The fourth of the Twelve Principles of Attitudinal Healing outlined by Jampolsky (2000) is that we can let go of the past and the future. Jampolsky’s argument is that “We experience inner peace when we let go of our attachments to the painful past and the fearful future and learn to live in the present” (p. 101). That sounds nice. It has also felt completely out of reach for me for most of my life. In reflecting on my experience of depressive illness, I have spent more of my 46 years thinking about things that have already happened or haven’t happened yet than I have about what’s going on right now. I value being contemplative concerning where I’ve been and where I’m going; but, when I’m acutely ill, I move from contemplative to obsessively negative spending the vast majority of my mental energy reliving what I perceive to be the horrors of past events or predicting with absolute certainty the doom to come. Since I am a nerdy data junky, I will illustrate with a fake frequency distribution. When my mood is depressed, the distribution of my thoughts is bi-modal; it has two peaks. One peak is characterized by rumination, guilt, and regret while the other represents anxiety, pessimism, and negativism. Irritability and anger show up on both sides. Time spent living in the moment is brief at best when I’m down. As a result, I have very few memories from childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood of truly being in the present. Most of what I have of that time is a broad, expanse of negative emotion.
According to Jampolsky, “…most of our disillusionment and weariness is caused by the judgements we have against ourselves and others. These judgements have their roots in our unforgiven past, and they poison our capacity to experience directly what is occurring here and now” (p. 102). In his book Just One Thing (2011) Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson makes a similar argument saying that “[w]hen we go into the future, we worry and plan. When we go into the past, we resent and regret. Threads of fear are woven into the mental tapestries of past and future” (p. 173). I realize only now how true that is.
I’ve spent a lot of time poisoned by judgements of past and future that are so compelling and distracting that they suck the life out of simply living. As Jampolsky puts it “…we believe more strongly in rejection and pain than we do in love and oneness” (p. 102). Hanson in Buddah’s Brain (2009) suggests that humans have a built in bias toward negativity with a preference for avoiding rather than approaching. This bias has an evolutionary basis in terms of survival. “The negativity bias fosters or intensifies other unpleasant emotions, such as anger, sorrow, depression, guilt, and shame. It highlights past losses and failures, it downplays present abilities, and it exaggerates future obstacles” (Hanson, 2009, Kindle edition, loc. 767). In Buddah’s Brain, Hanson refers to what we do mentally as a “simulator” that produces experiences just as powerful or even more so than events that are taking place right now. They can be played over and over again allowing themselves to be perpetually re-experienced and their memory pathways to be strengthened. Neutral and even pleasant moments don’t get that kind of attention.
What’s the solution? For Jampolsky, “[o]ne of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves is to decide that we are no longer willing to remain stuck in the past or to be fearful of the future” (p. 105). The shift is in the direction of being present in the current moment regardless of its pleasantness, neutrality, or darkness far more than dwelling in the past or attempting to control the future. I am very limited in my ability to do this at present but I take heart in the simplicity of Hanson’s suggestion in Just One Thing (2011) “[l]ook again at the thin slice of time that is the present. In this moment: are you basically okay?…The answer is almost certainly yes” (p. 173).
One of my daughters tends to be somewhat fearful and her anxiety can sometimes be overwhelming for her. Her sentences frequently begin with “But, what if….” We were riding together a couple days ago when she seemed to become very anxious. While she has never been a bold rider, she has never been timid either. When I asked her what was going on, she said she thought the horse was going to “freak out”. Meanwhile, the horse, 22-year-old Quarter Horse Coco, was standing quietly in the middle of the arena waiting to go to work. I first tried to invalidate the claim that Coco was about to go through the roof. That didn’t work. My daughter argued that she had “freaked” before which was marginally true but the event had not resulted in a bad outcome and happened more than six months ago. She didn’t fall off and was actually proud of how she’d stayed on. I reminded her of this but she was so consumed by imagining disaster that she just couldn’t see an alternative.
I was on our horse Cooper who at 16.1 hands towers over 14.2 hand Coco and began circling her as we talked. I moved Cooper a bit closer to Coco with each circle so that, much to her annoyance (she is a mare after all and, to Cooper’s amusement, was threatening to bite his face off for having the audacity to violate her space), she had to move out of Cooper’s way and begin walking with us. When she stopped, I had Cooper herd her back into motion. Slowly, I got them both walking and distracted Olivia with a discussion of her current favorite iPod app Plants vs. Zombies. After a couple of laps around the arena, I asked her how Coco was feeling now. She said she was fine. I asked her how she was feeling. She pulled Coco up and said, “I’m OK.” What changed? While it hasn’t sunk in yet, she realized he was actually OK. In time, she may even realize that she was stuck in her own internal simulator.
“Noticing that you’re actually all right right now is not laying a positive attitude over your life like a pretty veil. Instead, you are knowing a simple but profound fact: In this moment I am all right. You are sensing the truth in your body, deeper than fear, that it is breathing and living and okay” (Hanson, 2011, pp. 174-175). Bad things have happened in the past. Sometimes they are even our own fault. Bad things will happen in the future. But, most of the time, we are at any given moment … good. Even when we feel bad, we need to remember that we bounce, we learn, and we grow. We are capable of developing the ability to step out of the simulator and refocus on just one thing. Now.