A zen proverb says:
"Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water."
A naive reading would suggest this is awful. If everything is the same after enlightenment, it makes no difference! Why pursue enlightenment in the first place?
But it makes a tremendous amount of difference. Before enlightenment, you chop wood, carry water, and are miserable. After enlightenment, you chop wood, carry water, and are happy.
I recently came across Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now. I can't necessarily say it's a book I'd suggest everyone to read. I think it has essential and important lessons that everyone should know, but the lessons are packaged in a new-age shrink wrap that I could personally take or leave. The way the ideas are packaged is hard to digest for a modern, science-oriented person. Some of the claims are quite preposterous, such as that practicing the lessons of the book will literally rejuvenate your body's cells. This is unfortunate, because the book's main lesson is, in fact, important - yet the author's spiritual focus is likely to turn away people who need the lesson most. If you want to read chapter 1 of the book - it's what got me hooked - it's available free of charge here.
Fortunately, the main lesson of the book is very simple, and I can summarize it here. It is as follows.
When it comes to thinking, less is more.
What I learned from this book is that there are surprising benefits to be had from learning to be in the moment. Being in the moment means:
- Turn off the ongoing mental commentary in your head as much as possible.
- Pay attention to perceptions from all your senses, internal and external, as the perceptions occur.
- Accept the way the present is, as much as possible. Perceive the present, instead of imagining how it could be different.
- Avoid being burdened with the past or the future as much as possible. Forgive everything. Resent nothing. Avoid busy-worry.
This is not to say that you should not think, or plan for the future. What it means is this:
- The amount of thinking or planning you require is actually much smaller than you think.
- The marginal value of additional, superfluous thinking or planning, especially at inappropriate times - the busy-think, the busy-worry - is not merely small. It's negative.
- The quality of your thinking and planning will in fact be much superior if you deliberately choose when you think.
I've been practicing for only a few days, and the difference is amazing.
The first and most noticeable change is, I'm happy. For decades, I've seen people say one should learn to be happy alone, without needing another person for it. Up until very recently, my reaction to that used to be: "Yeah, right. As soon I learn how." I had previously never learned how, because I never learned to not think. I blamed my spouse, or the events in my life for unhappiness. When I didn't blame others, I blamed my genes. I used to think I have a naturally low level of happiness, and envied the people who seem to be happier by default. It turns out, this is not the case! Throughout this time, I had been manufacturing my own unhappiness, by doing non-stop busy-think.
Other noticeable changes are, I can understand more! I can make better decisions! I no longer have a self-discipline problem! All of this, just in a matter of days after I learned to stop busy-think, and thereby stopped creating emotional turmoil for myself that clouded my judgment, made me feel like crap, and made me feel like a victim of my own thought process, rather than a master of it.
In order to learn how to think, you first have to learn not to think - and practice that a lot, so you can always return to it as a default. In order to run as an athlete, you have to know how to sit down and rest. If you try to run 24 hours a day, what you'll get is illness and decrepitude, not world-class performance. Don't be like me, and wait until age 33 to learn this!
Edit - retraction: Unfortunately... That only lasted a couple days. After living in the moment for a while, I realized I'm neglecting work because I'm not being concerned about the future. One can coast like that for a while, but not indefinitely. After I realized that, I haven't been able to recapture that lightness of being since.