The Spiritual Paradox: Happiness in the Present and Vision for the Future

In The Paradox of Intention, Marvin Shaw writes about the challenges of maintaining happiness in the present moment while sustaining a vision for a better future. As Shaw notes, this spiritual paradox underlies many spiritual and philosophical traditions, including Stoicism, Taoism, and psychotherapy. After practicing things like yoga meditation for some time, one begins to recognise a paradox: these spiritual practices help us to realise the value of the present moment, even though we know that we also want to keep growing in the future.

We often experience this paradox when we are still very attached to our own ideas of how we would like the future to be and continue to subtly resist the idea that the ‘now’ will provide us with everything we need. For many people, this resistance leads to a deep concern that by seeing the present moment as perfect and complete, they will lose motivation to move forward and, even worse, lose sight of what a better future could look like for themselves and those around them.

We can begin to recognise this resistance within ourselves by noticing that we tend to talk ourselves out of feeling like we are on the right track. We may feel we are going in a good direction and then our inner critics swoops in with a misguided attempt to protect us from disappointment in the future. 

But what happens when we learn to hold on to the simultaneous truth that everything is perfect and that everything can also get better? 

The practise of non-attachment does not mean that we should not value the future; it means that we should not become overly attached to it. We need to learn to value the present moment, even though we should absolutely hope that we will continue to grow and change in the future. This all sounds difficult because it is. Many of our motivations and thoughts come from conditioning and past experiences. However, when we become aware of our inner experiences, we can begin to recognise them for what they are before our conditioning and past experiences have had a chance to take hold.

When we are aware of the spiritual paradox – that everything is perfect and that everything can be better – we can begin to give space to the desire for growth and change, giving value to the present moment as the perfect time for development and change. 

Our deep desire to grow and evolve can sometimes become a strong attachment to the future and an obstacle to living in the present moment. The future is not a fixed quantity or constant. It is constantly evolving and therefore can only emerge through our actions in the present and our connection to the ‘now’. We can begin to develop a more secure attachment to ourselves by reflecting on the following questions:

  • Why do I find it difficult to acknowledge the present moment as perfect while maintaining a desire to continue to grow?
  • To what extent do I lack confidence in my ability to continue to grow and change?
  • How do I experience my desire to keep growing and changing?
  • In what ways are my desires and needs different in the present than in the future?
  • In what ways am I averse to the present moment?
  • How do I experience my vulnerability when I am alone?
  • What are some examples of my resistance to the present moment?

The spiritual practice of non-attachment can help us realise that the perfect time for development and change is right now. It is not that we will have the answers, but that we are in the present moment experiencing change, learning and improving. Non-attachment means that we are able to be at peace with life even when we do not get what we want. 

By appreciating the present moment, we can realise that we often try to reconstruct the past so that we can feel better in the present. It is possible to develop a new view of the world that is more real and true. We can allow ourselves to see things as they are without having to see them as they should be or as we think they should look.

Download your free 21-day course in The Path of Mindfulness. In this life-changing 21-day mindfulness journey, Dr Allan Kilner-Johnson guides you through a series of self-guided mindfulness exercises and shows you how and when to bring mindfulness into your daily life. 

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