(Don’t) Worry; Be Happy

laughing BuddhaYou may remember the song, “Don’t Worry; Be Happy.” It’s a catchy tune and a fine message, indeed. 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, one without worry. But is this always wise?

Sometimes worry is healthy

In the book “Aging as a Spiritual Practice,” author and Buddhist priest Lew Richmond writes about his concept of “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 – not too loose and not too tight.

My mom (who gave me this book to read) pointed this out the other day when we were discussing retirement. Realizing that I had very real concerns about the possibility of not 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 (not that I spend no time worrying about it), 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, without knowing exactly what I meant by that.

The future depends on you

But I guess the point is obvious. If you go through life in denial and truly live only in the moment, you will eventually encounter some present moments that are not very pleasant. The unfortunately reality of having to save for retirement is one (perhaps the best) example of this idea. I often encounter people who swear to me that the “universe” will provide for them, that things will happen “in time.” And I’m not surprised to find out ten years later that they’ve 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 the numbers (living in the future) or deciding that our lives must go according to a certain plan with everything happening on schedule, we will most likely be miserable for many more moments than if we go through our lives with trust in the universe and awareness of how the present unfolds into the future.

Our past does not disappear

Similarly, there is really no 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 those “glory days”) is not very productive. But recalling pleasant memories or appreciating the value of the lessons we learned from our parents in childhood enriches each present moment, doesn’t it?

To be sure, 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 the things I’ve lost or fearing what will happen to me in the future, but thankfully, I don’t. Now I just spend a little time doing those things, perhaps just enough to keep my lute string tightened just enough to make the best possible music. And when I find myself tightening the string too much, I trust that I can take a step back and stop worrying, at least for the moment. And when I realize that I do need to make plans 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 that I’ll make (mostly) the right choice in each moment 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 move along  a series of present moment. That’s the beauty of the practice the “middle way.”

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