33. Live in the now!?

What to do when it's happening to you

In Frank Herbert’s Dune, the Bene Gesserit are a faction of space witches who use advanced control of their minds and bodies to appear supernatural. Part of their training is a litany against fear, used to calm their thoughts in situations of extreme duress.

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

I am a 44-year-old double-divorcé, who has, to quote a massage therapist, a “weak ass”. During teacher training I experienced such a high level of anxiety I stopped sleeping at all, and went through weeks in a kind of fugue state where my lips became horribly chapped from… fatigue? stress? existential dread?

I too developed a mantra, one to get me through each day. I would say it to my reflection in the teacher’s lounge washroom.

Those words of strength and wisdom?

“Every day ends.”

By most sensible metrics, the now we’re living in is a big fucking mess. It is the fire, and the dog, and the chair, and the cup of coffee. While I’m writing this the UK Prime Minister, a kind of animated mop, announced that the country is once again locking down, ostensibly to “save Christmas”. I’ll leave you to work out why a commercial holiday is a more compelling rallying cry than saving lives.

One way of dealing with anxiety is to ground yourself in what’s happening. To live, as they say, in the now. Under normal circumstances this can be useful advice, because often what gets you with anxiety is the sprawling, unknown future. You become, in the words of my friend James Mitchell, enamoured with the story of the problem. Anxious creative types love a story.

But when the now is itself a dystopian masterclass, a daily barrage of terrible news after terrible news with each update topping the last in it-would-be-comical-if-it-wasn’t-so-terrifying fashion, living in the now feels less like a strategy than a Sisyphean curse.

As a lifelong member of the Anxiety-sitters Club, I’ve tried a number of different methods to bring peace to my troubled mind. Meditation and exercise are big winners, but rely heavily on mood and circumstances. Therapy is good and should be free for everyone. Writing things down gets it out of your head. Singing in a group delivers the kind of transcendence that makes religion plausible.

The one thing that’s never worked for me is trying to live in the now. I guess the trying is the significant bit. Living in the now could work, if I got past the attempting stage. Unfortunately, the middle of a global pandemic, on the verge of an historic election, during a lockdown designed by inexperienced buffoons, is not the time to get better at it. Now is a bit too spicy to get grounded in.

And so I’ve tried anchoring myself in the yonder.

In the early ‘90s, John Smoltz, one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball, forgot how to pitch. (I promise this won’t be an extended baseball analogy.) He got off to a 2-11 start which, even if you know nothing about sports, is obviously bad.

At risk of dropping to the minors, he was referred to a sports psychologist. And before he took the mound for his next game, he did what the sports psychologist suggested he do. He imagined himself pitching a winning game.

The rest is history that you likely have no idea about or interest in. Eight-time All-Star. 1996 Cy Young. Major surgery before becoming an elite closer. 2015 induction into the Hall of Fame.

Whenever I struggle with the current moment, and try to imagine a time in the future when I won’t, I run into the same problem. I can only imagine the me that I am in that future as the same me that’s struggling right now. And I’m still struggling.

And that’s anxiety for you. If the struggle is with yourself, and getting past that struggle means being a different you, imagining yourself past it means imagining a different you. But if you can do that, why not imagine that different you, now. Problem solved! Present you is fixed.

One thing that’s especially hard to imagine is all the ways you will change between now and then. And you will change. Of course you will. Even if it’s just inertia, you will change. It’s like that moment before you try and learn an instrument. It’s impossible to imagine the you that can’t even hold a guitar right will some day know how to play the guitar. As the saying goes, I only want to learn things I’m immediately good at.

And of course, the other thing that happens is the current moment changes. It becomes the past. It’s true! I might not know you at all, but I can say with a high degree of certainty that time flows in a linear fashion for you.

Anxiety is very good at telling you that not only are you the problem with your current situation, but that your current situation will never, ever change. And when you try to either ground yourself in it—madness—or imagine yourself out of it—double madness—you end up trapped in an Escher-sided box. Every way you walk is down.

And thus, a conundrum. Or at least that’s what the story part of my brain wants to say. Behold, an enigma!

To shut off this story I’ve found it useful to tell myself… another story! But one with a single purpose, to quell my anxious mind. And that story now goes like this:

This is what is happening now. This is who I am now. This is not what will be happening or who I will be later.

I tell myself this story which helps with the next part. Believing in the change of the future. To do this without my anxiety intervening, I use the previous story to focus not on the how of the change, but the what. The how will put you right in the hole. The what is the ladder to get you out of it.

I’m not saying this is easy, or even that it will always work. But by repeating my mantra and focusing on the what, I can start to quiet my mind.

Someone on Twitter said their therapist describes anxiety as a cactus you’re hugging. Stop hugging that cactus, they said. Put it down. You don’t have to carry it. We’re all carrying a cactus or two or five, and some of them might be much harder to put down than others. And if that’s the case, maybe start by picturing yourself as the kind of person who puts cacti down.

Cacti are lovely. But you don’t have to hug them.