Every year for as long as I can remember (which is about 6 years), when January rolls around, a great deal of time is spent hunched over a piece of A3 paper with coloured pens, trying to form some kind of strategy for the year.
By the end of this exercise, the A3 sheet resembles a bold framework of targets, usually including “Save money”, “Lose Weight” and “Find money.”
And every year most of these targets drawn across the A3 sheet are seldom met with a degree of success, with each year’s targets more overly ambitious and naively constructed than the last. Targets that I hope my “Future-self” will somehow find the solution to over the following weeks and months.
But therein lies the problem; my “future-self” who I pin these hopes and dreams on, is just as shit and disappointing as my “present self.”
It’s the reason why the dishes from today’s meal are still piled in the sink.
“Fuck it. Future me can do it.”
Yet, I consistently fail to realise that ‘future me’ is a slightly more irritated version of ‘present me.’
And so the year slowly descends into irritation and disappointment, with expectations that are never met.
Just last week I started to make similar errors when drawing up a list of targets to hit this year; Saving levels of money that would require a well co-ordinated bank heist to obtain, entering an international film festival without a film, and mastering a foreign writing system that utilises more characters than there are days in a fucking year.
(About 6 fucking years to be precise. – And when I say “fucking years” I’m not referring to some kind of revolutionary sex-based unit of measurement).
But as I sat back and looked again at this unsustainably greedy wish list, I realised something was wrong. And as I began to pace backwards and forwards around my apartment, eating an outstanding satsuma (great revelations are often birthed from this routine), I knew I was once again heading down the dangerous path I’d spent so long getting off in 2014.
For about 5 years, I’d viewed every day of my life as an unimportant step on a ladder towards something great. A target. Usually the next stage of my life; getting into University, working out what to do after University, working out how to come to Japan, working out what to do after finishing teaching in Japan.
At first, I thought I was ambitious, driven and motivated to do great things.
But really it had been fear.
Such was my fear and anxiety of the next step, the uncertainty, the fear of failing at life in general, that I’d completely forgotten the value of the present moment. The value of every single day.
Each day had become part of a meaningless journey, to what I perceived to be an incredible goal. Each day in itself, had come to lack any real value.
Every day I’d dedicated my energy and thoughts on the future – on the dreams and targets I held and reviewed continuously throughout the day, until I forgot the importance of where I was and what I was actually doing in the present.
And even though I finally realised this in 2014, it took months of practice and self discipline to remedy the situation. Half a decade of flawed thinking and accrued anxiety are not an easy thing to kill off.
I won’t detail how these things were turned around. But I can pinpoint the night sitting alone in a hotel room in Sendai last year, when I had some kind of mental breakdown (which is quite interesting to look back on from now) and realised that I had to do something to sort myself out.
I knew the problem lay in my thinking and that at the time, I didn’t hold the knowledge I knew I needed to do the kind of self-reflection necessary to fix the thought patterns that were leading me to frequently feel awful. (Awkwardly phrased, but hopefully makes sense).
So I stopped studying Japanese and dived into philosophy for the first time in my life. Over a period of about 5 months, following a huge amount of reading, studying and self-reflection, the thinking processes that were the source of anxiety and stress, began to fade away into irrelevance. (And don’t worry, it didn’t require paying anyone any money or enrolling on any ‘special programs’ either).
Key to the journey was studies related to Greek philosophy, Stoicism and it’s key practitioner, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and good old Socrates – before moving into the realms of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which in itself is derived from Greek philosophy and Socratic thinking.
But everything I studied, from both Western and Eastern philosophical trains of thoughts, seemed to point in one direction.
To realise the time for living is now; to focus on the present moment.
A life spent contemplating, over thinking, daydreaming and worrying about the future, is not a life at all. Never living in the present moment, never admiring your surroundings, being grateful for the things you have, or the people you share them with, is like having never lived at all.
And to anyone who’s had anxiety, you’ll know what that feels like.
It took months of practice to change this. You can’t just switch off trains of thought that you’ve held and replayed for weeks, months and years on end.
I used the same tools that I’d used for learning Japanese, to study philosophy. I used flash cards to embed quotes and thinking in my head over a period of months. I ended up using the same daily memorisation software I’d used for Japanese and spent 20 minutes a day re-reading key quotes, texts or thoughts. I hoped by using memorisation techniques such as spaced repetition, I would somehow be able to rewire my thinking.
The most essential component was to remind myself to observe my surroundings. To notice, for the first time, a house or building I’d driven past on the way to work 500 times, but never once looked at or acknowledged. To notice, for the first time, that the colour of the walls in the classroom where I’d spent a thousand hours, were faded blue.
The sensation of passing through time changed to one of feeling like I was actually in it again.
And with each day, the challenge became to observe more. To notice more. To make what I’d perceived to be a mundane routine, as unique as the first day I’d experienced it.
And finally from this, a deep appreciation for the individual day was born.
From August to October all my anxieties and stress began to disappear, replaced with some kind of curiosity and energy that I didn’t really understand but enjoyed greatly.
Instead of spending each day as if I was heading towards a target or goal, I spent each day as if I was already there. As if each day was some kind of unique, opportunity or adventure to learn something new, to try something different.
I would meditate on public transport, walking down the street or standing in the classroom while students were working on something. Meditating, not with my eyes shut and my legs crossed (as a great deal of people define the practice), but by embracing the moment. Focussing on my present surroundings and feeling the often overwhelming awareness of existence.
In treating every day like this, I came to find I was often more productive as well. Time became far more precious and valuable. I wanted to learn more. I wanted to study – not just Japanese but anything I’d ever had a fleeting interest in; philosophy, filmmaking, history, advertising.
I used to view each day as a step towards something. I didn’t appreciate every day for what it was and I was completely ungrateful for being given one.
But now every day feels like some kind of opportunity or present, driven by a sensation of gratitude. It feels pretty damn good.
So my New Year’s resolution for 2015 is to remind myself of this everyday. To embrace each day.
The reason I struggle to define my New Year’s resolution is because to summarise everything I’ve just mentioned into one line seems almost perverse.
I refuse to use “Live everyday as if it’s your last,” as the thought would drive me mad and I’m not overly keen to adopt a line that presupposes my demise. (Except maybe “death by chocolate”).
I’m not sure I can use “Appreciate everyday,” either, as I feel confused as to who or what to direct that appreciation at.
“Make the most of every day” isn’t accurate either. I can still sit in bed for half the day, eating biscuits, without doing anything of real value and feel a sense of gratitude towards life.
So perhaps the resolution is “Value everyday.”
But that just sounds cheap.
Or maybe the New Year’s resolution is less of a line and more of an idea.
An idea that took about 4 pages to explain.