Pop-culture’s Enlightenment Error
“Happiness is only achievable in the present moment.”
“To be present you must put aside thoughts of the past and future.”
“Just breathe, trust, let it go and see what happens.”
Statements about being present are multiplying as quickly as smoothie shops. Mindfulness websites, motivational wallpapers, and Instagram captions recycle and repurpose ancient wisdom into naïve platitudes that briefly catch our attention as we scroll our lives away. Quotes paired with photos of smiling yogis, poised on mountain tops, implant into our minds the idea that happy, enlightened people spend life sitting cross-legged, ignoring responsibilities, and breathing – nary a thought of the future and certainly no planning necessary.
Somehow they blissfully and serendipitously sashay through life, free of career goals, relationship goals, or worry about what to cook for the kids tonight.
Undoubtedly, compared to neurotic fretting, this carefree notion of being present is helpful. If you’ve totally lost control of your environment and your emotions – you really messed up big time – well then, jettisoning any thoughts of the past or future into the vastness of the universe can be a welcome and necessary respite. Yogis know it; a yoga class in Vancouver costs $22, and it can be worth every dollar to buy permission to leave your troubles at the door if you’ve had a stressful day.
The Error of the “Hands off the Wheel” Route to Happiness
Read the three quotes again, this time as a rough syllogism (a type of logical argument):
P1: Happiness is only achievable in the present moment.
P2: To be present you must put aside thoughts of the past and future.
P3: In order to put aside thoughts of the past and future, you must just breathe, trust, let it go and see what happens.
C: Happiness is only achievable when you just breathe, trust, let it go, and see what happens.
Reformulating the quotes in this way construes the concept of happiness, making it become widely unattainable. This is simply because sitting and breathing all day is not feasible in the face of real-human, real-life concerns. Consider the plausibility of the following scenarios:
The happy, present parent lets kids raise themselves, enroll themselves in school, and get their vaccinations, all without planning the future.
The happy, present tenant pays rent when the money manifests.
The university student chooses 18th Century Feminist Literature as his major, since as long as he’s happy all that career stuff should sort itself out. If his parents become elderly and sick and need expensive care, they all just breathe through it.
These scenarios are laughable. Most of us aren’t willing to take our hands off the wheel in the way that mindfulness teachers seem to advocate. Why? Because we know that lack of planning creates emergencies and panic, thereby causing us to suffer.
If being present (as defined by pop-culture) precludes thinking about – let alone planning for – the future, then it seem to imply that happiness is not for everyone. So we’ve got to ask: does it make sense to define human happiness in a way that it’s reserved only for the few? Does the pop-culture enlightenment trend misunderstand being present, or were 7 billion of us born to be miserable?
Human Being Happy
Let’s take it back to the Greeks for a minute – the Greeks were authors of many theories of happiness – and see how they answered the question of whether all humans can be happy.
Perhaps you agree with Aristotle that not everyone can be happy. What was Aristotle’s argument for this? He thought that a human being is happy only when he is living according to his distinctively human functions. In order to carry out distinctly human activity, a human needs a healthy body, circumstances, society, and virtues. For Aristotle, since happiness depends to some degree on having external circumstances, circumstances that a person cannot necessarily control, that means not everyone can be happy. For example, if you’re born into slavery and are treated poorly by your master, happiness is not accessible to you. Ditto, if you’re sick and incurable.
I prefer the Stoic view, which held that a human being is happy when she is living her distinctively human functions in accordance with Nature’s wishes (Nature, being similar to God, Fate, creative energy, the Universe, or what scientists might call the laws of nature). As long as a person sets her attitude and thoughts in agreement with Nature’s wishes and stops resisting the circumstances that Nature created, then she can be happy. Everyone, regardless of station in life, has equal access to happiness.
Why we know that the Pop-culture Enlightenment’s Understanding of Being Present is Incomplete and Misguided
If you agree with me that
- happiness for a human must be defined by what’s possible for humans,
- happiness should be possible for everyone, and
- happiness is only possible in the present moment,
then it seems that being present cannot be interpreted to mean
– sitting and breathing all day
– abandoning the body’s needs and shutting out sense experiences
– not planning for the future
– foregoing goal-setting, dreams, and aspirations
– avoiding relationships that require plans with others.
If happiness could be interpreted as above, then happiness would be impossible for some people. That’s a pessimistic and destructive thought, so whether or not it’s true, it’s not pragmatic (i.e. conducive to desired outcomes) for a human being to cast doubt on her own hope of happiness. We have to believe, for our own sake and others’, that under all circumstances we all have access to happiness. If we give up this belief, we give up hope for our life and others’.
Human Being Being
You might be waiting for me to go into detail about what being present means, but I won’t. Today, my point is simply was to point out a common misconception and clarify that
- being present does not equal not thinking about the future, and
- being present does not require us to forego planning activity.
If you’ve been feeling confused, guilty, or inadequate for wanting to think and plan for the future, you have permission to stop that (no matter what pop-culture enlightenment gurus seem to say). You’re not doing anything wrong by planning, hoping, or having aspirations. It’s a misunderstanding to equate the practice of being present with never thinking about the future. We know this because the syllogism (argument), plus the necessity of equal access to happiness indicates it just doesn’t add up. If we try to do the math, it doesn’t let us come up with a healthy human experience.
Being human means doing human things, such as forming relationships, creating families and societies, and pursuing one’s higher purpose. A human being lives in a human body constrained by physical space and time. To confuse being present with never thinking about the future is to deny those constraints. I’m not prepared to do so, and you probably aren’t prepared to, either.
In the next post on this topic, I’ll be publishing a Guide to Planning While Staying Present.
Critical Thinking Questions:
- Assuming you’ve heard or used the term before, what does being present mean to you?
- What sorts of things/ideas does happiness require, e.g. a state of mind, money, family, friendship, an attitude?
- Have you encountered advice to “put aside thoughts of the past or future”? Where do you usually see this advice and from whom?
- Do you think all human beings deserve happiness? Why do you deserve happiness?
- Can anyone be happy regardless of external circumstances control ?
- Do you agree with Aristotle or with the Stoics about access to human happiness?
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