Vacation is a State of Mind
The Challenge of Living in the Moment
One of the greatest blessings of the career path that I have chosen is free time. Even during a busy semester like the current one, I am in the classroom about twenty hours per week. I also have to spend a few hours a week driving around from college to college, and depending on whether or not it is test taking season, grading time can take anywhere from an extra one to five hours per week outside of class. But driving time is actually rather pleasant since it is a great chance to listen to NPR or to crank some music up on the Ipod. And even when there is a lot of grading to be done, I am in control of my own schedule. It is actually hard for me to imagine a nine to five life in which every weekday is the same, and I have gotten to a point where I take three-day weekends for granted.
But even with this nice, flexible life, I still find myself at times daydreaming about the periodic extended vacations that we teachers get to enjoy. And far from dreaming about a few weeks of sitting on my ass, eating bonbons, and watching TV, I think about all of those activities that are put on the backburner during the school year. When the vacations finally arrive, however, I never seem to get around to all those things that I was going to do during all of that free time. So I spend much of my so-called vacation either thinking about the things that I have not gotten done yet or of the limited time that I still have left. Considering how quickly these vacations seem to fly by, it is very clear that I would make an excellent retired person. Somehow, I never find the time to get bored.
Much of life seems to be a continual struggle to reach a state of existence in which we are not obligated to do anything. These moments, however, tend to be fleeting. Even rarer, for me, are moments where I am actually living in the present. Too often, I am either looking back longingly at those moments when I was supposedly free, thinking of all of the things that I have not gotten done, or focusing on whatever the next deadline happens to be. So during those glorious vacations, no matter how long they might be, I don’t seem to be doing a whole lot of vacationing.
I do not know very much about Buddhism, outside of whatever little bits I have come across through various books and a few speakers that I have heard over the years. But each time that I come across some of the fundamental Buddhist teachings, the cooler they seem to be. In its original form, as far as I can tell, it is not really a religious philosophy in a pure sense. Instead, it strikes me as more of a self-help philosophy. But like all of the great philosophic and moral ideas that humankind has managed to generate, one of the basic tenets is easy to understand but very difficult to do: live in the moment. If we sit around thinking about all of the various goals that we wish we had achieved in the past or aspire to do in the future, we will likely face a life of continual disappointment. But if we break our goals down into smaller, incremental behaviors, then things get a bit easier to manage. Instead of saying, “I want to read more,” it is wiser and less stressful to say, “I will read one-half hour per day.” The latter goal is concrete, measurable, and easily achievable, and if I keep to this simple program, it will eventually become a habit. Over time, this habit becomes a part of who I am, and before I know it, I have read a lot more. And during those hours when I am not reading, there is no need to beat myself up over all of the reading that I am not getting done. I know that I have done or will be doing that half an hour over the course of the day, and the rest of the time, I can focus on the activities of those moments.
One of the few times in my life when I am actually focused on the moment is in the middle of a racquetball game. Outside of the relaxation that comes from exercise in general, along with the chance to hammer a small object into a wall, this opportunity to focus on the moment is probably the main reason why playing is such a stress relief. During the middle of a point, I am truly thinking about nothing else. Unfortunately, it does not take long to drift back to old habits. In between games, I can’t help thinking about how much time I have left to play (or of the shots that I screwed up last game).
Clearly, this living in the moment thing is easier said than done. But breaking general goals down into smaller activities is much easier than attempting to fulfill noble aspirations without having any means of determining whether or not I have actually fulfilled them. (What the hell does it mean to “read more” anyway? How much is enough?) And once my life is broken down into allotments of time devoted to alternating periods of work, rest, exercise, socializing, or whatever, I can focus on the activity of the moment, knowing that those other things will get done in due time. Rest is more restful, work is more productive, and socializing is more fun.
The alternative, however, is to continue with my lifelong tendency of spending much of my time thinking either of what I should have done or should start doing, a tendency not conducive to enjoying vacations. Ideally, vacations are not something I should be waiting for anyway. Whether I have a month, week, day, hour, or few minutes to focus on something that I truly want to be doing, this activity is only satisfying if I am truly engaged in it. It may sound cliché, but vacation truly is a state of mind. There is a reason, after all, that clichés become clichés. They tend to be true.