Most of the time I have an hour massage, though my next appointment will be for 90 minutes. This is the longest possible block of time, and yet I know that even with 90 minutes I will still be waiting for the end of the massage.
I have always been the kind of person who delays gratification. Give me a meal with three different things on my plate and I will eat them in ascending order of preference; at Thanksgiving, first the green beans, and then the mashed potatoes, and then the stuffing, because it’s my favorite. And yes, I eat them one at a time rather than all at once, which is a whole different story. If the pink candies are my favorite, I’ll eat all the other colors first and save the pink ones for last.
This is not to say I don’t procrastinate, because I do. I will put off taking the cats to the vet, calling the cable company, and deciding whether or not we’re going on vacation for as long as possible. But for the things that are really going to cause me maximum stress, I’d rather just get them done. So for example, I knew that I couldn’t handle the stress of an unwritten dissertation hanging over my head. It wasn’t fun, but every day I would get some of it done and then reward myself with an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But only after some writing had been done.
Recently I read in The New Yorker that this ability to delay gratification may explain why I was able to go to graduate school and get a Ph.D. and a fairly decent job as a college professor. In the famous marshmallow experiment, psychologist Walter Mischel put a marshmallow in front of small children and told them that if they could wait a few minutes while he was out of the room, they could have two marshmallows instead of one when he got back. If they couldn’t wait, they could ring a bell, and he’d come back, but they would only get one marshmallow. Could they delay gratification in order to get that second marshmallow?
Initially, that was the whole experiment, but over time, Mischel noticed trends in his childrens’ friends who had done the experiment. Those who had waited longest for the marshmallow seemed to do better in school and on SAT scores, while those who had snatched up the marshmallow almost at once seemed to struggle. Mischel called these high delayers (those who could wait very long for the second marshmallow) and low delayers (those who could not wait and gave up the second marshmallow). By looking at their test subjects years later, Mischel and his team hope to be able to tell us all about the nature of self-control–the ability in part to delay gratification.
Being a high delayer is good if you want to get your dissertation written. It’s not so good if you’re a practitioner of Buddhism who’s trying to stay in the present moment. Delaying gratification helps you get things done, but it can also incline you to take up residence in that distant future where you get to eat the marshmallow or watch the Buffy episode. And as many wise voices tell us, the present is always the only place we have. If you don’t pay attention to it, just like that it’s gone.
I’ve written before about my tendency to endlessly replay past events, but perhaps because of my high delaying nature, or maybe just because I’m human, I’m also prone to look for what’s out there on the horizon, especially if it seems potentially better than where I am right now. What is there to look forward to? What’s next?
A little of this is probably fairly harmless. And certainly better than projecting yourself into an unpleasant future. But it puts a lot of pressure on the future to live up to your expectations. And it’s worth repeating that in the meantime, you miss out on what’s happening right now.
Well let me confess that sometimes the present just seems so incredibly boring. When I had first started dating my husband, when we were in the very earliest and giddiest stages of our romance, I tried a Buddhist practice for keeping myself in the moment. As I’ve described it before, you walk around all day narrating exactly what’s happening. “I am opening my eyes. I am seeing daylight through the window. I am pushing off the covers. I am getting out of bed. I am walking to the bathroom.” Man, what a drag. Especially when you’re in love. All I wanted to think about was my future husband, and the next time I would see him, and what we would do. What did I care about paying attention to brushing my teeth? The future was so full of excitement and pleasure. How could that compare to anything in the present moment?
But then where would I be when I was finally done brushing my teeth and with my husband? Did I savor those moments? Did I relax into them? Or did I wonder what was next?
Getting a massage is an infinitely pleasant present moment. There’s the heated table and the music and the smell of the oil. And of course, there’s the touch. It is guaranteed to provide something close to heaven right there, in that present moment. But can I stay there? No.
I spend part of the massage talking to my friend, which is quite enjoyable. But I also spend larger parts of my massage than I’d like to thinking that it’s going to end. Waiting for it to end. Dreading the moment when it ends. And then it surely does. Can you imagine anything sadder?
As I lay there waiting for my massage to end, I think about what a waste it is for me to lie there thinking about the end of my massage. I’m aware of how insane it is. I just can’t always stop it. And this is life. How much of our life do we spend waiting for something to be over? I would like to say that we spend more time waiting for the less pleasant parts of our lives to be over, but there I am on the massage table, still thinking about the end. Still thinking about the next thing.
At this point I am always reminded of Star Wars. I see Luke Skywalker, standing above ground on Tatooine at the very beginning of the first movie, staring off into the horizon with the two suns in the distance, John Williams’ score soaring and the wind ruffling his hair. I know this is not the moment where Yoda actually says this, but in my head, I hear Yoda’s words superimposed over that image: “This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away…to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing? Hmph. Adventure. Heh. Excitement. Heh. A Jedi craves not these things.”
There is magic in the present moment, but why is it so very hard for us to see? If we learn anything from the teachings of Buddhism, it would appear to be that our inability to firmly live in the present is ancient and really nothing new. In the small amount of time I have been working on living in the present moment, it’s quite easy to see why in the whole of our human history, we haven’t really gotten any better at it. Even when the horizon’s only going to bring you a problematic father and the loss of your hand, it’s still tempting. Even when it’s the end of your massage, it seems a feat of great magic and splendor to look away from the vision of the future and stay contentedly here.