Raise your hand if you were born with a brain that never stops thinking. Aren’t we all these days? Most of the time, I find myself constantly wondering about what is going to happen next, what I need to accomplish, where I plan to go, what goals I set for myself. I am constantly planning for the future, and when I am not, I am constantly reminiscing on the past.
We are taught from a very young age that in order to be successful, you have to make a plan to get there. We are also instilled with a sense of attachment to things that have passed, because we assign emotions to events, people, and things. Very few of us are taught to notice the present for what it is now. For example, try to sit still, close your eyes, and focus all your attention on the present moment. I bet it takes less than a minute for your mind to wander to something in the past or in the future. When you do realize you’re thinking of this, can you let the thought pass you and return to the present moment? Can you accept the fact that your leg is itching because you’ve been sitting still for so long, and not reach out to scratch it? Can you just observe and continue observing and do absolutely nothing?
For me, this is a very difficult task. There is only one thing that could remove me from my constant state of agitation and longing, and that is creativity. I find that when I do something creative, the part of my brain that is constantly doing calculations shuts off temporarily. I first noticed this when I was a teenager, and I used to draw and do art. I would start dabbling in the middle of the afternoon on my sketchpad and not even realize that it has turned dark until I finish my work or someone snaps me out of my reverie. The same thing happens when I sing or try to play music. I could sing for hours and not even realize how much time has gone by. Sometimes, after spending hours singing, the part of my brain that is measuring my success in terms of achievements turns back on and makes me feel angry at myself for “wasting” so much time. We are so ingrained to measure our worth in terms of how much our salary is, how many titles and medals we have received, how many things we have accumulated, how many relationships we form, that we forget to create anything for ourselves, or rather, to create anything at all.
Now I am at a point in my journey where I have de-cluttered most of my possessions, removed unhealthy relationships, and allocated the appropriate amount of time to the things that add value to my life. However, after ridding my life of a lot of the excess noise, I have been left with a LOT of time left to my disposal. Prior to now, my entire life has been a race against time. I was raised to always seek achievements and had so many activities to the point where I was constantly over-whelmed in middle school and high school. I worked three jobs during my undergraduate career and still finished undergrad in three years with cum laude honors. There was never enough time to do everything I wanted to do while I was going to dental school because of the dedication it required. This is the first time in my life that I have extra time to use however I want to. Part of what gave me that freedom is really the appropriate allocation of my resources towards the things that really matter. This practice has given me plenty of time to reflect and day dream, which helps focus my attention to who I was and who I want to be. However, neither reflection nor daydreaming allows me to fully appreciate the present moment, since both require my mind to be either in the past or in the future. What I’ve found is that tapping into my creativity is the only thing that releases me from this cage of constantly assessing and re-assessing. Even if the creation is only for myself, only creativity allows me to enjoy the present moment wholly and completely.
Some may argue that if you work hard now, you will have more time in the future to be creative, but that isn’t necessarily true. This may be true if you are extrapolating in a certain way so that everything happening now is occurring or improving at a constant rate. But the question which I always use to judge what is right for me to do today is, “What things would I regret not doing if I were to die tomorrow?” As morbid as that sounds, it accounts for the single truth, which is that we are only guaranteed the present moment, and nothing more. If you spend your life working hard, looking forward to the rest of forever and forever never comes, then you just spent your life working hard and that is it. You would have accomplished much, but whether or not what you accomplished or created has any meaning past earning money or acquiring a certain status is questionable. And even if we assume you get to a later stage in life where you had once expected to spend every waking moment doing what you love, what if you couldn’t? What if a debilitating disease capable of preventing you from playing a musical instrument or creating art takes over your body? What if you suffer from an unpredictable accident? I can tell you one thing. There are many more things in life other than work that I would feel empty without. These happen to be the only things capable of diminishing the mental clutter to nothingness. Creativity is my antidote towards the incessant firing of neurons, the constant buzzing of notifications, and the little voice inside my head telling me, “You are not enough.” We are all enough.
This isn’t to say we should all stop planning our futures completely and solely be creative beings. Under-stimulation and lack of progress does not improve your life meaning. This is only to say there should be a balance. So press pause, and enjoy the now. In the end our life, fully lived, will be our best work.