I have realised that the past and future are real illusions, that they exist in the present, which is what there is and all there is. -Alan Watts
Where are your thoughts right now? Are they here? Or have they time travelled to the future or gone back in history?
I hope they’re here for a while at least. otherwise I’ve written this for nothing.
‘Living in the now’ is a catchy phrase, isn’t it? We’re encouraged to actively pause and bring our attention back to the ‘now’. We’re given tools to help us do that. Meditation is one that’s been around for millennia, mindfulness is the new kid on the block but basically, they’re the same thing. If you’ve tried either you know how hard they are to do properly. Tell your mind to stop wandering and guess what? It goes walkabout. Meditation seems to demand concentration and yet the more you concentrate the more impossible it becomes. It’s no wonder so many folks give it up as a bad job.
I guess it’s so hard because our natural state is one of randomness of thought. Fact is that most of us time travel on a regular basis. We’re either thinking ahead or looking back. And it’s OK if our thoughts jump in the Tardis for quick trips now and again. But if they spend too much time ‘out there’ they may get lost and never come back, or worse, bring back one of those zombies from Mars.
So, why do we do time travel? Let’s look at the past first:
When we look back at our lives we remember a myriad of events. Some small, some large, some life-changing. Quite often we’ll tag one of these as significant. We’ll decide that whatever happened back then has had a significant impact on what’s happening to us today. We may find ourselves blaming ourselves or others for what happened, fixating on it.
That’s a mistake. Firstly our memories are not perfect. When we recall something it’s not like replaying an old video. We don’t get to see and hear an exact reproduction of actual events. Our memories distort, our thoughts manipulate and you can’t trust either, particularly when the event in question happened years or even decades ago.
Perhaps we go there seeking answers or trying to ‘fix’ a problem with our current lives. This fits the classic image of us lying on a couch while the stereotypical ‘shrink’ quizzes us about our childhood. The bedrock of modern Freudian psychology is that revisiting, analysing and understanding what happened to us in the past is the key to ‘curing’ what ails us today.
For a mainstream treatment it has a pretty poor record of success. I don’t find that surprising, it strikes me as being an academic solution to a practical problem and about as likely to work as asking a flat car battery to remember when it was fully charged and get that engine turning over.
My adopted ‘mentor’ Alan Watts may have been considered a ‘mystic’ but he was also eminently practical. I particularly like this quote of his, not least because it’s a nautical analogy:
“Just as the wake doesn’t move the ship, the past does not move the present”
He also said:
“Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone”
Hard to argue with either eh?
Another of my ‘mentors’ Syd Banks was undoubtably ‘enlightened’ but again, practical, and he had similar ‘common sense’ thoughts on the subject:
“Delving back into past events in order to try and fix current problems is like going back into the shower to get dry”
I know psychiatrists, psychologists and psychotherapists have trained for years and have far superior intellect and knowledge than I, and perhaps I’m missing something. But surely if the starting point for all these treatments is what everyone acknowledges is a flawed recollection of what actually happened, how can anything that follows be helpful? OK, I know I’ve dumbed these areas down to the lowest level and I know a great deal of good is done by these fine folks, particularly for those unfortunate enough to be mentally unbalanced, but nonetheless I’m puzzled.
The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness. -Abraham Maslow
The long and short of it is this: the past doesn’t exist. To paraphrase Monty Python;
“’E’s passed on! This past is no more! He has ceased to be! 'E's expired and gone to meet 'is maker! 'E's a stiff! Bereft of life, 'e rests in peace! …. 'Is metabolic processes are now 'istory! 'E's off the twig! 'E's kicked the bucket, 'e's shuffled off 'is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX-PRESENT!!”
If the quotation above means nothing to you, I’m sorry; I’m sorry that you’ve not been blessed with exposure to the genius that was Monty Python - Google ‘The Dead Parrot Sketch’ .
So on the same basis, if the past doesn’t exist then neither does the future. It hasn’t happened yet, and if we step out in front of that bus it may not happen at all. Yet our thoughts love to spend lots of time in this fantasy futuristic world.
I know it isn’t easy to stay put, to stay ‘in the now’. I’m struggling with it myself right now. Questioning past decisions, worrying about next year. That’s why I chose to write this article. Writing reminds me what’s true and how important it is to bring our thoughts back to what’s going on this minute.
Alan Watts again:
Unless one is able to live in the present, the future is a hoax. There is no point whatever in making plans for a future which you will never be able to enjoy. When your plans mature, you will still be living for some other future beyond. You will never, never be able to sit back with full contentment and say “Now, I have arrived!”
I’ll leave you with this summary. Call them the rules of time travel if you like.
The Past: There’s only one good reason to go there — Revision
The Present: Appreciate it. Be in it.
The Future: Imagine it. Work towards it.
“This is who I am, right here, right now, all right? All that counts is here and now, and this is me!”
Dr Who said that and he should know.