As I cross over into my 40th year, I find myself celebrating life and reflecting. My reflections centered around the presence of my three ‘selves’; past, present, and future.
AVOIDING THE PRESENT
Through meditation and reflection I spend a lot of time trying to get into touch with that present-self. I find it extraordinarily difficult. Especially in times like these, the here and now can really suck. Here and now can feel like too much to handle.
So instead of staying in the present, I’ll engage in productive escapism to avoid it, like reading, walking the dog, cooking (I never cooked pre-COVID), or organizing. But I also avoid the present with destructive escapism, like napping too much, watching too much cable news, doom-scrolling on Twitter, or eating anything that isn’t moving. I avoid the present and my responsibility for my own life, my own happiness, and my own potential during these times, opting instead to blame, shame, and avoid.
It’s not like I don’t know what’s going on, it’s just that it’s really hard for those thoughts to convert into a course of better action. My growth is my responsibility, it’s not someone else’s job to make my life easier, or happier, or more meaningful – that’s my job.
Maturity and growth result from the transcendence of environmental support to self-support. As long as we look to our environment or other people to provide our happiness, our well-being, or to fulfill our potential for us – we remain powerless – at the mercy of our environment. I hate knowing this because that means that I have to grow up. And let’s tell the truth; none of us actually wants to grow up. It’s easier to see ourselves as a kid, in need of someone else to take care of us.
Honestly, I don’t even like to call myself a “man” – I prefer the word “guy.” Men have responsibilities and take ownership of their lives. Men help themselves and sometimes even help other people. Nah, it’s much easier to be one of the “guys.” Instead of taking action toward what I want it’s easier to just wait for someone to come along and do it for me. Then I’ll blame them when they inevitably don’t – or don’t do it the right way. It’s just so much easier to blame someone else for my problems rather than accept total responsibility for my own life.
The present – this is where grown-ups live. This is where mature people live. I spend most of my time avoiding it. I avoid it because again, I know things, I know that this present, this here and now is a result of my own creation. It is always my responsibility to create it. More responsibility? No thanks, I would rather escape to either the past or future.
ESCAPE TO THE PAST
In my past lives my troubled childhood – a part of my life defined by trauma. In my past lives a younger version that valued survival and self-protection more than anything else. For most of my life I’ve carried this idea with me that the reason for my troubles is because of my childhood trauma. In a linear time, cause and effect-based world, this makes a lot of sense. What happened then has to impact what is happening now. So I’ll tell myself things like:
It’s because of the trauma that I’m not able to connect with other people.
Loneliness and isolation are defense mechanisms, means by-which I protect myself from the evil I perceive lurking in the shadows of this world.
Keep yourself small to stay safe – go unheard and unseen.
I’ve told myself over the years that it’s my present and future self that has to appear and protect that younger, scared and vulnerable version of me. What I am waking up to though is just the opposite has happened; it is not the 40-year old that is protecting the younger version of me, it is the younger version of me protecting this 40-year old.
Yes, that little kid that still lives in me is playing a much different role than I’ve been aware of. It’s not the adult, present me that’s been calling a lot of the shots for much of my life, it’s been that little kid.
And why wouldn’t I let him? He’s a smart little kid. He knows how to sense danger, how to protect himself from it, how to hide, how to manipulate others to get what he needs, he figured out how to perform in order to survive. That little kid knew that if he put on a certain act, that he could avoid being picked on.
I’m finally awakening to the fact that so much of my life has been that act, a performance, scripted by a little kid.
My self-isolation – a performance.
Avoiding my email – a performance.
Napping more than is necessary – a performance.
Working too much – a performance.
What I do for a living – a performance.
That little kid even wrote some compelling lines like:
“I don’t feel like it,”
“I’ll get to it tomorrow.”
“They don’t understand me”
“I’m different and special”
These were lines written by a little kid figuring out how to survive. All of which are lies that allow me to escape reality and responsibility of the here and now. It’s not real. It’s all an act, a scripted response to an imaginary threat. It’s not spontaneous, it’s not vibrant, it’s not being alive.
I’ve learned over these years that I’ve carried my mom and dad with me throughout my life, even when they aren’t there. I haven’t spoken to my dad in more than a decade, but I have found substitutes for him through other people; bosses, clients, colleagues. It’s not uncommon to carry with us an image of our mother or father. We do that because when we can project a mother or father into our environment, it’s easier to see ourselves as the child. It’s easier to live our lives imagining that someone or something will come along and support us – save us – take care of us. As long as we sit in this fancy delusion we will continue to deny ourselves the opportunity for growth, maturity, connection, and ultimately aliveness.
Until we release our parents (either real or projected) we will continue to see ourselves as a child. This means to release them from blame and from responsibility. This means standing on our own two feet, fully supported by the strength of our present and fully capable adult self.
ESCAPE TO THE FUTURE
It’s not just our past self that shapes our environment, it’s our future selves too. We know this idea better as anxiety.
Anxiety is leaving the present moment, and standing in the gap between here and there, standing between the way things are and the way we want them to be, essentially stuck between reality and desire. Anxiety lets us torture ourselves as a protective mechanism; “If I hurt myself then you can’t hurt me.” Being in the future, plagued by anxiety, our bodies vibrate, or itch, our skin crawls, we get a headache, or shortness of breath. Our breath exists in this moment, it’s harder to catch it in the here and now when our mind is in the future.
And just like our past, our future self is really good at writing scripts for our lives. They too are performances designed to keep us small, cause us to avoid the present, and even create chaos for our lives. Sometimes we’ll do anything to avoid the here and now, even have a panic attack.
We’re so afraid of the present that we’ll create an artificial future to worry about just to avoid the here and now. Eventually we do some much protecting and avoiding that there’s no life left. We avoid living by hiding in front of the TV or in the bed, eating ourselves to death, or getting so high we are no longer tethered to the earth. We’ve protected ourselves by building our own cage, where we starve ourselves of what we really need.
Stuck because we might be judged.
Lonely because we might get hurt.
Small because we might fall.
All the while we grow older. Waiting for someone to come along and make us feel alive. Waiting for someone to give us permission to live. Abdicating the responsibility for our lives to someone who will never come.
Small. Quiet. Unseen and unheard. We are the walking dead.
So the question begs, what do I do now? How do I come alive? How do I connect to the present?
I think the answer is to practice. Practice bringing an awareness to that which exists only in this moment; your breath, how your body feels, what you hear, what you see, what you smell, what you feel. The key is to leave the interference and frustrations of the younger and future self out of your practice. Don’t bring them with you, only bring you in the here and now.
To my younger self, thank you for protecting me. You did an amazing job. Your job is done now and you can go.
To my future self – you aren’t real. My future isn’t yet written and so who I imagine is only fantasy.
I choose to see myself and the world for what it is.
I no longer need a performance to protect me. It’s more important for me to feel alive.
Without expectation of myself or of others, I am fully responsible for this existence as it is right here, right now.
I am that I am.
This is the present.