We frequently hear and say these things that are supposed to be motivating and inspiring (or at least make us feel better about the choices made in the quest for happiness) but upon examination are simply glib sound bites designed to take you away from the best parts of being alive.
Life only feels short in retrospect - when we look back and reminisce about the time that has passed - it is actually an innumerable collection of moments.
Time is a human construct applied to an ever-expanding universe that isn’t keeping count. Before humans invented time things started when they began and continued until they were finished. Migrations, feeding, and even life itself managed to happen without time. Looking at life at a universal scale of billions of years makes it all too easy to concern ourselves with things like global warming, endangered species, and our grandchildren’s children. If our lives are short, all life is short.
Living la Vida Loca
Words collected into sayings are powerful things, they set our subconscious down roads that form behaviors, habits, and core beliefs about who we are and how we should behave. To say “life is short” is intended to help you seize the moment and create purpose, but it is a veil that gives us permission to hide behind our impulses in exchange for relief, momentary happiness, and instant gratification.
When someone passes away, we say “life is short” as a way to move away from our grief in an effort to “feel better”. When we throw our inhibitions to the wind, “life is too short to have regrets”, we move away from our higher selves and toward the temporary shelter of “no worries”. When we say, “life is too short to be clocking in to a job I hate”, we are consoling ourselves about past decisions we’ve made and engaging a shallow search for our courage to do something different next time.
Unfortunately, life is not that clean cut. In all of these cases, we are missing the opportunity to be present with what is happening and question what we are feeling and wanting at that moment. When the lights go out, we miss our loved ones, regret our transgressions and wish we could achieve our dreams. Instead of creating an excuse for making short-sided decisions we could investigate further, ask better questions and decide consciously if what we are choosing is really the best use of our most valuable resource: our attention.
Life is Long
Anyone who has tried to sit quietly or meditate for the first time knows how long five minutes can feel, our mind races to fill the void left by not-doing, and the battle between our quiet nature and our thinking-selves can turn a minute into an eternity. We have all experienced countless examples in our lives where time has slowed down during a crisis, through spurts of creative expression, flow states, and moments of being content and joyful. I recently learned that a childhood friend took his own life only a mile away from me and only days removed from trying to reach me on Facebook after he realized we were in the same town. I found out his life was a continual struggle with alcohol and aggression, and when faced with the reality that he might end up back in prison, he hung himself. Life was not short for my friend, it was unbearably long.
Another friend has a child born with a genetic disorder that has created a near-constant stream of health crises that will never end. It is easy to look back at a child’s life and see how quickly time has gone (it really does go fast), but there have been, and will continue to be, eternities lived inside moments of complete fear and concern for their child’s life.
For the past five years, I have been through a roller coaster of Crohn’s disease with an extraordinary level of intensity. In 2017 alone, I had three major surgeries that led to complications and over one hundred visits to my surgeon’s clinic at Stanford over four months. Even with the pain-killers and periods of being under anesthesia, days stretched to a nearly unbearable end.
In a miraculous turn of events, over a six week period, I went from completely dependent on my doctors to no sign of disease and normal blood markers. I have been reflecting on the gravity of “five years” or half of a decade-all that I have experienced, all my kids have been through (now high schoolers), and the fortitude my fiancé was able to muster to hold us all together and keep me alive. Five years evaporated in a glimpse on a tiny speck in the universe and yet there were entire lifetimes of me (and my family) built and torn down during that same blink.
These are all examples are life pulling us into the present, but we can find the extension of time in moments all over our lives. My bike was stolen on Monday, which had pretty much saved my life, but I only owned it for a year. In that time I put nearly 2000 miles — countless worries and hundreds of hours into the pavement — and I can recall most of them. The easy reaction to my stolen bike was to be angry, sad and cynical but all I can think about is what a gift this bike was.
Our age is measured in time, but the quality of our life is quantified in moments that made an impact on us.
The Holy Grail of a Long Life
We can experience a long life by being present for what is happening, good or bad, and not falling into the trap of the way things “should be”. In a 60 Minutes Overtime with Anderson Cooper (registration required), one of the leading authorities on mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, said,
“…everyone wants to figure out how to live longer, but [mindfulness] this actually is a very easy way for you to live longer. Maybe you’re not extending your life, but you are present and living more of the moments of your life.”
Living more of the moments of your life means you lived longer and more fully with the time you were given, no matter how long, good or bad it felt.
Extending life and chasing immortality has been part of the human experience and imagination from as far back as we could record things. Recently, longevity has become the obsession of Silicon Valley billionaires who are pouring money into research and products for extending life. Google has put $1.5 billion into anti-aging and everyone from Bill Gates to Peter Thiel and the Koch Brothers have given funding for research and product development.
We are faced with our mortality as we age but something else happens too, we become more reflective, look back on how we blazed through our youth and realize we need to reprioritize in order to have a high quality of life as we age. Wearables and nootropics (smart drugs) are not the only anti-aging efforts sweeping over the entrepreneurial and startup community, mindfulness, meditation, and quality of sleep are quickly becoming the easiest, and most fashionable way, to hack our quality of life and longevity.
A search of Amazon shows over 25,000 books have been published since 2010 with the keyword “mindfulness” versus 5000 books before that time.
Google shows a clear trend in “mindfulness” taking off around the time that “optimism” peaked in 2008. Optimism has limited application, but the benefits of mindfulness are nearly boundless.
You Can’t Get There from Here
The present is ethereal, only existing while you are in it, the moment you shine a light on “now” it dissipates like morning fog.
The one thing that the mind can not calculate or grasp, is the present.
Live a long life by accumulating moments where you are present with what is, and when you realize you’re mind has captured your attention, bring it back. The effects of mindfulness are compounding, the more time you spend in awareness (being mindful), the more you will experience it as a normal state of being. This doesn’t mean you become aloof, it means that you show up, as often as possible, to your life. As Kabat-Zinn has put it,
“…living your life as it if really mattered from moment to moment.”
Science is showing us that this level of attention can dramatically change your life, lowering inflammation at a genetic level, changing your brain and bolstering your immune system, and increasing overall grey matterin some of the most critical areas of the brain.
To get started, stop looking at life as something where you have to get in as much as you can instead of taking in all that you have. Live the life you are in, not the one you wish you had, feel entitled to, or could have had if things had gone your way.
There are countless resources to help you on your way, Mindfulness: If you are interested in mindfulness without the dogma, check out Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book, “Wherever You Go, There You Are”.
Meditation: This is the oldest human technology for leading a fulfilled life and only requires you to sit quietly and let things be as they are. I use the Insight Timer app daily, but there are several out there like Calm and Headspace.
For learning more across all of these areas, I recommend listening to this recent podcast with the creator of Wisdom 2.0, Soren Gordhamer by Kevin Rose an entrepreneur, turned investor, turned biohacker and developer of the Oak Meditation app.
This was originally posted on Medium in 2017
Update March 2020: My daily meditation practice has been going on for over four years, in 2019 I was declared in “deep remission” by my Stanford doctors, and meditation and mindfulness is increasingly looking like the most important training for the 21st century.