We are not balloons – Anna Spargo-Ryan

We are not balloons

We are not balloons

You know that movie 50 First Dates? That’s what living in the moment looks like.

A man called Eckhart Tolle said, in his book The Power of Now:

‘You can always cope with the now’.

In 2011, this man was labelled “the most spiritually influential person in the world”.

Quotes like this one of Tolle’s are designed, I presume, to remind us that nothing has killed us yet, that we have managed to get through everything life has thrown at us, no matter how dreadful, and here we are on the other side, with opportunity to think about how it wasn’t so bad.

It is true that I am a cynic. But I am a realist and an optimist, too. I think we are setting ourselves up for a whole bunch of superficial brain niceties.

There is a chasm between “literally surviving on a physiological level” and “coping”. What happens when you survive your one now moment and then in the next now moment, the lion is still chasing you and now you’ve shat your pants as well? That moment isn’t better. That moment is influenced by the previous moment. And you’ve spent your moment surviving, instead of finding a tranquiliser gun and a zebra decoy.

I have survived every single moment of my life until now, and I have coped with maybe 80% of it. The fact that I am not dead is not evidence of my coping. “The sun will come up tomorrow” is a horrible way to think, if you’re not doing something about your shitty situation today. You will not be cured of every one of your psychological woes by the mere passage of time.

The other side is just this side of the next other side, and the next, ad infinitum.

A lot of people — especially ones who write self-help books — will tell you that the secret to being happy is to live in the now. That you can tackle anything life throws at you at that one moment, if you’re just present. That you’ve survived 100% of things thus far. And if you’re mostly sane, or even completely sane, you can have a latte and think about how present you are, and off you go and read something else about living your most authentic life.

Mostly, what these people want us to believe is that it’s enough just to cope with whatever happens at a given moment. Take it one minute at a time. Get through this minute, and then the next minute. Don’t dwell on what things might be, or what things once were. Just take a deep breath. Just eat your salad. If you can get through that one specific moment, you have scientific proof that you can also get through the next moment. And then guess what? You’ll have got through a thousand moments one after another, and you will be an hour away from right now and you will have survived.

I go to therapy at least once a week. I go there and I talk about what happened in the past, and I talk about what I’m worried about for the future. I sit in the present moment with the therapist and she says, “The reason you feel the way you do now is because of what happened in the past. Let’s talk about that.”

Brains are changeable. They are influenced by the many, many things that happen to each of us in the many moments we have survived in the past. Massive trauma notwithstanding, the brain you have now is made up of all the experiences that have gone before. It is the cognitive patterns that have been reinforced over many years. The books will tell you that you can choose not to dwell on them, if you are living authentically, but they are there. You have physically survived the moment in which they happened, but your brain is an anthology of your life. And they can be influenced further by the way we approach the future.

What I want to tell you is that thinking about the past is not “not coping”. Almost every therapist you visit will ask you questions about your childhood, about your parents, about your schooling, your boyfriend, your mate with the big hair, your job. They will not ask you how well you survived the specific moment you just had, and they won’t tell you not to worry about the specific moment you are about to have. What they will do is try to help you to understand why you think and feel the things you do. Why, when you are stuck at the lights, your pulse races. Why, when you are faced with confrontation in your workplace, you want to run and hide. Why, when you cut your foot, you think you’re going to die.

I am a dweller. I think about the past a lot. I have an acquired brain injury and so I think about before, often. Before, before. I do not recommend dwelling as a strategy. But considering the past in the context of your present (and your future) is really, really important. That’s how we learn from mistakes. That’s how we identify the source of grief or pain or anxiety and reshape our attitude to it. The past is where we find the clues to being still and reflecting and being okay with shit. No therapist worth their salt will advise you to forget the past and just start again with each passing moment. They will ask you to really, properly think about it, and to address it and consider how it has made you the person you are now, and what you might do differently to become a different person five years from now, if you want to.

Don’t cut off your past nose to spite your future face. That’s all I’m saying.

  • Mayhem

    May 14, 2014 at 10:04 pm Reply

    I love this. I’ve been off work for more than 2 years with depression and anxiety. I know exactly when and why it started. Through my breast cancer diagnosis, surgery, chemo and radiation, I soldiered on. I worked as much as I could and I maintained a long distance relationship. There was no question that I would beat this. I had fabulous support from my family, friends, and the man I recently married.

    Once treatment was over, in the face of some stiff opposition, I decided that I’d learned an important life lesson. Life is short! Don’t put off until tomorrow… etc. So I moved to be with my man. It was a big move. Away from my parents and son, closer to my sisters, and of course my wonderful husband. I had a job to come to. It was done. I’d survived and now I was going to do more than just survive. After 20 years as a single parent, I was going to live life for myself. I’ve earned it. I deserve it. Don’t i?

    It came crashing down the day I had my first post-treatment mammogram. An area of concern was found, an ultrasound recommended. 2 new tumours were found. Biopsies and surgery followed very quickly. Those 2 tumours were benign. Thank God! It was then that I started to REALLY consider the possibility (probability?) of recurrence, or secondary cancers. For a while I continued to work, sporadically, for my hugely supportive new employer, but the day I rolled my ankle and fractured it while walking (in runners), was the beginning of the end.

    I have medication, I have therapy, I have had my breasts removed and reconstructed. I’m fortunate to have some insurance to tide me over. I sleep a lot. I cry a fair bit. I also have the overwhelming certainty that each pain I feel heralds the return of cancer, in one form or another.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      May 21, 2014 at 8:18 am Reply

      Thank you for your heartfelt comment. I know we tweeted about it already, but I’m sorry for this crashing conflict of emotions and hope you find path(s) through it before too long.

  • Louisa Simmonds

    May 14, 2014 at 10:54 pm Reply

    I agree that you learn from the past even if it is intensely painful to go back there. But you mustn’t carry it around with you and allow it to weigh you down or let it define who you are in any way. Of course it has, but you need to focus on the positive ways it has shaped you. Perhaps you are stronger, more resilient or more sensitive and therefore a good listener.I let my baggage hold me back for a long time and I haven’t dismissed the past but I’ve learned to live with it.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      May 21, 2014 at 8:17 am Reply

      Totally agreed, Louisa! I would never promote “dwelling” as a growth mechanism. It definitely isn’t. It helps me with writing (because I have SO. MANY. ACUTE. MEMORIES. AND. FEELINGS.) but that’s about it. Otherwise I think it’s destructive.

      Thanks for reading :)

  • Kelly Exeter

    May 14, 2014 at 10:59 pm Reply

    Living in the ‘now’ only really works if each consecutive now is not a ridiculous battle. As you say ‘coping’ is not living if it’s a long term thing. I ‘coped’ with life valiantly for two years and it nearly brought me undone so I absolutely salute every human being for whom each and every day is a battleground.

    That said – I think you’re doing more than coping. I do think you sell yourself short sometimes.

    And I also agree that we cannot be turning our backs on the past. BUT, if part of our past is impacting our now and our future in a fairly constant way … then we have to do ‘something’ right?

    I have no idea if this even makes sense. I am so friggen tired this week!

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      May 21, 2014 at 8:16 am Reply

      I hope so :) I think it’s a combination of all the things that you were saying and the things that I’ve said and hopefully a conclusive balance that’s not-dwelling-but-paying-consideration-to. Maybe? x

  • Ali

    May 14, 2014 at 11:00 pm Reply

    I had that Tolle on CD.
    Keeps you in the now, because you are SCREAMING at it as you drive. (Looks like auto-roadrage from outside).

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      May 21, 2014 at 8:15 am Reply

      Maybe I should buy it? Is that what you’re saying? To stay in the now?

  • Helen K

    May 15, 2014 at 10:49 pm Reply

    Thanks Anna – food for thought. There is a big difference between coping / surviving and growing or even thriving, isn’t there? The challenge is working out what can help you get to that next stage – whether it is working through the issues of the past or working out how not to let yourself be a hostage to them by going over them repeatedly. Such a challenge – best wishes in working through this.

    PS – Always been a bit repelled by The Power of Now – thanks for clarifying why! (and as for coping / surviving, my granny who’s a very positive person, was quite bewildered by all the congratulations she received for her 100th birthday – because ‘its not like I’ve done anything, its just that I haven’t died yet’! She’s got bigger things on her mind than being congratulated on ‘surviving’)

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      May 21, 2014 at 8:14 am Reply

      Thanks Helen :) There is a vast difference. Surviving is obviously vital, but I don’t think we should be content to use it as a benchmark for emotional success. I guess! Your granny sounds like quite a lady :D

      • Helen K

        May 21, 2014 at 10:06 am Reply

        Thanks Anna – yes, except when she is feeling unwell or just tired (which happens more often now), she is one of the most positive people I know (and one of the ways she is such an inspiration).

        But she hasn’t always been. For the first fifteen years or so of my life, I was so conscious of the deep loss she felt from her husband (my grandfather) dying about 2 years before I was born. He was referenced in every conversation – ‘Bob would so much love this; I really wish Bob was here; its lonely …’ He was the deep love of her life – they were only one day difference in age, they were a couple from 24 years old and married at 28 (delayed due to the Depression, etc) and and he died at 56 (so she has lived as a widow much longer than she was married). It could actually be hard to be around – there was a feeling of her just enduring and carrying a heavy burden constantly (so I imagine it was physically draining for her) Then, at some stage, I realised that things had changed – maybe in her mid 70s? She still does miss him, but the loss doesn’t darken her every experience and emotion.

        Now, her circumstances would be very different to the things you are going through (and to some degree, me, as I now recognise that I have suffered from anxiety, which can morph into depression, since a child – I think largely biological although there were some events that probably didn’t help, but not enough to cause it. Anyway, not about me …). She had the loss of a beautiful relationship to deal with, rather than overcoming painful past memories. However, seeing that she came through her pain gives me great encouragement for others and myself at times. Although it took her a long time (and I am not wishing THAT on you), everyone deals with things in their own way – and I am wishing that ‘thriving’ can be how you feel more often than not (and as Kelly has said, maybe there are more times than you realise where you are actually doing more than surviving – I hope so!) And (as I come to the end of my essay – no wonder I am no good with twitter – I hope you can enjoy this glorious Melbourne morning!)

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