There is a Zen parable about a man who surprised a sleeping tiger while walking through the jungle. The ferocious animal pursued the man, causing him to throw down his bag and walking stick, as he ran for his life.
With the tiger tightly on his heels, the man came to a steep cliff. He saw a vine dangling over the edge, quickly grabbed it, and began shimmying down the vine just narrowly escaping the teeth of the tiger who now leered hungrily at him from the rim above.
This put the traveler in a real predicament. He was high in the air with no place to go. The vicious tiger was overhead; jagged rocks were below; and he was clinging to a vine that was not nearly long enough to lower him to the ground. Then, as if things could not be direr, a mouse emerged from its den and began to nibble at the vine.
At this precise moment the traveler saw a perfect, plump strawberry right there within arm’s reach, growing out of the face of the cliff. He picked it, ate it, and exclaimed, “Wow!!! That is the best strawberry I’ve ever tasted in my entire life!”
The story ends there (leaving the man hanging in a lurch), but the lesson keeps going: If the man had been preoccupied with the rocks below (his possible future), or the tiger above (his past troubles), or the mouse chewing away at the vine (his vanishing present), he would have missed the strawberry within the present moment. He would have missed the joy of now.
Now: There are few words with more potency but hardly a word more fallow or underutilized, because most of us do not live “in the now.” We don’t even aspire to live in the broader category of “today,” having trading the present for a regretful past or a fearful future, a trade that leaves no life left to live.
Those of us who have fixed our eyes on the rearview mirror feel the days gone by slashing angrily at our heels with the unanswerable questions of regret. Where did my life go off the rails? How could I have made such terrible mistakes? What could I have done differently? Why hasn’t God (or my parents or my spouse or my employer) treated me fairly or at least as well as others?
Such questions only end with inadequate replies, proving the axiom true: “There is no future in the past.” But there is no future in the future either; not a view of the future that is tainted with fear! Yet, countless people live their lives in a hypothetical time machine, always worrying and fretting over a distant yet to come that might never materialize.
These future-fearing people fill the air with their own questions, questions that usually begins with the words, “What if?” What if I lose my job? What if I am diagnosed with cancer? What if I run out of money? What if the economy collapses? Again, such questions can’t be answered. They can only rob the worriers of the time they have today.
And of course there are those who are preoccupied with the future differently. They aren’t worried. They are enthused. They have schemes and plans for tomorrow, but tomorrow never comes. They say things like: “I’ll do it one day (whatever ‘it’ is). Life will be better next week…next month…next year…next decade. Eventually I’ll get around to it. In the end I will achieve my goals.” But in the end, the end comes far too soon, and all the best-laid plans never materialize.
If we are engrossed with the snarling monsters of our past, obsessed with the fearful uncertainties of tomorrow, or spend our precious few days prepping for an ethereal future, this much is certain: We give away today; we miss the now.
Right now might not be your greatest moment, but now is all you have. Give now all you have, and you might be surprised at the joy you will discover.
Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, speaker, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.