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Zen Made Simple: The Message Behind The Present Published: Sunday, January 25, 2004 By: Eng. Ulises Pabón

With a storytelling style that has become so popular with self-help books and content akin to Zen teachings, Spencer Johnson delivers a simple and clear-cut message in his latest book, The Present.

The essence of Johnson’s message can be summarized in four straightforward lessons delivered progressively throughout the story. These lessons promise to be essential guidelines for the pursuit of success, which the author defines as progressing towards whatever you think is important.

The first lesson has to do with the present (as in time, not as in a gift). This lesson proposes that we all create our present by choosing what to focus on; that we need to appreciate the gifts we are receive every day; and that we should focus on what is right to get energy and confidence to deal with what is wrong. The essence of the present is two fold: what is right now, and what is right, now. In a play with words, the author suggests that the present (as in time), is a present (as in gift) we give to ourselves.

The second lesson has to do with the first of two thieves that rob us from the present: the Past. The author states that is it hard to let go of the past if we haven’t learned from it. As soon as you learn from the past, you are ready to let go from the past and improve the present. The purpose of the past, then, is to allow us to learn how to act or behave differently. We cannot change the present if we behave as we did in the past. The author suggests three questions to deal with the past: 1. What happened? 2. What did I learn? and 3. What can I do different now?

The third lesson relates to the second thieve that robs us from the present: the Future. Since fear and uncertainty of the future can impede us from enjoying the present, the author suggests we use the future to help us identify ways to improve our present. The way to do this is through planning. Here, again, the author suggests three simple questions: 1. What would a great future be like? 2. How can I get there (create a plan)? and 3. What am I going to do today?

Having visited the present, the past, and the future, the author finalizes his story with the fourth lesson: the role of purpose. Purpose is what ties the past, the present, and the future together. Purpose becomes the lens through which we should focus our attention on the present, the guide for reflection and learning from the past, and the compass to guide us towards the future.

The Present may be accused of being over-simplistic, and there is some truth to this claim. I tend to be suspicious of recipes for happiness that translate into “the three steps…”, “the seven habits…”, or “the five rules…”. We all know that life can be, and frequently is, much more complicated than that. However, as long as the reader keeps in mind that this is not a book on how to recover from advanced schizophrenia, the principles put forth are well founded. The lessons shared are good basic advice and can do no harm.

In terms of plot and style, The Present belongs to the group of business and personal development books that try to communicate their message through a story or fable. For those of us that grew-up reading Og Mandino (The Greatest Salesman in the World) and George S. Clason (The Richest Man in Babylon) – extraordinary exemplars of this writing style – the current authors that have tried to imitate these masters have adulterated, rather than enriched, this style. Such is the case for The Present. The story is flat; the plot is utterly simple; and the writing style is poor. The reader would be better served with a two-page summary. Of course, two-page summaries don’t make it to the best sellers list.

I was relieved to find, in The Present, a thesis more amenable to reflection and to thinking in principles, than the flawed propositions of Who Moved My Cheese? That both of these works are product of the same author is a very interesting fact. Perhaps, Johnson has followed his own advice. There is no reason why we can’t follow suit.


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