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.