Browsing through my Facebook feed today, I came across this post that someone had passed on:
If you are depressed you are living in the past...
If you are anxious you are living in the future...
If you are at peace you are living in the present...
At first read, I liked it. Made sense. But I was pretty sure that Lao Tzu never said such a thing.
For one thing, Lao Tzu may not have ever existed. And even if a person by that name actually was the source of the Tao Te Ching (or Dao De Jing), there is nothing like that quote in the many different translations I've read.
I still liked the quote. Until I starting thinking about it. Then I started to see the flaws in this way of thinking.
Aren't we always living in the present? What else is there to live in? We're not time travellers, able to journey into the past or future. When I remember the past or visualize the future, I'm doing this in the present.
Then there was the strong implication that being "at peace" is the mark of an elevated soul, enlightened being, wise sage -- however you want to refer to a non-depressed, non-anxious person "living in the present."
That seemed judgmental. And unrealistic. Who is able to control their emotions so they are always at peace? Further: who would want to do that? Being always at peace sounds a lot like being dead. Or at least semi-comatose.
I'm driving along and suddenly see an oncoming car veer into my lane. Is the fear/anxiety I feel really "living in the future"?
Sure seems like it is an entirely appropriate instinctual reaction to an impending life-threatening event. Yet the quotation implies that I should be "at peace" in the present. Until the car hits me head on. After which I'd be at peace for eternity, being dead.
There is a time for feeling at peace, and a time for feeling anxious. There is a time for feeling happy, and a time for feeling sad. Taoist writings make this clear. Life is made up of opposites, yin and yang, ever changing and blending into each other.
That said, I do think there is something true this saying points to.
We humans do indeed often feel bad about the past when this isn't warranted; we do indeed often feel anxious about the future in an unproductive way. However, worrying about whether we should be more "at peace" obviously isn't going to make us more peaceful.
Accepting that sometimes we will be at peace, and sometimes we won't -- that strikes me as much more genuinely Taoist than this made-up Lao Tzu saying.
I found a web page that had a similar attitude toward this saying, "Wisdom and Foolishness in Social Media."
But occasionally I see a supposedly wise saying that rubs me the wrong way. Here's one such saying, picked up on Facebook, and then I'll explain why it bothers me on several levels.
"If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present." -- Lao Tsu
First -- I assume "Lao Tsu" is an alternative spelling for Laozi or Lao Tzu. I'm very familiar with the Tao Teh Ching (or Daode Jing), the only text attributed to the probably mythical Laozi. I've read several different translations of it, and I am certain nothing resembling that quote appears in the Tao Teh Ching. Maybe some other well-known sage said it, but not Laozi.
Second -- I don't think it's true, or at least not true for everybody, all the time. I was particularly irritated by use of the word depressed. Depression is a common emotion, but it's also the name of a crippling mood disorder that requires careful medical management. And I can say from my own hard experience that clinical depression is not merely the result of "living in the past." It's not like that at all, actually.
Glib little sayings like this are not helpful to people struggling with a real mood disorder. It's saying that if you were just more disciplined and could think the right thoughts, you wouldn't be so messed up. It's an unskillful thing to say to someone who is actually depressed, and for whom the present is a cruel and terrifying place.
From a Buddhist perspective, the focus on "you" pulls the quote even further out of whack. Brad Warner has a post critiquing a tweet by Deepak Chopra that deals with the same issue. The tweet:
When you reach pure awareness you will have no problems, therefore there will be no need for solutions.
Sounds profound, huh? But Brad Warner says,
"Pure awareness, whatever that is, or God (my preferred term), cannot be the object of you, cannot be the possession of you, it isn't in your future, it isn't something you can ever possibly reach. It will not solve all of your problems. It couldn't even if it wanted to. It's a fantastic dream that can never come true.
"This doesn't mean everything is bleak and horrible and hopeless. It just means that approaching it in terms of you and the things you want to get cannot possibly work. It can't work precisely because thinking of things in terms of you and what you want to get is exactly the thing that blocks it."
By the same token, as long as it's you living in the present moment, you're unlikely to be completely at peace. The Buddha taught that serenity comes with realizing the ephemeral nature of the self. As Dogen said,
To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening. [Genjokoan]