Pattern Recognition vs. Living in the Now

I have a hard time living in the present. I’m always looking ahead, trying to figure out what the future will look like given what I know about today. Sometimes it’s a useful habit: as a relatively mundane example, even when I don’t feel like going out for a run or a ride, I think about how crappy I’d feel – both physically and emotionally – if I let myself get flabby and out of shape, and (usually) that anticipation is enough to get me out the door. But just as often the instinct takes away from my enjoyment of the present moment and I have to make an extra effort to shut down my forecasting impulse and just try to observe what’s happening right in front of me.

I’ve found that this impulse is especially strong for me as a parent. Because I’ve been a child (and worse, a teenager) before, it’s hard not to project my experience on my own kids and anticipate the inevitable challenges they’ll face – and the conflicts we’ll have with each other – as they grow up. It’s harder for me to do this with my daughter, mostly because I didn’t have that experience, but with my son I often catch myself anticipating his adolescence (remember, he’s not yet three) with a bittersweet recollection of my own. In our occasional low-stakes conflicts over baths and mealtime I imagine his inevitable push for independence, his effort to carve out an identity that’s distinct and separate both from his childhood self and his conception (accurate or not) of what his parents wish for him. Half of me wants to cheer him on, to celebrate and encourage his budding self determination. The other half just wants him to get back here and get into his bath.

But when it comes to living in the now, young children are like zen masters. They’re delighted one minute, in tears the next, then back to delight with no backward look at the fall or disappointment that upended their world a moment before. Adults, with their twin burdens of prior experience and pattern-based projection of future events, risk turning each life event into an object that must be categorized, classified and examined for portents. I still enjoy playing ‘what if’ with each new piece of information or experience I come across, but as long as my son is offering daily classes in ‘beginners’ mind’ I’m doing my best to take the lesson.