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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Why Living In The Present Is NOT The Answer

It seems that we are being flooded with the benefits of mindfulness meditation; almost constantly exhorted to 'live in the present moment' and not to dwell in 'the disappointments of the past' or 'worries about the future'. This has its roots in the Buddhist religion. Mindfulness meditation is underpinned by a rationale of communing with a universal consciousness, as Buddhists do not accept a creator God. Mindfulness meditation is now widely practiced in the West and has many proven benefits when it comes to anxiety management and improved levels of contentment. However, like everything else that has an overwhelming current appeal, we should also ask :- "hasn't a version of this concept been around before, but without the religious overtones and the heavy emphasis on the present etc.?"

When I was a recently graduated psychologist in the 1970's the newest approach to treatment for all manner of stress relief and anxiety-related disorders was Progressive Muscle Relaxation. As a then student of Behavior Therapy I embraced it enthusiastically. I practiced it at first on myself and later others, for things like public speaking anxiety, phobias and self-confidence. When combined with biofeedback you can monitor the quantity of your improvement. I remember using a sphygmomanometer to measure blood pressure control on myself with good results.

Now I learn that Progressive Relaxation was developed by an American physician Edmund Jacobson in the 1920's (so well before the likes of me in the 'brave new 70's'). If you combined it with cognitive behavior therapy techniques, you can direct your treatment at specific disorders, which I also practiced. Surprise, surprise, now in the 'brave new 21st. century' it is being combined with mindfulness meditation to create specific programs for treatment of depression and addictions. The question must therefore be asked :- "Aren't we just re-packaging a version of what we had already?"

But the title of this post is neither mindfulness meditation nor cognitive behavior therapy, it is about LIVING IN THE PRESENT. It is actually about the concept of TIME itself. I'll wager not many of you have thought deeply about time. You just accept what you have ie. a watch/clock and a calendar and that measures it. But think about this :- science has no agreed concept of time.

Isaac Newton thought of time as a river flowing at the same rate everywhere. Einstein then changed this picture by unifying space and time into a single 4-D entity called simply spacetime. Approaches to time are not just scientific either, they can be both religious and philosophical. In the simplest terms there is the theory of Presentism, which says that only events and entities in the present exist, excluding both the past and the future. This is contrasted with the theory of Eternalism, which says all points in time are equal. It is supported by the Theory of Relativity and leads to the notion of the unreality of time.

But I'm going to leave aside these loftier notions of having different points of observation in the universe and ask a simple question :- "What is this PRESENT we keep talking about anyway?" When you read this word PRESENT now, in reality you aren't. Light has just travelled at a finite speed and it takes time for it to bounce from the book to your eye. When you see a word, you are seeing it as it looked some time in the past. The same with every object you see or person you talk to. I'm now going to quote you the words of Marcelo Gleiser, who is the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and Professor Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth College. Gleiser received a Presidential Faculty Fellows Award, given by the White House and the National Science Foundation.

"Take a look around. You may think that you are seeing all these objects at once, or 'now', even if they are at different distances from you. But you really aren’t, as light bouncing from each one of them will take a different time to catch your eye. The brain integrates the different sources of visual information, and since the differences in arrival time are much smaller than what your eyes can discern and your brain process, you don’t see a difference. The 'present' - the sum total of the sensorial input we say is happening 'now' - is nothing but a convincing illusion....

'Now' is not only a cognitive illusion but also a mathematical trick, related to how we define space and time quantitatively. One way of seeing this is to recognize that the notion of 'present', as sandwiched between past and future, is simply a useful hoax. All that we have is the accumulated memory of the past—stored in biological or various recording devices—and the expectation of the future."

Now, of course I may be biased, but I like this argument. It makes perfect sense to me. Right here and now on Earth all we know for sure is the past. Be it the very, very recent past or the much less recent past. It is still the past. According to the philosopher Martin Heidegger :- "we do not exist inside time, we are time. Hence, the relationship to the past is a present awareness of having been, which allows the past to exist in the present." This is close, but not quite the same, as my stance.

So, it will be no surprise to you by now to learn that I do not agree with either 'living in the present moment' or 'all that exists is the present'. Quite the reverse, it's a case of :- 'all we have is the past' and 'if you ignore the past you are participating in a cognitive hoax'.

This viewpoint is totally supported by 'Life Cycles' theory, which is based on detailed and exacting study of past biographical events (in a quasi-scientific fashion). Ignoring the past will leave all of this inspirational material 'out in the cold'. To me this is just plain silly. Mind you, it is all well and good if you just confine your mindfulness meditation to a short time of the day, but it shouldn't totally define your existence.

I have also developed a new form of the notion of SUPERCONSCIOUSNESS based on the integration of events in past cycles within your life. The graphical representation of this is like the image you see above. Our lives are shaped as a series of clocks all measuring out 12 year intervals at the same rate, with only the current clock in what we call the present. 'Life Cycles' has no chronological time concept. You are only ever in one of 12 separate years. So, if you are currently aged 60 and in your important 'Year of Revolution', you are also being in other prior 'Years of Revolution' all at once. Thus you are also 48 and 36 and 24 and 12 for study purposes. This is the material I constantly analyse.

This complex concept requires no belief in an external universal consciousness or past lives (but, of course, doesn't rule things out either); rather it is based on 'Life Cycles' meditation, which involves the compiling of a 'Life Chart' and the contemplation and mental replay of key events on a regular basis. This being said, I am obviously in agreement with the Buddhist notion of the cyclical nature of time, which again I have re-defined as 'Life Cycles' symbolic time. These notions are so new and so radical as to merit you thoroughly reading THE LIFE CYCLES REVOLUTION at least twice.

So don't just go around being a 'mental goldfish' counting each breath and smelling the roses all day long. Don't get taken in by the plausible polemics of 'disappointments of the past' and 'worries about the future'. Try looking at it this way

My life is like a book with each chapter 12 years long. Then I begin this same symbolic journey again. Same underlying structure, but different events and cast of characters.

The future cannot be controlled exactly, but we can know it's general shape. The present is simply an illusory concept, a shorthand way of dealing with time. The past is not just full of disappointments, to say the least, nor is the future to be dreaded and worried about.

Learn from the past it is your most valuable asset. It is all we have.

Till next month :- "may the cycles always bring you good fortune." 'Life Cycles' will return with the story of the man behind the World Wide Web. Without the gargantuan amount of history constantly caught in its memory (you know in it's past) we would all be reduced to nothing more than mental troglodytes.

PS. This also happens to be a linked post so go to MY SECOND BLOG. As if it wasn't bad enough, me having a shot at certain aspects of Buddhism, I will soon take aim at the much-lauded psychologist Carl Jung and his concept of 'synchronicity'.