The Buddhist teachings on mindfulness invite us to become fully present in each moment, yet I realize how much of my time is spent anticipating some future event. Sometimes it’s with excitement for an upcoming trip, or just a night out; sometimes it is a bit more anxious, like teaching a new class or meeting a new person. Kids don’t hold back in expressing their anticipation; for days before his friends are scheduled to come for a play date, my son talks about the cakes and cookies they will bake. Anticipation for Halloween begins months in advance: there’s a slow build-up with a mounting crescendo as the awaited day arrives. And while my anticipatory expressions may be slightly more tempered, I can nonetheless feel how much of my mental and emotional energy is wound up in this projection into the future.
There’s an inherent question for me in all anticipation: what if it doesn’t turn out as I hoped for, as I planned? What if rather than having a romantic dinner, we just squabble about the bills? What if my son is cranky and the play date devolves into a battle of childish wills? Anticipation seems to hinge on the success of the anticipated event. If that which we looked forward to doesn’t meet our expectations, the whole build-up seems to crash with it, like a long line of dominoes reaching back into the past.
As the Buddha suggested, we set ourselves up for all kinds of disappointment and sorrow by continually projecting our happiness into a future outcome that may or may not arise. Suffering is embedded in the clinging of hope; hope is built on a wobbly foundation of future possibility, not on the ground of what is, now in the moment. So much of our practice encourages us to move beyond hope and fear, grasping and rejecting, for both rely on projection rather than actual, experienced reality.
I remember looking forward to a class I was going to teach on interdependence, drawing on Joanna Macy’s distinction between the self-referential “ego-self” and the expansive “eco-self.” I had taught the class several times before, but I had been particularly moved again by Macy’s writings and the relevance of her work for our current state of affairs. For days I looked forward to the session, and entered the classroom with particular excitement. But somehow the class fell flat; I couldn’t seem to draw the students into the vitality that I felt in the material. The discussion was sparse and never gained momentum. I left feeling not only badly about the class, but that my days and hours of anticipation had really been a hoax, a false and futile on-ramp to an empty and vacuous climax. In the “failure” of the result, my anticipation seemed meaningless.
So should we practice never looking forward to things? Do we never cultivate the excitement and energy of anticipation? Does “being present in the moment” mean we only enjoy what is right before our eyes, with no view towards the future?
It is our human nature to look into our future, to plan, vision, dream. How wonderful it is that my kids count the days until Christmas, or that my little one begins joyfully imagining his next year’s Halloween costume on November 1. How inspiring that we can dream of a time free of warfare, disease and suffering.
I’d like to suggest that the practice of “being present in the moment” includes anticipation, the actual feeling, the felt sensation of excitement. Can we unhook the future event from the fullness of the experience of anticipation? Can anticipation itself be enough, regardless of outcome? Perhaps feeling the inspiration about Joanna Macy’s work is enough, whether or not it lands with my students in that particular class. Perhaps looking forward to our family dinner at our favorite Thai restaurant is itself the joy, whether or not we actually relish our special evening out.
As I look forward to something, I feel a rush of energy in my body, a lightness of spirit; a creative, gleeful impulse rushes through me. My face lights up with a smile. The world around me brightens. It’s really quite wonderful, right? And right there, that’s it. This experience in the present moment is full and complete. I let go of the uncertainty of whether or not things will turn out, release the holding back, and simply let myself savor the feeling. There’s a wonderful freedom which comes from uncoupling anticipation from outcome. Perhaps things will unfold as hoped for, perhaps not, but the experience of anticipation itself is invigorating, life-affirming, generative. I do arrive in the present moment, as the Buddha suggests, not by cutting out anything that is not directly before my eyes, but actually by fully accepting whatever is arising unconditionally. Complete. Just as it is.