhood enriches each present moment, doesn’t it?

Learning to live in the present moment is (along with learning how to breathe) one of the best gifts I’ve received from my yoga practice. I could spend a lot of time feeling sad about things I’ve lost or fearing what will happen in the future, but thankfully, I don’t, at least not too often.

Keeping the Lute Strings in Balance

I try to spend just enough time in the past or future to keep my lute string balanced so I can make the best possible music. When I find myself tightening the string too much, I trust that I can take a step back and stop worrying, at least for a moment.

And when I realize I do need to work toward a goal for the future, I tighten that string just a bit more, but not so much that I forget to appreciate the gift of living in this beautiful moment and trusting I’ll make (mostly) the right choices as the future unfolds.

The past, present and future cannot really be separated. But maybe this is just a matter of perspective. No one can be in exactly the right place at all times; we need to learn how to make adjustments, to loosen and tighten that lute string as we move through a series of present moment. That’s the beautiful practice of the “middle way.”

Aging in Vertical Time

I’ve been thinking about growing older lately. In fact, I read a book about it. The book introduced me to an interesting concept called vertical time. I hadn’t really heard the name before, though as a yogi, I’m familiar with the concept.

I’m not (too) old, and I don’t feel old, but it’s hard to deny that I am aging.

Getting older doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but like most people, I do sometimes feel uncomfortable about it.

What is it about growing older that causes this difficulty, and how can we use our concept of time to work around the idea that it’s a drag getting old?

Looking Back

As a yogi, I know the best place to be is in the present moment. But without the past and the future, there is no present. (Or is there? I’ll get to that later.)

I was talking a with some friends about this and found myself blaming my anxiety about aging on the fact that I didn’t think I’d done “what I was supposed to do.”

But as one friend immediately countered, “Who says what you’re supposed to do?”

I thought about this a lot the next day, and it dawned on me that there is an answer to that question. I’ve often thought it would be easier to be middle-aged if I’d done the things I believe are expected of people by that stage in life (and I know those expectations are relative to the environment I live in).

But, here’s the thing.  If I’d done them, I doubt I’d be any happier.

If we spend our years listening intently for inner direction, which I think is the only real way to find our purpose, we don’t always get clear answers. The anxiety can become so great that we’re tempted to follow in the footsteps of those around us to silence the demons that tell us life is meaningless.

This is not to say it’s always a mistake to march to the same drum as those around you; just be sure you’re making an authentic choice when you choose that drum.

Past, Present, and Future

I grew up in a wonderful family. My parents were great, and I grew up wondering why I didn’t want my adult life to be just like theirs. At the same time, I hoped I eventually would want that life before it was too late, because I didn’t know what else to want.

I always felt there was something in store for me other than the life I thought I was “supposed to” have. I can’t explain this well, but I’ve always been a little off track—not off my track, but off the track that ran through my experience.

Now I know the problem  with getting older is not that I should have done what I didn’t do but that I struggle to accept that there’s no such thing as “should.”

Does it matter? I don’t know. The truth is something about life as a human on this planet isn’t quite right no matter what any of us does or doesn’t do.

When I was a 23-year-old student teacher in a high school English class, I mentioned to my mentor that I wasn’t sure if this was what I wanted to do. I thought I might continue in school and get a graduate degree in psychology instead ( I eventually did). I’d already dabbled in a career as a technical writer with the English degree I’d earned three years earlier.

My mentor warned me I needed to stop trying new things—at 23—because I would need to have a pension and benefits in forty or years or so.

Part of me feared she was right; the other part didn’t really think much of that advice. I was still young. So I continued ahead, trying more things and passing on things I perhaps “should” have done but knew would not make me happy.

The Spirituality of Aging

So back to the book I mentioned earlier. It’s called Aging as a Spiritual Practice. The author, Lewis Richmond, is a Buddhist priest. He refers to his book as “a contemplative guide to growing older and wiser.”

I’ve been drawn to contemplative practices for decades. Awareness and being in the moment are not new concepts to me, and I’ve tried to practice these things all along. Still, there’s something in this book that helps solve the dilemma of aging for me. It’s the idea of vertical time.

Seriously, it’s awesome!

Vertical Time Has No Beginning or End

Richmond notes that when we think of the passing of time, we usually think of horizontal time, like the time on a timeline. Horizontal time starts somewhere in the past and will proceed into the future.

We grow physically older in horizontal time, opportunities pass us by in horizontal time, and it becomes “too late” in horizontal time.

But in truth, says Richmond, horizontal time may be an illusion or at least unique to our human condition.

“Unlike horizontal time, vertical time has no before and after. It is always just here. It doesn’t have room for memories or imagined failures,” Richmond says in Aging as a Spiritual Practice.

This is freeing if we accept it. If we recognize and choose to live in vertical time, what happened in the past and what may happen in the future are less important. The anxiety goes away, or at least decreases, and we’re free to live our best lives now.

Of course it’s not easy to live in vertical time, but it’s awesome that we have this choice. We don’t have to be limited to time as a horizontal measure of our lives.

And with that, life is not about missed opportunities and worries about the future or even pride in successes or belief that our lives will get better. We can choose to live fully in each moment, and even enjoy lives that have not been and may never be anything like we imagined.

I don’t know about you, but I love having this option! Can it make a difference in the way we age? I suppose only (vertical) time will tell.

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