“The New Year always brings us what we want / simply by bringing us along” says Dana Gioia in his poem New Year’s. Truer than ever at the end of a year which has uniquely altered our perception of time. Hours, days, months of lockdown seemed incredibly slow – few of us could say, as we often do, that we did not see the time go by! And yet time did go by, the year did bring us along, and we know that happier or not, the New Year will do the same, with its days and nights, its months and seasons, and the ordered, reassuring, steady pace it imprints to our existence.
Filled with relief or regret about the year past and with anticipation with the year that begins, the New Year’s Eve for Dana Gioia deflates our pretence that we live in the present moment: “The present – he says- is / the leaky palm of water that we skim / from the swift, silent river slipping by”.
And yet, for much of the spiritual tradition of both West and East, the secret of peace and serenity of heart depends on our capacity to set aside any regret about the past and any concern or anticipation about the future, even just for a little while, and learn how to stay in the present, in the here and now. There will be plenty of time for remembering the past, or for making projects about the future – these are good things, they occupy most of our daily life - our sense of identity and livelihood depend on them. But there also should be a time to just inhabit the present, quietening the incessant noise of memories and projects, and focus on being alive, breathing, seeing, hearing, moving now.
We all have our strategies to inhabit the present time. A solitary walk, in which I just put one step after the other, and welcome what meets my eyes as it is, without judgment. Going to an exhibition and immerging myself into it, letting art arrest my attention, challenge the lazy and narrow spectrum of what I like and dislike, widen my appreciation of reality. One of my favourite strategies is spending few hours drifting aimlessly through the city while taking photos as a way of being fully present to what I see.
On these occasions, we might realise that the present moment is not just the poet’s leaking water, but something real, lasting, a space to inhabit for a while, and in which we can find peace. The present moment is the period of time which we manage to insulate from the past and the future, from memories, regrets, nostalgia or worry, anticipation, boredom and excitement – and it lasts as long as we carry on in this disposition. This is an art, it can be learned. We can become capable of living in the present moment for hours, sometimes for an entire day.
A good deal of our well-being depends on doing this with regularity, whether daily, or once a week, or, better, whenever we perceive the gentle prompting welling up from within – our soul, our body, our heart’s yearning to pause from ‘doing’ and try to ‘be’ instead.
No better way to dissolve fatigue, disillusionment, and anxiety. It will benefit our faith and our relation with God too. We might think that the only valid forms of prayer are talking to God, reading Scripture, meditating on a psalm, worshiping in a church. But spiritual tradition teaches that inhabiting the present moment is prayer too. This is why Jesus invites us to spend time looking at the birds of the air and observing the lilies of the field – just this: looking, and observing. No need to say things to God, not even to think of him, for this to be ‘prayer’. What matters is that, for a little while, I stop acting as if I was in charge of everything and let life – and the God who lovingly sustains it- take care of me.
The Gospel’s advice on how to welcome the New Year is known and yet its meaning grows each time we return to it: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble”. Sufficient for the day is its own pace, and peace, too.