It’s hard to believe, but looking back years from now, these will be the good old days. Even though right now it’s been a rough week, a tough month, and a difficult year.
The problem is this – we seem incapable of accurately assessing this present moment within its proper context. Instead, we see it only through the lens of our tenacious discontent, our single-minded focus on what’s wrong instead of what’s right, and our escapist, fantasy-addled mind. Only much later, in retrospect, do we see how magical and spot-on perfect this moment was. The trick is this – how do we learn to see this present moment as miraculous and perfect while we’re still in it?
Today you feel old. Years from now you’ll look back and marvel at how young you were back then. Today you feel stressed. Years from now you’ll look back and marvel at how easy life was back then, when you had all your strengths and capacities. Today you feel scared. Years from now you’ll look back and marvel at how blessed your life was, how you were always surrounded by protecting angels who defended you against the worst and opened doors to the best.
It’s important to reflect on these things. If we don’t examine the process by which we arrive at our assessments and judgments, we fall prey to them. As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
In the field of psychology we learn more and more about how the mind forms its view of the world. It turns out we have a strong tendency to exaggerate the negative and overlook the positive. This negativity bias, as it’s called, distorts our assessment of our current situation. Only year later, looking back, is the proper balance restored. Our practiced capacity to visualize every possible negative outcome turns the present moment and the near future into a treacherous mine field. When we creatively imagine negative outcomes we think we’re just being clever and perceptive when in fact we’re not being clever at all – we’re simply caught up in an unconscious distortion. This is why people resist reform no matter how untenable the current situation is. The apocalyptic hand-wringing over the Affordable Care Act is a perfect example. If you leave out Obama’s name and poll people about the specific components of Obamacare one by one, a large majority of Americans support them. When the same people are asked if they approve of Obamacare they of course say no. It’s new, so it must be bad. They see every potential problem and none of the benefits.
There is a simple explanation for this. It seems evolution has selected this cognitive trait for us. Over the last 9,000 generations, (300,000 years), the Homo sapiens that worried the most lived the longest. If you believe there’s a crouching saber-toothed tiger behind every boulder you’re less likely to be surprised by one, and more likely to pass on your genes. If all you do is pick daisies and wax poetic about the pretty, puffy clouds, you’re lunch and die childless. In other words, natural selection favors negative thinking.
But now that there are no more saber-toothed tigers, what are we to do with this negativity bias? Become aware of it so that we can override it. But moving from unconsciousness to consciousness isn’t easy.
All freedom, whether political or psychological, has to be deliberately chosen and fought for. The first step is identifying the problem. We’ve done that. Now comes the hard part: learning to see with new eyes. But maybe it isn’t that hard. Maybe that’s just our negativity bias talking.
What if we allow it to be easy? What if we simply come fully into this now moment and forsake all future and past thinking? What if we come out of the thought stream altogether and find ourselves simply aware, breathing, noticing without judgment? Instead of labeling every event, naming every feeling, and categorizing every experience, what if we practiced choiceless awareness – the simple, bias-free apprehension of all that is, as it is? What sounds like a tall order turns out to be a simple, natural thing, an immediate knowing outside the bounds of our normal cognitive circuitry with its all too familiar negativity bias. To see again as a child, not through a glass darkly, but with sparkling clarity and immediacy, to have what Zen Buddhism calls beginner’s mind, to walk again in the Garden of Eden and leave behind the machinations that inhibit our innate spirituality. This is what’s at stake – in a word, everything.
This isn’t just a onetime thing. It’s going to take practice. It’s a decision that’s going to have to be made over and over again. Passing inspiration and fleeting lucidity are nice, but persistence and vigilance are far more rewarding. A lifetime, indeed ten thousand lifetimes, of negativity bias cannot be undone with a snap of the fingers and a short-lived intention. We need to wear a groove even deeper than our negativity. That’s going to take some doing.
There’s one destination, but a thousand roads that get there. Here are some concrete suggestions and behaviors that will heighten your choiceless awareness of the present moment.
Stop and breathe.
Spend time with animals.
Get outside under a big sky.
Walk without a destination or schedule.
Read good poetry.
Stop isolating yourself from the messiness of love.
Learn the high art of meditation.
Listen to the music of your willingness, dance to the rhythm of your enthusiasm.
Practice intentional consciousness.
Pay attention to the miracle right in front of you.
Pray with your eyes, hear with your heart, love with your will.
Drop everything that doesn’t matter.
Get out of your head and into your body.
Follow your wisdom wherever it leads.
Be drawn to clarity.
Laugh at your own pompous proclamations.
Look past imperfection in yourself and others.
Surround problems with light.
Feel the healing that is always welling up from within.
Learn to see the good hiding in plain sight.
Allow it to be easy.
Know that these are the good old days.
Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, and singer-songwriter as well as the chair of the humanities department and professor of philosophy at Southwestern College where he teaches comparative religion, Asian philosophy, ethics and world mythology. You can find him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/peter.bolland.page, follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/peterhbolland, hear his music at www.reverbnation.com/peterbolland, or write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org