Sam Holstein

Start Living For Today

Tibetan monks have a type of art they call the sand mandala, a beautiful piece of art created with colored sand. They are created by a team of monks over the course of several days, all working together to carefully place each individual grain. For the monks, it is days of painstaking labor, but the result is beautiful.

What makes sand mandalas special is not their creation, but their destruction. After they are completed, they are set out to view for a certain period of time, like a week or a month.

Then they are destroyed.

When most people sit down to create art, they want the art to be around for as long as possible. When Michelangelo carved The Statue of David, he intended to carve something as perfect as possible that would last as long as possible. His intention was not to create but to have created. But when monks create a sand mandala their point is not to have created a sand mandala. They know their mandalas will be destroyed. Monks create sand mandalas not so they exist, but so they may experience creating them. Unlike Michelangelo’s experience creating The Statue of David, in which the outcome was the point, the experience a monk has creating a sand mandala is the point.

Buddhists believe this mindset of ‘experience as the point’ is the proper mindset not only for creating sand mandalas, but for everything. If you are creating a mandala or gardening or even suffering, the Buddhist way to handle it is to pay full attention to the present moment. Just as a plant grows with no intention to grow, we too should live with no intention to live.

Looking at America, though, this is not the mindset we have. We are plants who have set an intention to grow, damnit. Almost all of what we do is goal-oriented; we go to college to get a good job, we get a good job so we can have a good income, we go to the gym to get in shape or to become attractive, we go on dates because we’d like to have sex or get married, we go on vacations to relax, so on and so forth. Most of what we do is done for an intended outcome.

But what if we let go of the intended outcome? What if we started doing things not because they produced a certain kind of outcome, but because we wanted to do the thing itself? What if, like plants who just grow, we became people who just did?

Instead of going to the gym because we feel like our health is doomed if we don’t, we could go to the gym because going to the gym is fun. We could go on dates because even if we don’t have chemistry with a single one of these people, getting to know others in a genuine way is emotionally nourishing. We could get a job not because we are going to lose our apartments and starve to death if we don’t, but because doing meaningful work is one of the most satisfying parts of life.

Whatever’s going on in your life right now isn’t a toll you must pay to get to the next part. College degrees aren’t tolls to get to your first job, and your first job isn’t a toll to get to the next one. Dates aren’t a toll you pay to finally be in a relationship or get married. Class, endless dates, and shitty first jobs aren’t the price you pay for life. They are life. When you treat them like a toll you must pay, you’re actually just hitting the fast-forward button on your life, skipping past time you will never get back.

At some point, some readers will have stopped to think the following thing:

“that’s a beautiful picture you’re painting, but it’s not reflective of reality. Going to the gym, working a job, and going on date after date is not fun. It never will be.”

But won’t it? Whether we find a certain activity ‘fun’ or not depends far less on the activity itself and far more on how we mentally approach the activity. For instance, I used to think going to the gym was not fun. In fact, I had trouble envisioning something less fun. But I met someone who taught me a different mindset. He said what’s important about going to the gym is not that you get physically strong or healthy, but that you get tough. Going to the gym is practice for dealing with pain. I have always wanted to be better at dealing with pain, so this completely changed my attitude about the gym. Ever since then, I think the gym is a great place to be.

Most of the positive changes I’ve made in my life happened the same way. I read upwards of 75 books a year; I don’t do this because I convinced myself reading books would ‘pay off,’ but because I reoriented my mindset so that reading itself was enjoyable.

I’m not special. No one is special. If I was able to affect this kind of change in my mindset, you are as well. Imagine what life would be like if you enjoyed going to the gym, if you enjoyed going to work, if you enjoyed studying.

In my experience, making this change is as simple as accepting one fundamental truth:

You want to be doing what you are doing.

If you’re currently at the gym and you’re hating it, you want to be doing it. If you’re at work and it’s the worst thing you could be doing, you want to be doing it. If you’ve been studying for hours for a class you hate, you want to be doing it.

Here’s why: Say you are studying for a class you hate, and you are hating the experience so much. The fact of the matter is, you chose to go to this degree program, you chose to take this class, and you chose to study for it. Every decision you’ve made in your life has led you here. If you didn’t really want to be studying, then you wouldn’t be studying. But here you are, studying. Ergo, you want to be studying.

Because studying is something you chose, it’s as sweet and precious a part of your life as anything else. You may not feel like it — while you’re studying, you’re probably daydreaming about going to the bars with your friends after your last exam is over. But life can’t be split into pieces and parts this way. Everything you experience is life, and life is precious — even the bad parts.

Have you ever met someone who just seems carefree? Who never complains about having too much work on their plate, or too much studying to do before exams, or too many emails to answer, even though they probably have all three of those things? They feel carefree because they’ve accepted this. Whatever it is they’re doing at that moment, they know it’s what they want to be doing.

Next time you’re doing something you aren’t enjoying, remember: I want to be doing what I am doing.

Life is good if you decide that it is.

Carol Nicholson Fryeberger