By Will Meecham
If you’re interested in more of Will’s work I highly recommend his blog, WillSpirit, where he explores growing and wellbeing after recovering from a traumatic childhood.
The Membrane of Now
As earlier posts have made clear, I no longer buy into the concept of ‘mental illness’ because the phrase refers to putative brain disorders that are viewed as irreversible. My recovery demonstrates that my formerly intense moodiness did not result from a structural or genetic neurologic condition, but rather from errors in relating to the chaotic vicissitudes of life. My instability resolved once I learned to accept my experience, no matter how painful.
Healing through acceptance used to be a common theme in my blogging. I learned from those earlier posts that many people feel uncomfortable with the idea on first hearing. In fact, I resisted it myself. Aren’t some things in life simply unacceptable?
In working to make the concept sound, well, acceptable, I’ve tried a number of strategies. One that seemed effective was to distinguish between acceptance and acquiescence. In this context, the former means embracing what can’t be changed. The latter refers to giving up. Most of the time we feel calmer when we quit fighting the unavoidable, but first we should be sure we aren’t yielding to something we can effectively work against. In political life especially, a state of affairs can appear as fixed and unchangeable, but if committed objectors band together, the edifices of power frequently topple despite their apparent solidity. It is a mistake to acquiesce to injustice on the grounds that it can’t be rectified. It can.
One key distinction is between past and future. Obviously, anything that has already come to pass might as well be accepted. It can no longer be changed. On the other hand, those events that have yet to manifest can potentially be influenced. The degree to which we can change what’s coming varies, as does the effort we feel ready to exert in trying.
If our home is engulfed in flames, we probably can’t prevent its destruction. To stay calm in the face of this disaster is to accept the inevitable. It would be foolish to run in with a garden hose if the building appeared doomed. On the other hand, a child trapped inside might compel us to attempt rescue even in the face of grave danger and high likelihood of failure. Either way, we’re talking here about responding to an unfolding future, which is fundamentally different from making peace with the settled past.
We always have choices to make, and we should only accept an approaching problem as inevitable when we have worked as hard as makes sense to divert it. We don’t waste effort on minor inconveniences, and we don’t give up on important causes. But whereas our relation to the future involves important judgment calls, our relation to the past truly does not. For instance, once a tragedy has occurred we can no longer prevent it. Our only choice lies in how we cope with misfortune. And the first step in adapting to past events is to accept that they have occurred. Why rail against manifest fact?
In mindfulness meditation, we learn to embrace what we call the ‘present moment’. Note how we can spot a subtle misnomer here. What we are actually experiencing is not the present, but the near and immediate past. Granted, rather than remembering last year or anticipating next week, we pay attention to sensations and mental life immediately as they occur to us. In doing so we may feel like we are attending to ‘right now,’ but in truth we can only feel something after it has happened. The true ‘present moment’ is an infinitesimally short interval that always lies just ahead of conscious awareness.
If a breeze caresses your cheek, you feel it not when it actually happens, but microseconds later, after the neural impulses reach your consciousness. And as the sensual experience of ‘wind on cheek’ registers, there are a few cycles of awareness that occur extremely rapidly, often before we are fully awake to what’s happened. Watching this early processing is the closest we can come to living in the moment. We can’t attend to the breaking edge of ‘now’ because it happens much too quickly. One picosecond later, and we’re already in the past.
This simplifies the task of acceptance. Any process we seem to be experiencing this moment (but which is actually already in the past), and any event more clearly historical, can be safely accepted without fear of slipping into the acquiescence trap. It has already happened and so it is unchangeable. The healthy choice is to honor it as a reality.
We may have an obligation to prevent future reoccurrence of mishaps or mistreatment, but events in the past are solidly fixed in history. I wrote the most recent poem on my blog with this in mind.
It helps me to visualize the eternal now as a membrane that rides the forward wave of cosmic unfolding. To the rear of this infinitely brief moment lies the past, while to the front lies the future. Everything behind the ceaseless sweep of history’s curtain is grist for acceptance. Everything ahead should be evaluated for action. Mindfulness means riding the trailing edge of time’s membrane as the potential coalesces into the actualized. We hold in mind the goal of accepting every experience which the fleeting fabric of now has moved beyond.
We can start with the simple serenity prayer:
Grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,
The courage to change the things we can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
One step toward gaining discerning wisdom is to be mindful of the boundary between past and future. We remain alert to the Membrane of Now.
After a traumatic upbringing, Will Meecham, MD, MA studied ecology, zoology, biophysics, neuroscience, medicine, ophthalmology and reconstructive surgery. In 2000, neck disease prevented him from continuing to work as an oculoplastic surgeon. He spent many years in emotional, intellectual, and spiritual exploration, investigating how people cope with childhood trauma, adult disappointment, and mental distress. He now works as a physician acupuncturist, specializing in the promotion of mental wellness. More of his writings can be found at his personal website and blog, WillSpirit.com, and his acupuncture practice is explained at MarinMedicalAcupuncture.com.