In the Mishnah, the teaching is that one should live every day of their life as if it was one’s last. In some ways, this is the Jewish version of the Eastern concept of “living life in the now” or “being present in the moment”. If every day one’s focus is on preparing for a departure from this lifetime, the past is then only the record of our experience and the future is a moot point.
By centering our attention on conclusion, we are simultaneously preparing for a totally new beginning. If in practice we conclude our life on a daily basis, then when we awaken the next day we begin a whole new reality. This process keeps us perpetually focused in the moment.
The other day, I had an interesting and unexpected conversation about this very topic while sitting at the counter of a cafe. The exchange led me to a very profound realization and I want to share it with you.
While I was at the counter waiting for my order, I found myself engaged in conversation with a gentleman sitting next to me. During the conversation, I casually asked about how his week was going. His rather surprising response was “I can only vouch for today. However, today’s going wonderfully.” “What about yesterday?” I asked. To which he responded, “To be honest with you, I can’t really say much for sure about yesterday because I have no direct sense of time”.
I was intrigued. He went on to explain. What he told me was that when he was in his very early twenties, he was nearly killed in a car accident. A couple of days after the event, while he reflected on what had happened, he suddenly made the decision consciously that if he was going to die he wanted to die happy. Moreover, since he had no idea when he was going to die and realizing it could happen at any moment, he decided that his focus had to be on being happy every day. He explained that he has consistently honored that commitment ever since.
He made it a point to tell me that his decision permanently shifted his entire perspective on how to live life. If he was going to be happy, it had to be a constant, because every day could actually be his last. “As a result”, he said, “the past simply became a record of his experience and material to reflect on. The future ceased to exist as anything more than a simple possibility”. What he then emphasized to me was that he could remember clearly events in his past, but could not determine whether the event happened yesterday or years ago. And that it really didn’t matter.
What truly mattered to him was that he found himself vividly aware of the great joy of just being. Every day of his life became a prolonged, self-contained moment. Time had transformed itself. It was no longer chronological. It became the focus of consciousness. Now, in his experience, the reality of life functioned with much more intensity and far more meaning. The result of this shift was that joy in particular, along with an accompanying gratitude, stood at the consistent core of his present life experience.
This gentleman’s story hit me at a very visceral level and it sparked within me a very important realization. What I came to understand from this conversation added another, vital element to the teaching from the Mishnah. In a very dramatic way, it gave me a greatly deepened perspective on one of the most central teachings of the Baal Shem Tov.
The Baal Shem Tov placed supreme value on joy as the spiritual and emotional platform upon which service to God is based. Service to God, he taught, is predicated on approaching the divine with pure joy. In the Kabbalah, the teaching is that to serve God is to love God and that love emerges from joy. They are both dimensions of Hesed, the highest level of experience we can reach consciously.
What I came away with from my discussion in the cafe was a heightened perspective of the function of joy. I had never made the equation between “being in the moment” and “being in the state of joy”. It had not occurred to me, fully, that the two were actually the same in essence.
To fully be present in life is to be centered in the moment. The key to being centered in the moment is to appreciate the total expansiveness and inclusiveness of “now” and the beauty, awe and gratitude that such awareness generates. Moreover, the key to such a reverential focus is to continually be positioning yourself within the spaciousness of joy through an open heart.
If I were to summarize the realization that I came to as a result of our conversation, it would be the following;
If one makes it a point to open one’s heart to God, consciously, on a daily basis, the intention and focus move one first into love and then from there directly to joy. Once connected to the state of joy, one becomes fully involved, centered and present within the eternal moment that is the actual essence of life.
The key to communion with God is joy. Being in communion with God, holding an abiding sense of the holy through joy as a conscious focus in daily life places one squarely in the eternity of the moment. The past and the future are no longer anything more than mere adjuncts to our experience. They take on an auxiliary role and no longer dominate our thinking or our experience. We become free to be ourselves.
In short, to open one’s heart to the divine is to bring oneself to the state of joy. To experience joy is to elevate your consciousness beyond the confines of time, which in turn places you directly in the moment, where one experiences the full essence of life, both its detail and its all-encompassing inclusiveness.
This equation is a very simple, yet extremely deep and profound reality. As the Kabbalists would say, “Consider this well, for it is a great secret.”