Every now and then, something you intellectually know (but don’t really “get”), comes into sharp focus in an experiential or insightful way. This happened to me recently in the very early hours of the morning when I’d woken, feeling somewhat anxious. It’s a regular occurrence these days that I need to get up to go to the loo in the night and as I’m half-sleep walking in the dark, using my night senses to avoid bumping into the wardrobe or door, I have these quite clear thoughts, almost like bullet points on a PowerPoint presentation. They have this different quality to them, as if they’ve emerged from a clearer, more emphatic place.
Anyway, on this occasion the thoughts were to do with the day I’d just said farewell to. Regretfully and with a sigh, I thought about how I’d planned to get so much done in that now lost day and in the end it had been taken over by a project which did not go according to plan (I’d been recording audio CDs for the current mindfulness course I’m leading and had to re-do it all again when the editing programme froze).
And in those thoughts of regret and then immediately leaping to think of the next day and all I’d need to do then, I realised with sudden clarity, this is not really my “self” or my life at all. There is always this unbridgeable gap between how I envision the future and how I’ll be in that future and how it actually unfolds, moment by moment. In the middle of the night it all looked utterly crazy – how my whole existence to date, has been this ghost life, chasing down a future that never, ever manifests and in the process bypassing my actual lived life, that’s revealing itself moment by moment. And I am so hard on myself for failing to live this ghost life.
Every day, sitting down to write out an ever-hopeful “fantasy” to do list, and counting myself lucky if I’ve crossed off even a tenth of the items by bedtime. Often, I don’t look at the list for the rest of the day. And yet somehow the following 16 hours or so pass by without the help of the list, actually. But I’ll feel annoyed, peeved and down on myself for not tying my every action and scrap of energy to this list. A list that was born out of the ideas I had this morning about what I should do, that now don’t seem so important anymore. For it’s like there’s a morning me, an afternoon me and an evening me (ie perhaps there is no real definable me!). The morning me is calm, purposeful and hopeful of achieving great things, the afternoon me is feeling rather tired and resigned to failing in my endeavours and the evening me is rebellious, TV-watching, chocolate-eating and philosophical, wryly amused. But at the same time subtly angry and disappointed with myself.
So what would it be like to let go of the lists and just let each moment unfurl? Maybe I’d “achieve” more, if I could be present with what’s actually going on, instead of distracted and harried, like an eternal London Underground commuter, hurrying through my own life as if it were just a means to get somewhere else all the time, never arriving.
Time to exorcise the ghost self, the imaginary life I think I should be leading. To say hello to the patient and much kinder, slower self, who’s always been rather puzzled by the lists and the aspirations, the constant leaning forward into the wind with an umbrella that at any moment is going to get snatched up by the wind coming over Waterloo Bridge. To stop being a commuter and instead sit on a bench, be entranced by the waving branches of the trees framing the sky and all the people, with their intricate, complex lives.
Even so, I bet you I’ll be writing out another list in the morning. But, perhaps I’ll try paring it right down, make it more do-able and also focus more on the real intentions underlying the proposed actions, the deeper motivation. Because we do need our intentions to guide us – from the mundane ones to keep on top of the laundry and the minor details of our lives to the less tangible ones like moving closer to a more authentic, truer life. Not an easy one to tick off on a list!