parallel tracks vs. singular flow
Has anything, ever, occurred differently than it did?
If that feels like a trick question, read it again.
If that feels like a silly or stupid question, ask whether the silliness or stupidity is really in the mind that obsesses over alternative versions of reality, when no such thing has ever or will ever occur.
Our minds tend to think of reality like the image on the left. The mind thinks, oh man, I shoulda done this instead. Oh shoot, if only this had been different, I woulda done B instead of A, and everything would be so much better. As though there were alternatives that could have occurred, and it's our fault, or someone else's fault, or fate's fault, or whatever, that things didn't go our imagined better way. So let's obsess over it now and get to the bottom of it already!
The mind justifies this game by claiming it's trying to learn. It's trying to study the past, or imagine the future, closely, repeatedly, obsessively, to learn, so we can make better decisions going forward. Like a coach and an athelete studying game film together, we're poring over past decisions to improve future ones, and imagining future scenarios to prepare for real-time decisionmaking.
That can be wise, when undertaken consciously & conscientiously. And that is something we in our wisdom do. When we choose to.
But that's not really an honest portrayal of what the mind is usually doing when it siphons our limited attention into the imagined past or imagined future or imagined alternate present.
The mind is usually playing a fantasy game where it acts as though we have the power to change the past now, like we can go back into the past and do it all over again - as though we can take the benefits of hindsight and retroactively apply them to a past experience in a way that changes what happened. Or, looking forward, the mind will project our most feared and regretted experiences from the past into an imagined future - you're gonna run into so-and-so again and oh man it'll be even more awkward and cringey than last time! Or the mind will look at what's right in front of it - the unfolding of creation, the big bang, our own lives occurring before our very eyes - and go, nah, let's imagine variations that would be more exciting, more pleasurable, more interesting, more whatever.
The mind sells itself as an app that's gonna help us be better versions of ourselves, if we just pour ourselves into its virtual reality, ignore the here-and-now, and watch ourselves loop & tunnel through our imaginations, with doses of guilt & grandeur & overwhelm & driftiness splashing across the brain throughout.
Is that an app you'd download? Even the free version? Would you even let someone pay you to use that app?
If we wanna unsubscribe from frenetic mind VR and gradually reacclimate to real presence grounded in the flow of time, we need to recognize how we succumb to the VR's tug. Otherwise, we'll try to white knuckle it, to pry ourselves free of the VR through willpower or moxy or stubborness. Which works for a while. They we get tired, frustrated, bored, and hey, remember that video we saw of a man getting bitten on the leg by an alligator, I wonder how...
One way we succumb to the VR's tug is buying into the VR's paradigm. The VR's paradigm is the image on the left above, the parallel tracks: the notion that there were other paths we coulda-woulda-shoulda taken, or could-would-should take if we encounter that situation again. Gosh, if only you'd jumped over to this track instead staying on that track, or if only you'd stayed on this track instead of jumping to that track, things would been better, we woulda been better, life would be better.
Or vice versa - oh man, it woulda been so much worse if we handn't x'd insteada y'ing like we briefly considered doing. So feel good about this, feel bad about that, feel unsure about that other thing. And next time you encounter a scenario that reminds you of the past one, even only remotely, you'll feel that old feeling come up, and then you can make an emotional, reactive decision dictated by that feeling, rather than an open-minded decision grounded in an honest assessment of the present moment, cuz who has the time and energy for that, especially when we're pouring so much time and energy into VR...
To break our trance to the parallel track paradigm, consider an alternative, like the one on the right, which I call a soul aflow in time. In this view of reality, we accept that everything happens precisely how it does, precisely when it does, for reasons mostly mysterious, and with a level of detail & intricacy & interconnectedness we could never possibly come close to comprehending. (At best, we appreciate with awe.) The past happened. The present is happening. The future will happen. Our attention & will is best directed toward the unfolding now. That way, we have our full receptivity and resourcefulness available, to help us make the wisest choices we can, to help us respond to situations as effectively as we can, & to experience our lives - our real, physical living - in the unceasing flow of time.
We trust intuition to utilize memory & imagination as is wise & healthy for us. & we don't stay hung up on past choices or situations for too long. Because more choices & situations are always presenting themselves. And we can't see them fully, or engage them openly, if we've got our heads stuck in an imagined re-creations of past events. & we don't stay hung up on fear about future choices or situations, for the same reason - reality is always always presenting itself now, in a form that's real, solid, engageable, interactive. So why fritter our attention & intention on a VR mode lacking those precious qualities?
The people & creatures & things we love are here, now. They are not in the past. They aren't in the future either. The images of our loved ones that we see in the past or future are figments of our imagination. There was a time when the past was real. There will be a time when the future is real. Those are thens. They exist only in the mind. This - look at these letters, feel the air moving through your body right now, feel your heart beating right now - this is what's real. This is where we belong, where we truly want to be. It's confusion & insecurity & addiction that drive us into the VR world, again & again & again.
The main mechanisms of entrancement are emotions & sensations & stories. We want to feel better about ourselves and our lives, to feel more pleasure and less pain, to have better narratives we can tell ourselves and others about what's going on with us. VR offers this. Don't pay attention to this boring episode of you waiting in line at the DMV, of sitting in stop-and-go traffic, of listening to someone talk about something uninteresting to you. Don't openly engage this active feeling of grief, longing, uncertainty, restlessness. Don't remain calmly attentive in this awkward pause that your calm attentiveness only seems to deepen & extend...
Instead, jump into VR! Let's talk about why this situation sucks, why I deserve better, all the ways it could be better, why it should be better. Let's fantasize about our last meal, or our next one...although wouldn't something more decadent be better...although we should be more sensible shouldn't we...what's my current eating philosophy again? Why aren't I in Hawaii right now? Ugh, so muggy though.
All the while, time is passing, people are coming and going from our presence, our bodies are functioning in space, opportunities are presenting themselves and melting back into the sands of time.
Where were we all that while?
Where are we now?
Here's a beautiful difference between the two approaches.
If we're using the VR paradigm, the parallel branches, we'll start lecturing ourselves about why it was so foolish to be in VR all that time, instead of in the here-and-now. God, how many times does Eckhart Tolle need to remind me that it's all about now?! What's wrong with me?! Why don't I get it yet?! The delicious irony being, we're attending this scolding lecture about the importance of now in our own VR! We use VR to escape our shame/frustration over having been in VR so long, and because the VR is presenting such an anti-VR message, we fall prey to the notion that the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend, and pour ourselves further into VR, thinking it'll cure us of our VR addiction, just like it's promising to do. That cycle can perpetuate itself with an intensity & loopiness that's often difficult to recognize and sometimes too absurd to even believe. It's like we don't want to accept we've been so plainly fooled, so we double down, burying ourselves further in absurdity & delusion.
(Reminds me of the Royal Nonesuch in Huck Finn - a charlatan's stage show that was such a balatant rip-off - it basically involved someone briefly prancing naked on stage - that attendees to the debut performance raved about it to everyone else in town, so that everyone else would attend & then be in the same miserable boat, thereby preventing anyone in town from being able to mock the others for having been duped.)
If we go with the reality paradigm, the single path flowing through time, we accept that we were in VR, we reengage the here-and-now, we breathe, smile & laugh if we're lucky (it's all very silly, after all). We let the past be the past, let the future be the future, and we embrace our situation: here we are, now we are, & each time we fall into a then, recognize it as a jungle gym for a restless mind, and reengage the here-and-now.
Engaging the senses, the body, and our physical environment, are trustworthy methods for regrounding.
Forgiveness & positivity emerge naturally from our engagement with reality. Because why dwell on the past, if our goal is to simply be present? And why indulge negative - i.e., dismissive, reductive, insistent - versions of what's to come? And if we notice we're dwelling on the past, or indulging negativity - why dwell on that? Committed to simply being present, we can let the mindgames go, reengage, and trust that the commitment to embracing reality includes an implicit commitment to forgiving our mental diversions & our obsessive habits around them.
This virtuous cycle improves our skillfulness at engaging the present and helps us be better friends to ourselves along the way. Opening ourselves to what is naturally weans us, albeit gradually, from our addictions to imagining what is not.
As we gradually embrace a deeper spiritual truth - that everything occurs perfectly, & lovingly, in exactly the right time and manner, with an artistry & benevolence & interconnectedness & spiralling mystery we can only comprehend in flashes - it becomes easier to surrender more fully into the here-and-now. As situations & choices become seemingly unbearable, we can reground ourselves in the deeper truth that all is occuring perfectly, which helps us reengage reality with even clearer eyes and more open hearts, because we have an abiding & bottomless trust in the goodness of what is & the wisdom of attending to the present.
(When dealing with truths like these, be attentive & honest, though. There are always pitfalls. It's easy to slip into spiritual bypass - sliding into VR to loop/milk the beautiful spiritual thought, & tell ourselves stories about how good or advanced we are to be having such thoughts. Similarly, it's easy to slip into the vanity game of being perfection's lawyer - explaining to ourselves or others why these difficult moments are actually perfect, which is often a Trojan horse for our virtue signalling or our attention-seeking attempts at impressive argumentation. A wiser approach is to treat the spiritual truth like to a boat bumper or a steadying hand - let it gently guide us away from pitfalls, & once we've reestablished a quiet, flexible engagement in the here-and-now, let the thought go.)
If that spiritual notion of perfection seems like fantasy or self-delusion or just beyond the pale, go back to the reality check, and ask - what does the VR game really do for me, in the end, other than pull me away from real life?
Then ask the harder question - why do I want to be pulled away like that?
We aren't unwitting victims of the VR game. We choose it each time, resubscribe each time. We can't blame habit or the human condition. That's just more VR.
Why do we want to escape reality? What are we running from? Hiding from? Dodging at every turn?
Trust the wisdom of those who've looked deeply and honestly into these matters - the answer is never someone or something outside of us. It's within. Not within like our kidneys are within, or like an ice cream headache is within. It's in our heart of hearts. In the very core of us. An uneasiness. A restlessness. An insatiability. A gaping emotional wound like sucks like a black hole and never seems to heal. A feeling like we're alone, not enough, broken, lost, irredeemable. Good times, good stories, and good relationships can distract us from this suffering. But they never heal it, only mask the symptoms, and only for so long. Eventually the wound reopens and calls out for healing. We're right back where we started, only older, & more entrenched in our clever games of avoidance.
Buddha saw this pattern 2500 years ago. He said this deep emotional suffering is a feature of life. That it stems from wanting. & that it needn't be our destiny. We can attend to our suffering. Study it. And, gradually, heal it.
The method? Buddha summed it up thusly: "present moment awareness directed toward the body."
I will teach the destination and the path leading to the destination. Listen to what I say. What is the destination? The eradication of infatuation, the eradication of hostility, and the eradication of delusion is what is called the destination. And what is the path leading to the destination? Present-moment awareness directed toward the body. This awareness is what is called the path leading to the destination.
- Parayana Sutta; Samyuttanikaya 4.43.44., per https://www.lionsroar.com/gautama-vs-the-buddha/
In other words - choose R, rather than VR. Be here as you suffer. Notice. Feel. If you go into VR: notice, feel. As you transition between R and VR, notice, feel. As you recognize patterns in your transitions, notice, feel. One pattern you'll start to see is that feeling is a bridge between VR and R. As you notice you're absorbed in a visual or auditory or cognitive imagining, try to trace that imagining to a source feeling in the body, perhaps a tension or pulsing somewhere in the face, throat, or chest. This both regrounds you in physical reality and helps you discover the emotional pains that drive us into VR and then keep us hiding there.
Gradually, our intuition recognizes the deeper patterns at play, and it reshapes our habits & attitudes in accordance with the truths it learns through experience in time. We don't direct our effort & will toward trying to change our minds. Has that ever worked? It's like trying to brush your teeth by scrubbing the portion of the bathroom mirror where your teeth are reflected. Loving effort, foolish method. We surrender our will to our intuition, and we accept that the intuition needs data + time to recognize, and recognition + time to learn, and learning + time to improve, and improvement + time to grow, and growth + time to fully bloom.
We surrender, again and again, to being present, to opening our senses, to feeling, as nakedly as we can, whatever arises in our inner and outer experience. We recognize VR in action, reset our attention & intention toward the present moment, and trust our intuition to heal what our imagination cannot. & we trust our hearts to help us refind humility, respect, peacefulness, and the other inherent virtues of our effortlessly loving hearts, as we lose touch with them, again and again, on the long and winding path toward clarity.
This path leads us inwardly toward a richer recognition of what we are, and outwardly toward an increasingly unconditional love for what is. At the deeper levels of seeing, we realize that what's inward reflects the outward, and what's outward reflects the inward. They're like opposing mirrors between which we, consciousness, constantly pass. The mirrors reflect what our hearts want us to see, to experience, to learn from, to dance with, to love. Standing in front of the bathroom mirror brushing our teeth, we are not merely a primate beholding its reflection - we are also consciousness beholding a primate beholding its reflection. What is this life trying to teach us? Only experience reveals.
VR offers speculation on what this or that was really all about, what that person's statement about us really means, the significance or upshot of an insight, the meaning behold
Reality offers a constant experience of what is. Our real lives. Unfolding before us. Unfolding as us.
Why would we, in our right minds, choose VR over R?
And forgive VR. Love VR.
For isn't VR ultimatey R, too?