Keeping busy, being present

ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

No running away from fast-paced life, but do cherish the here and now

Hello, how are you?

How are things? Busy?

Stressed? Surviving?

How many times have you been greeted with such queries, or variations thereof, or proferred such a salutation?

Indeed, in frenetic-paced Singapore, the typical response seems to be to reply politely and vaguely that yes, you are well, and busy, oh, so busy.

Your closer friends though might be regaled further with a litany of the many things there seems to be to do, in so little time, and how stressful it all is.

There are deadlines to meet and projects to complete, school-runs to do and examinations to be taken (usually suffered by parents as much as their kids), holidays that need to be planned and booked (before everyone else does), friends and family to see or attend to, and yes, as the Robert Frost poem goes, miles to go before you sleep.

At the start of a new year, it is perhaps a good time to ponder this propensity to hyper-activity. Is it necessary? What drives it? Where are we rushing to, and to what end?

These thoughts came to mind last week as I was making arrangements to go to Davos later this month for the World Economic Forum meetings, that annual gathering of the great and good, or the generally busier-than-thou crowd.

At the forum in the Swiss Alps last year, I was surprised to find among the list of attendees several Tibetan monks who conducted daily programmes on meditation and mindfulness. These were as well attended as the more weighty sessions on global and business affairs by world leaders and corporate chiefs.

Puzzled, I sought out a top don from a university and probed him about this. He was nonplussed, and explained that mindfulness training has been among the top draws at leading business schools the world over, as corporate bigwigs and wannabes sought ways to deal with the stresses and strains that come with most jobs these days.

The more connected the world gets, from the globalising of the economy to the rise of social media networks, the more demands there seem to be on our time, which then grows ever more precious.

A recent essay in The Economist magazine, titled "Why are we all so busy?", summed up well this modern-day frenzy to make the most of our time.

"Why do people feel so rushed? Part of this is a perception problem. On average, people in rich countries have more leisure time than they used to.

"The problem, then, is less how much time people have than how they see it. Ever since a clock was first used to synchronise labour in the 18th century, time has been understood in relation to money. Once hours are financially quantified, people worry more about wasting time, saving or using it profitably. When economies grow and incomes rise, everyone's time becomes more valuable. And the more valuable something becomes, the scarcer it seems."

The article cited a study by social psychologist Harry Triandis of the University of Illinois, which noted that societies with more individualistic cultures, which emphasise achievement over affiliation, foster this time-is-precious, use-it-don't-lose-it mindset.

Singapore, with its East- meets-West globalised culture and longstanding emphasis on meritocratic getting ahead, is clearly one society where this applies especially.

This leads to the ultimate irony: The more money people have to spend, the less time they seem to have to do so. Time, after all, is the most non-renewal of assets, with every fleeting moment here for now, but gone forever, never to be replaced.

"So, being busy can make you rich, but being rich makes you feel busier still," the report noted, sardonically.

What then are the hapless folks in this super-stressed city supposed to do? What will make us happier, less stressed, and more fulfilled?

This is where the new mindfulness advocates step in to fill the void. Their mantra is as simple as it is disarming: Do less; stay focused; be more present in the moment. Only by doing so will you be able to enjoy what you have now, value the past, and be able to look ahead to the future.

The poster child of this modern version of age-old meditation is said to be British-born, Los Angeles-based Andrew Puddicombe, a former monk and circus trainer, with "good bone structure and an Abercrombie & Fitch dress sense". He delivers his mantras not just through books and talks, but also via his Headspace website, and even has a smartphone app.

He cites a recent Harvard study by psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert which found that participants spent almost half their time thinking about things they weren't doing at the time, and thereby missing out on life happening right in front of them, resulting in greater unhappiness.

His answer to this: Stop wandering off from the present, and learn through meditation to quiet the mind to focus on what is going on around you in the here and now.

I confess that to my normally cynical, journalistic mind, this sounded initially like a load of new-age nonsense. Except that the notion that the average person might spend 40 years of a normal lifespan worrying needlessly about everything else other than the present is not so easy to put out of your mind.

That, and the sudden passing of a dear colleague recently, with projects we were working on left half done (yes, miles to go before I sleep), has made me more wistful than usual about how ephemeral it all is.

And besides, other wiser folks who have pondered this through the years have offered similar counsel. As the great Albert Einstein once said: "Life is a preparation for the future; and the best preparation for the future is to live as if there were none."

Or, this is how American philosopher Henry David Thoreau put it: "You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this."

So, as we start a new year, with hearts still heavy from news of the devastating loss of life from the third crash to hit airlines from our part of the world, and minds lingering on commemorations of the tsunami that ravaged our region a decade ago, perhaps being more mindful of the present, and all it offers, might give us some solace.

And as we start a year when so much attention will be focused on reflecting on our past - from challenges we faced and overcame, to competing accounts of how we did so, and who did just what and why - perhaps it is worth taking the time to treasure where we are now, while never forgetting how much further we still have to, and can, go.

So, here is my New Year resolution for 2015. It is not to try to be less busy. That seems pretty much a lost cause, given the many ineluctable challenges, professional and personal, that we will all have to take on, and live up to, willy-nilly.

Rather, my aim will be not to allow all that inevitable busyness to get in the way of savouring the moment that is here now, and will be gone before you know it.

Happy New Year. And may you cherish every precious minute of it.

warren@sph.com.sg

Follow Warren Fernandez on Twitter @theSTeditor

Watch Andrew Puddicombe's TED talk at: http://www.ted.com/talks/andy_puddicombe_all_it_takes_is_10_mindful_minutes?