So what exactly does it mean, and what was life like before I learned to stay in the here and now?
Well, the opposite to staying in the here and now could be, for example, remembering, or imagining, or analyzing – or perhaps ‘projecting’. In these cases, our mind is not here, in this moment. Any of these habits of thinking could cause or reinforce feelings like anxiety, depression, or fear. Mastering the skill of staying in the here-and-now, on the other hand, can produce a less stressful way of being – even dramatically reduce habits like depression and anxiety. I am not suggesting we should never indulge in remembering, analyzing, etc., just that we can do far too much of it. It can have a strong negative impact on how we feel.
Some people might not be comfortable with my referring to depression as a ‘habit’. And I don’t want to make light of something I struggled with for over 30 years. Even if you easily buy into the idea of depression being a habit, that can still be a long way from knowing how to change it. It’s a tricky business. But most modern psychologists would point out that our thinking very much influences our feelings. Sometimes we fall into patterns or habits of thought, or memories, which in turn produce and reinforce depression. I learned through therapy that if I could focus on ‘the here and now’ – e.g. the physical object I was sitting on, the smells in the air, the sounds – my depression would lessen. When I got good at it, it would actually disappear.
Thinking about someone – or a situation – that makes us angry, about which we feel powerless – can be a classic producer of depression. Sometimes referred to as “anger turned inward”, this usually unconscious sense of powerlessness, is fairly common. Learning to stop dwelling on such thinking can bring on – like the song says – “peaceful, easy feelings”. Easiest method: bringing our thoughts back into the here and now. My mother used to say, “Stop dwelling on it” – but I didn’t understand what that really meant, the way I do now.
Thinking about other people, events, times or places, I sometimes refer to as “there-and-then thinking”. One of my thought habits was remembering people or events that made me feel hurt – definitely there-and-then stuff. I also frequently thought or talked about my fear-of-public-speaking – more there-and-then stuff. Every time I talked to someone about it, I went right back into experiencing the feelings of fear, in detail. In essence, I was rehearsing or practising those feelings. Weird to think of it that way, isn’t it?!
Fantasy is another kind of there-and-then thinking. We can virtually imagine a whole relationship with someone we have a crush on, even projecting a personality – none of which exist in the here and now. If we had remained here-and-now in the first place, we might not have had to feel rejection. A rejection unrelated to reality. But there-and-then was such a pleasure!
Most of us have experienced projecting an attitude onto a person, imagining a negative attitude toward us, only to eventually discover they actually liked us. We were interpreting – as it turned out, mis-interpreting. Interpreting is another sort of there-and-then thinking.
Enough about the details of here-and-now thinking. The point is the “before-and-after”: Before, I spent far too much time in unnecessary depression, anxiety, and fear. But how can I feel anxious if I am not imagining unreality? If I am here, now, what is there to feel anxious about? Maybe if I’m in a war zone or something…. But generally, everything is fine. Even if we’re concerned about environmental degradation for example – a valid concern – fear is not going to save the environment. Fear is unproductive, so we might as well choose serenity by being here, in this moment.
Even with “an audience” – let’s say I want to sing – if I am totally focused on the beauty of the song and the pleasure of singing it, how does fear arise? It’s from the part of my brain that thinks about the ‘judging’ people listening. If I focus on the pleasure bubbling up inside me, and the full breath needed, and my lungs and diaphragm as they cradle and support a note, there is little room for fear. Only pleasure. At least, for me!
And now that I am competent at being here, now, I am listening to the music playing softly in the background, with the steady hum of the air conditioner. Two men at the other end of the café are having a passionate discussion I can’t quite hear, and I smell the aroma of wonderful coffee, freshy brewed. What richness I would miss, if I were ‘somewhere else’. I am here, now, and I feel mellow.