“So, how’s your sabbatical going?”
“Oh, you know, it’s a process.”
I’ve been having this conversation a lot lately.
“Any idea what you’re going to do next?”
“I don’t know. I’m only just getting into the swing of this sabbatical thing.”
But of course I’ve been thinking about what’s next. How could I not?
It’s exciting to think about what’s next. To dream, to project, to imagine a different life, an ideal life, how I want things to be. We all need things to look forward to. Imagining the future shows us the possibilities. Thinking about what’s next is a window to creating change. To creating, period.
Sometimes we need to think about the past in order to imagine the future. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what wasn’t working for me, about what led me to burn out last year. I’ve thought too about what was working for me, about what I really enjoy doing and things that I’ve longed for but that have been missing from my life. I look to the past as a reminder of my mistakes and my wins.
This is part of the process: looking back and looking forward, contemplating what has been and imagining what could be.
But, when we spend too much time reliving the past or envisioning future, it’s easy to miss what’s right in front of you.
What’s right in front of us are the tangible things. Not concepts, philosophies or buzzwords. Not history, what’s coming or anything far away in time or space. It’s people, moments and actions, right here, right now.
We had talked about it. It was going to be my year. That was what I needed, and we discussed at length what that would mean. We talked about the financial implications, and we talked about emotional support. We talked a lot about expectations.
In theory, everything was great. It was going to be great, for both of us. In practice, we weren’t prepared for the stress that came with putting my plans into action. Taking time off to make change in my professional life was supposed to have positive repercussions in our personal lives. But I guess sometimes things have to get worse before they get better.
It all came to a head right around the New Year, on the eve of my sabbatical. There was a complete breakdown of communication, as if no amount of words could bring understanding and empathy between my husband and I. After 10 years together, I started to imagine life apart.
I felt like I needed to get away, far away. I imagined what that would be like, and how I would go about setting it in motion. The past kept coming up too, rearing its ugly head and showing me all the bad days as I struggled to remember the good ones.
In those most difficult moments, I could only see behind me and ahead.
What was right in front of me
I remembered a conversation we’d had once. I had been reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, lamenting over the author’s insistence that one needs a “master” in order to achieve a higher level of consciousness.
A part of me wanted to rebel against such a concept. Why does one need a “master” in order to acquire knowledge and achieve inner peace? It sounded archaic, not to mention patriarchal. It made me uncomfortable.
A part of me was envious. I tried to imagine what it would be like to have such a figure in my life. Someone dedicated to showing me the way; unlike the support I had from my parents or teachers, but a great presence, someone with infinite wisdom and experience to impart on me.
It really began to bother me, to the point where I almost put the book down for good. I went back and forth in my mind, trying to understand the mix of emotions that was being triggered. Then it occurred to me, the idea of a “master” is in the transmission of wisdom. It’s the process of learning, of exchanging between human beings. Surely this can be found all around me.
I had turned to him and shared what I’d been thinking about, then said playfully with a big smile, “You are my master.”
He said, “You are my master too,” and smiled, and we both laughed. It felt corny, but at the same time absolutely obvious. We had so much to learn from each other, and from our marriage.
Remembering this conversation brought me back to the present, to what was right in front of me. What was right in front of me was hard, sure. It often is. That’s why it’s easier to take refuge in the past and in the future, in something far away in time or space.
Change can be painful and scary. And when we are hurting and frightened, we tend to want to protect ourselves. Even from those we love, even (and possibly especially) from the truth.
Bringing the conversation back to the present moment, setting the past and the future aside, allowed us to get to the truth. It allowed us to talk about what was really wrong, right then, right there. It allowed us to be honest with each other about what we were each scared of, about what we each needed and expected from one another on a very basic level. It allowed us to find our common ground, to see clearly how much love and companionship we had. It allowed us to talk about our priorities and to recognize that they were the same.
Once that was made clear, we were able to agree that we couldn’t change the past, and we couldn’t predict the future. And so they melted away, and left us there, standing face to face, scared, but finally understanding. Where there is understanding, all problems are surmountable.
“Mindfulness” sounds really cool and deep, but as a call to action, it falls short. Be mindful. What does that mean? It sounds easy, obvious even, and yet completely abstract. It sounds like a slogan, a meme, a buzzword, an emo rock band name.
Bringing your thoughts and attention right in front of you is concrete; it’s literal. It’s also applicable in any number of ways.
Sometimes the answers are right in front of you.
Sometimes opportunities are right in front of you.
Sometimes inspiration can be found right in front of you.
Often what’s most important is right in front of you.
Reminding myself to look at what’s right in front of me has become a powerful mantra, keeping me focused on what’s most important and, above all, keeping me honest with myself.
I still find enormous value in the reminders that the past has to offer, and in the inspiration that dreaming about the future creates. And of course there is a whole wonderful world of interesting people, places and things happening that we are hyper-connected to. But it’s easy to lose perspective—to lose yourself—in the distance created by time and space.
Where is “right in front of you”? It’s now, and it’s physically close to you. It’s the people you see everyday; it’s your neighborhood and the town you live in; it’s the team you work with. It’s you, with what you have at a given moment. It’s the people you love and what’s important to you in life. It’s the hard stuff that keeps us honest. It’s up close and personal. Sometimes it’s ugly. Sometimes it’s scary. It’s always real. It’s the best stuff in life.
This text is originally from my newsletter, Making Connections, and may have been modified for publication here.