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The Present Moment


The Present

The past is history,
The future a mystery,
All we have is this moment—
It’s the Universe’s gift to each of us;
That’s why it’s called The Present.

This moment—the present moment—is all we have. How many present moments we each have in life, and how much presence we each have to the present moment, will vary from person to person.

But the present moment is where all the action takes place in life.

It’s where we can determine what influence the past will have on us, or, if we are not very present, it’s where the past will determine and influence us (karma, conditioning, reactivity).

The present moment is the only place where a better future can begin—where a better future can be sown, where it can be nourished, take root, blossom and grow—that is to say, where we can sow it, nourish and nurture it, help it take root, blossom and grow.

We are what we think. We are what we read. We are what we do most often in the present moment. What we are now is the result of all we have thought, read, done; the choices we have made, or the choices we failed to make whenever we acted out on the default of our feelings—which is to say our conditioning/karma.

What we are now is also a result of how present we have been to the present moments in our past—how mindful, aware, open, discerning, insightful, observant, focused, or how vacant, scattered, diffused, discursive, avoidant.

To have a future different from our past and to get more and better than we’ve got, we have to become than we are and were. Unless we change who we are, we’ll always get what we’ve got.

If we are to plant a different future in our present now, we will have to become better stewards of our present moments, make better choices on what to think, what to read, what to do. We will need to learn to make better and more consistent and noble and courageous choices, again and again, even under stress and duress, even when flooding emotionally, even when we feel anxious and afraid.

To create a future that is different than our past, we will have to do things differently now, in the present. If we keep doing what we’ve done in the past—if we merely attempt new variations on our usual theme of running, evading, avoiding, shutting down, spinning out, walling up, rationalizing (telling ourselves rational sounding lies), manufacturing false evidence, making false cases against our self and others, playing the victim, scapegoating, abnegating and or diffusing responsibility, taking the path of least resistance, et cetera—then, at best, we will merely continue manufacturing and sowing a victim mentality in ourselves, and, at worst, we will be flirting with becoming evil.

The past gave us a wealth of experiences, good and or bad, joyful and or traumatic, that are now memories and that can and do and will define us if we continue to do nothing differently now, now, now, in this present moment. All the intentions in the world that we might have to create a better future for ourselves and for those around us that we hold near and dear to ourselves are irrelevant and will come to naught if we are not deeply attentive and aware and able to remain courageously present and deeply aware and attentive now—right now—in this present moment and remain courageously committed to what’s best in us, to our highest self.

“All you are now doing, thinking, desiring is not yourself. . . . Your real nature lies immeasurably high above you, or at least above that which you usually take for yourself.” – Nietzsche

The more often we cave and sell out on ourselves and what’s best in us, the more we sow and reinforce and strengthen the habit of having what’s worst and weakest and most wounded in us—or at the very least, what’s mediocre and lukewarm and tepid and banal and ordinary in us—show up and make decisions for us. And thus the more we make it easier to break and sell out again and again in the future on our highest potential and what’s best in us whenever we’re tested or tempted by those “dark shouters” stress and fear and anxiety. And thus the lower we set our standards for ourselves and those around us, the more we slide into depravity and deceit and rationalizations and spin—meaning, the better we get at lying to ourselves and excusing/justifying our own cowardice and lack of conscience and courageous action.

“Great occasions do not make heroes or cowards; they simply unveil them to the eyes of men. Silently and imperceptibly, as we wake or sleep, we grow strong or weak; and at last some crisis comes along and shows us what we have become.” – Brooke Foss Westcott

“Some day, in years to come, you will be wrestling with the great temptation, or trembling under the great sorrow of your life. But the real struggle is here, now. . . . Now it is being decided whether, in the day of your supreme sorrow or temptation, you shall miserably fail or gloriously conquer. Character cannot be made except by a steady, long-continued process.” — Phillips Brooks

Archie Gates: “You’re scared, right?”

Conrad Vig: “Maybe.”

Archie Gates: “The way this works is, you do the thing you’re scared shitless of first, and you get the courage AFTER you do it, not before you do it.”

Conrad Vig: “That’s a dumbass way to work. It should be the other way around.”

Archie Gates: “I know. But that’s the way it works.”

(from the motion picture “Three Kings”)

There’s a saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living” (Socrates). In reality, the unexamined life is a life where a person isn’t even really living; it’s a life where a person is merely existing, where a person is asleep at the wheel or sleepwalking through his or her life (pick your metaphor) and blindly living out the conditioning and karma of his or her past.

The present moment is the only place we have where we can actually examine our life. Thus it is the only place where we can rewrite or amend or heal the past.

If we do nothing differently now and we just exist, and just “be” then whatever has been uncritically written in us by life, by others, in the past, will be our present, and will become our future, because who we are—our level of personal development or lack there of, how many self-capacities we have developed or failed to develop—will be the most important determinant of the quality of our lives and our level of inner peace, composure, and happiness. Who we are—the level of self-development and personhood that we each carry around with us wherever we go and that we can’t escape or outrun—is more important, more essential, more powerful, than what’s around us.

That’s why grass on the other side of the fence that was once so green and attractive and compelling never remains so once we get there.

Why?

Because it takes work, love, attention, nurturing, consistency, stability, the consistent gift of our best self to maintain and keep the grass beautiful.

And if what’s inside us—and what we’re always unknowingly trying to run and get away from—is rot and decay and filth and something that is festering and not healing—our own unproductive, wounded, damaged self and the bad karma/conditioning of our past—then we will always carry that with us wherever we go (read: flee), and it will always rise up and re-infect our present and our current surroundings.

“We can escape a situation we’ve created (temporarily), but we cannot escape ourselves.” – David Schnarch, “Passionate Marriage,” pg. 51.

“Calamities sent by heaven may be avoided, but from those we bring on ourselves there is no escape.” – Eastern Proverb

“He who travels to escape or travel away from himself grows old and dilapidated even in youth among old and ancient things. He carries ruins to ruins. Such traveling is a fool’s paradise. We owe our first journeys of discovery to the discovery that place is nothing, that with a little work and creativity here can be as good as there. At home I dream that at Naples or Rome I can be intoxicated with beauty and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, bid farewell to my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples; and there beside me is the same stern fact, the same sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go. The rage of traveling is a symptom of a deeper unsoundness affecting the whole of the intellect and action. The soul is no traveler; the wise man stays at home.” – Emerson, abridged and adapted from his essay “Self-Reliance”


“[T]he plague bacillus never dies or disappears completely; it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks and bookshelves. And thus perhaps the day will come again when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, the plague will rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.” – Camus, “The Plague”

“The City” – C. P. Cavafy

You said, “I will go to another land,
I will go to another sea.
Another city will be found,
One better than this.
My heart, like a corpse, is buried.
How long must I remain
In this wasteland?
Wherever I turn, wherever I look here
I see the scorched and blackened ruins of my life
Where I have spent so much time
Wandering and wasting away.”

You will find no new lands,
You will find no other seas.
The wasteland you are in
Is one you have created.
You have cheapened and reviled the whole.
The city you are
and are constantly trying to flee from
Will follow you everywhere.
You will roam the same streets elsewhere
Age in the same neighborhoods
Grow gray in the same houses.
Always you will arrive again and again
At your same door
In the same city.
Do not hope for any other.
There is no ship for you,
And there is no road.
For as you have destroyed your life here
in this little corner,
you have ruined it all over the world.

The only time and place we have to correct or amend or heal or rewrite the past is here and now in the present. This is the only place where we can stop running from ourselves and our past—in the present; not the future. If we run now, we will run then, for that will be what we will have just sown and reinforced.

The only way to truly heal the past is by examining it. And we can only examine the past and ourselves, our life and the way we’re living—and learn how to more honestly and truthfully examine ourselves and our life—and heal and correct our past, right now, in the present.

We cannot examine our life in the future; we can only intend to examine it then.

The actual examining and the learning and practice of mindfulness and more honest and examining is something we have to choose now, now, now, in the present. And it is something we have to choose to do again and again and again.

And we cannot put it off if we are to ever truly start it. The present moment is all we have; there’s no time to lose. We can do it now.

We can make the choice right now. We have all we need right now to make the choice to begin living more mindfully and honestly.

Living more mindfully, living a more honest and examined life, is something we have to choose to do by going against the grain of the inertia and all the dark shouters within us—laziness, anxiety, fear, the lust for comfort, the lust for security, the path of least resistance—that bid us to just keep our blinders on and continue just existing and surviving.

The more fearful and afraid we are then the more likely it is that we will be living a closed-minded and closed-hearted life—in other words, the more likely it is that we will be leading the unexamined life.

Why? Because we will be operating on our feeling system, and our feeling system will cause us to feel like examining ourselves and our life would be a dangerous thing to do—that it would be too unsettling and anxiety provoking.

“People wish to be settled, but insofar as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” – Emerson

The less afraid we are—and the less afraid we are of our own emotions and of having intense emotional experiences in life (and thus the less need we have for comfort and security and “control”) then the more comfortable we will be with uncertainty and “living the questions,” and the less we will be ruled by those dark shouters, those false gods, fear and anxiety and excessive self-protectiveness and comfort, and the more likely it is that we can lead a more examined and mindful life—something approaching a truly divine life.

The present moment is all we have. It’s the only time and place we have where we can examine our attitude and our philosophy about life, death, relationships, ourselves, love, work, play, others. The present moment is the only moment where we can begin ventilating our belief system and opening it up for inspection and begin examining our fundamental assumptions and motives and attitudes. Basically we can either dissipate ourselves, go for comfort, vege out in front of the telly, live in some brain-dead escapist fashion, or we can get to work doing some serious honest thinking and introspecting. The choice is ours: use our brain or misuse and abuse our brain. Right now in this unrepeatable present moment is the moment where we can begin examining fundamental assumptions, our metaphysics, our spirituality, our religious beliefs, and why we have chosen to believe what we believe. The present moment is the only moment where we can either opt for the safety and security of a belief system that is essentially someone else’s answer to life’s mysteriousness and unfathomableness, or where we can relax our need for security, relinquish our need for comfort, and start opening up the doors and windows to our heart and mind a bit, ventilating things, letting things air out and breathe, letting out the stale frightened air, and start “living the questions” a bit more.

No one knows why we’re here. No one. All we have around us are other people’s more or less best guesses, their more or less educated or uneducated guesses, motivated either by fear and mindlessness, or by openness, courage, and mindfulness.

What we have are the stories—the stories and explanations others have come up with—some of which may sound more plausible than others, but they are still stories nonetheless.

The reality is that we live in the midst of an unfathomable mystery. And all of our metaphysics and religion and spirituality are just a more or less blind groping for the security of an answer to save us from the discomfort and even terror of the unknown and of feeling the full brunt of our aloneness and lostness and whatever other intense emotions may be stirred up in us and which we feel unable to cope.

All we have is the present moment wherein we can evaluate and examine the reality or truthfulness or plausibility of statements such as the one above and of the conclusions and beliefs others have come up with (their metaphysics and religion and spirituality and belief systems).

And all we have is the present moment where we can attempt to examine our own reasons for believing what we believe—how much we believe what we believe out of fear, or how much we believe what we believe out of a truly open and inquisitive and courageous and less fearful mind—a mind that’s truly trying to live the questions and keep the heart that it’s tied to open and loving.

The openness or closedness of our heart is no one’s responsibility but our own; it’s ultimately the result of a choice we must make again and again in the present. If we make the choice often enough again and again in the present to keep our heart open whenever we are tempted to play it safe and shut down and wall up and avoid the full intensity of life and the present moment, then we are sowing the seeds of and creating the habit of true openness.

Now, in the present moment, is the only place where we can amend or correct our karma, our conditioning, or tendency to spin out, avoid, run, play it too safe too often.

Maybe when we were small and less strong and more dependent, the choice to open or close our heart was in many ways made for us (or dictated) by others and our environment because we lacked not only the stature but the self-capacities to keep our heart open (many of which are the very same self-capacities that will either allow us to live a truly examined life or whose absence will prevent and preclude us from doing so). Not only that, we also still developmentally lacked the capacity for many of the self-capacities that would allow us to keep our heart open. In a sense, many of us had to choose fear and self-protection when we were younger and more vulnerable and dependent in order to survive and move on.

But now that we’re older, we can change all of that. And we can change all of that now, here, in the present moment, in the only moment we really truly have, by examining our attitudes and beliefs, and by examining why we believe what we believe and feel what we feel. Not only that, we can even examine why we settle on (read: choose) the explanations or stories that we do.

In other words . . . we can begin metacognizing.

Metacognizing—thinking about thinking, examining why we believe what we believe, why we choose as we choose, why we settle on the stories and or explanations that we do, why we feel what we feel—is the hallmark—and the only possible proof positive—that a person is living a truly mindful and examined life.

If we are not near-constantly metacognizing and thinking about and examining honestly and as objectively as possible our own thinking, then we are not truly living a genuinely mindful and examined life.

Instead we are fooling ourselves.

The examined life is one of ongoing and continual dedication to metacognition—thinking about our own thinking, examining our own belief systems and assumptions, examining our own feelings, asking why—why we think the way we think, why we feel the way we feel, why we choose the stories and explanations and beliefs that we do. It’s even a life of asking why we ask why. It is a life of perpetual self-monitoring and openness and inquisitiveness and intellectual and psychological curiosity and inner exploration.

And the answers we find and come up with will only be as good as the sharpness of our own mind—i.e. the quality of our own thinking—how well we have learned how to think, not just how well we have learned what to think. All of which will be a reflection of how we have used or misused and abused so many of our recent present moments which are now in the past, but whose legacy affects and inhabits and limits the quality of our present and our current thinking.

Our present bears witness to our past. If we are leading an examined life now, or starting to, it is because someone or something planted the seeds of mindfulness, self-examination, self-monitoring, self-confronting, honest self-awareness—metacognition—in us in the past and these seeds were watered and cultivated either by others, ourselves, or life itself, or God (depending on your belief system).

And if we are not leading a truly examined and metacognitive life, then it’s because it was never suggested to us or inculcated in us or etched into us to live that way. We were never taught how to live a truly mindfully and practice an honest and a reflective and philosophical approach to life, and so our life right now bears witness to that fact—to that lack of conditioning, to the karma of that lack of conditioning. It’s ineluctable.

Now is the only moment we have where we can make this shift, this metanoia, this deep and radical and fundamental change of heart and mind and life direction where instead of sowing the seeds of discursiveness and mindlessness and distraction and dissipation, we begin sowing the seeds of attentiveness, focus, attention, mindfulness, and learn to begin metacognizing and truly parenting ourselves in a healthy and emotionally mature way.

Now is the only moment we have where we can begin sharpening the saw—and begin planting the habit of sharpening the saw—and monitoring ourselves and asking why, and why we even ought to ask why, and where we can begin thinking about our own thinking and why we make the choices we make and act the way we act.

Now is the only moment we have where we can make the shift—the metanoia—from leading a more or less reactive and unexamined life to much more mindful and examined life—a life of metacognition and greater presence and accountability in our own life and the present.

Making a Different Choice: Choosing a Different Way of Responding Rather Than Our Patterned Way of Responding


The fusion of emotional and intellectual functioning that is prevalent in people at the lower end of the differentiation of self scale, means that, at those lower levels, much of behavior and thinking is emotionally driven.

The emotions are so powerful that when a fusion of emotions and intellect occurs (“amygdala hijacking”), intellectual functioning—which is not reliable in the presence of strong emotions, especially anxiety, anger, and fear—loses out.

Since those with lower levels of differentiation inherited a greater quantity of innate anxiety and reactivity from the relationship fusions they grew up in (their family of origin), their intellectual processes will be adversely affected by that fusion.

Whenever intellect is influenced or made less effective by emotional forces, thinking is not logical or reliable. And the finer abilities of human beings, such as abstraction and the ability to consider consequences of behavior, are lost.

Thus decision-making is impaired.

And poor decision-making means more life problems. And since most of us bring on most of our life problems ourselves, for people at the lower end of the scale, that tendency is multiplied, sometimes exponentially, by emotionally driven (irrational) decision-making. Behavior is impulsive and not well thought-out and thought-through. Life troubles abound.

There are also many relationship difficulties, partly because of the load of anxiety that people at this level carry with them. Their greater anxiety leads them to repeat relationship patterns and stances, as they tend to “take it out on their partner,” through distancing, emotional cuttoff, triangling, under-functioning.

People at this end of the scale live with an excessive amount of worry and distrust. Their whole world is one of relationships and either positive or negative emotional reactivity to them. There is little to no time or energy left to think about the wider world or improving their relationships through greater self-observation because of the amount of fusion between their emotions and intellect.

People higher on the scale have less ambient anxiety to carry around with them. This results in a more stable and less reactive nervous system.

Because they took on less anxiety in their family of origin years, they gain and lose less self in relationship fusions.

That means that their brains work better for decision-making as well as all kinds of complex intellectual functioning. Being less mired in the emotional/intellectual fusions, the brain is freed of the intensity that holds it back from functioning at its best. Better decisions are possible. And because of that, there are fewer life problems. Relationships work better. There is less unnecessary worry.

Though we are stuck with the amount of undifferentiation we leave home with, it is possible to nudge it a little by concerted effort, developing a “new lens,” and active and sustained coaching or therapy with someone has been wearing that same lens for much longer.

That is the bad news.

The good news is that any movement at all up the scale means living a life that is all but unrecognizable from before.

It only takes accurately seeing the emotional process and beginning to focus on the contribution of self to the pattern and changing that, to dissolve the whole pattern. (Making a different choice.)

But if the change is simply changing from one pattern to another, as when people in conflict become tired of conflict and retreat into emotional distance or all the way to cutoff, then the anxiety will not be resolved. Replacing one pattern with another pattern will provide no resolution of the anxiety.

Cutoff is the most extreme form of the emotional distance pattern. A marriage or long-term relationship that is distant is often cuttoff into divorce or no-contact. Such people often have no idea how to handle criticism or complaints and frequently withdraw into depression, which leads to inefficiency at work and around the house. Whenever they perceive anything resembling an “attack,” they have no idea how to address the problem directly and calmly; so they tend to leave the situation or relationship instead of talking things over.

With coaching or therapy, highly emotionally reactive people can learn a different way of responding to perceived criticism and slights. They can learn to accurately evaluate whether the other person’s anxiety (and hence criticism) was triggered by one’s own anxious posture or behavior or not. And if the concerns raised are valid, then the person could learn something about oneself and work on change. And if the criticisms were unfounded—that is, if it was more about the person making the complaint than about anything objective and factual—then the person could realize that, still stay connected with the other person and not react, and discuss things calmly. Learning to observe one’s own inner processes and think critically and objectively about what is said, allows a person not to be so reactive and decimated by criticism and other intensities and retreat into another cutoff.

Cutoff is such a part of the world we live in that it can be difficult to recognize at times.

Cutoff is the extreme form of the posture of emotional distancing. When a relationship becomes sufficiently emotionally intense, at some point, some people will cut off internally or geographically. Communications cease.

Cutoff often leads to symptoms, but is seldom recognized for its part in the problem.

Why? Because cutoff feels wonderful in the beginning—“such a relief!” One is free; one is rid of the problem.

But cutoff does not solve anything. So while it feels good initially to be rid of a troublesome relationship, cut off, like all other maladapative relationship patterns, creates anxiety. And anxiety, as we have seen, leads to symptoms. In the long term, anxiety sets in, in the form of depression or other symptoms.

But it will not be seen as related to the cutoff. Why? Because in the first place, the cutoff felt so good; and, secondly, the onset of symptoms is often so far removed in time from the beginning of the cutoff, so the logical connection is not made. In other words, because the negative symptoms of cutoff appear so long after the initial cutoff, they don’t get identified with it.

But when we see cutoff for what it is (and what it does to self and others), we can begin to work on our cutoff tendencies.

The rewards for this kind of effort are great: a tangible movement up the scale. Life afterwards becomes all but unrecognizable from life before once one addresses their own tendencies to emotionally distance and cutoff.

A large part of differentiating oneself in relationships while still staying in contact and not cutting off is in “being able to observe accurately and see the part that the self plays, and to consciously control this programmed emotional reactiveness.

“The observation and the control are equally difficult.

“Observation is not possible until one can control one’s reactions sufficiently to be able to observe.”

(And controlling one’s emotional reactions is not possible until one can observe and see those reactions accurately, without “the intrapsychic processes of denial and isolation and or physically running away.”

In other words, one cannot control one’s reactions sufficiently until one is able to observe; and one cannot observe until one can begin to control one’s reactions, soothe one’s anxieties and upset, and face up to one’s own patterned ways of thinking and reacting when stressed.

It seems like a hopelessly negative self-perpetuating cycle. But, Bowen assures us,

“The process of observation allows for more control, which in turn, in a series of slow steps, allows for better observation. It is only when one can get a little outside of one’s patterned ways of responding (and the accompanying inner intellectual and emotional fusion) that it is possible to begin to observe.” (Murray Bowen, M.D., “Family Therapy in Clinical Practice,” pg. 480.)

Excerpted and adapted from “Extraordinary Leadership” and “The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory” by Roberta M. Gilbert, M.D.

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