then & there are imagined; here & now is real
Updated: Oct 10
A point of clarification right off the bat. I'm not saying the past wasn't real. And I'm not saying the future won't be real. I'm saying that what's real is here & now. If it's then, or there, it's imagined, a construction of the mind. Believing it's currently real requires pretending.
Pick a moment from the past. You can't go back there. You can't recreate it. You can only reimagine it. And while you're busy reimagining it, the present is unfolding before you. As you, your heart beating in time, your body abuzz with life. And the degree to which you're attending to your reimagined past is the degree to which you aren't attending to the present, to the real, to here & now.
We can remember the past as real because, at that time, it was real, it was here, it was now. We experienced it with our senses. It was solid, singular, right in front of us. Indeed, our physical bodies were an aspect of that now, as much as the tree currently before us, the cloud in the sky, the smell in the air. The people we saw then and there were real. We could talk with them, hug them, share a smile. No such thing happens in imagination, no matter how vividly the mind renders. All we see are mental constructions attempting to replicate what was.
It's the same with the future. Except we cannot try to recall the future the way we can the past. Because we haven't experienced it yet. So all we can do is project an imagined future, based on our sense of how time might unfold there, how the world might be then.
And perhaps the future will unfold very much in accordance with what we imagine. We'll look at the now moment and think, ah yes, I predicted this, pretty darn close at least. In that moment, what's real is what's before you - here, now - and what's imagined is the past prediction you're now comparing the present to.
In other words, when we notice the present matches our past vision of the future, we are actually operating three modes at once - looking back to our past prediction, looking presently at the state of the world, and looking into our minds at the juxtaposition of the two. I.e., we look back to determine how well we looked forward. All the while, what's real - the present, experienceable through our bodies - is occurring, unfolding. The more we're paying attention to imagined thens and theres, the less we're paying attention to the real here & now.
We often play another game in our imaginations: imagining an alternate version of the present. Disappointed with the here & now, we go into the mind and start tweaking, adjusting, overhauling. Make these flower pettles less wilty. Imagine this person isn't here, or isn't talking, or is being more interesting to me. Turn the temperature up 15 degrees, at least! We dream a version of reality more suitable to our cravings. We prefer our made-up version to the real one. We trade real, tangible experience for inner fabrication. We smoke-and-mirror ourselves out of real life and into a concocted faux-life our appetites & aversions prefer.
To keep us susceptible to its fabrications, the imagination embeds a paradigm deep within our belief system. The paradigm tells us we can revisit the past, visit the future, remake the present, and that doing so is good for us. It says that suffering in the here & now is a waste, a drag, torture, a sign we're operating our lives poorly. To fix this, go back into the past, and see if you can figure out what went wrong, or, at least, escape this flawed now. Or go into the future, see if you can prepare for better times to come, or at least, improve upon this disappointing present. Or go into alternate reality, see if you can conjure a better version of now, or, at least, avoid the difficulties here. Whatever you do, don't stay here & now. Because it sucks. And you deserve better. Don't you? We deserve better. Don't we?
The falsehood at this paradigm's core is that the reimagined past, imagined future, & alternate present are on par with the real, unfolding now. Like we're in a lobby, and there are four doors, the three imagined ones and the here & now, and we can pick any one of them, and the here & now is just a door like the other three, nothing special or different about it.
From this standpoint, it makes sense why we'd continuously dive into the other three doors. We can generate such vivid and wild fantasies in our imagination, be so much more like we think we should be, experience what we feel we deserve to experience. Why subject yourself to the raw, unfolding present when you can immerse yourself in an environment that's more controllable and customizable to your wants?
Consider an alternate paradigm. There is no lobby. No doors. There's just here & now. That's all there ever is. Its features keep changing. Sometimes we're at home, sometimes at work, sometimes in a vehicle, sometimes in an ice cream shop. The weather changes. The sun goes up and down. People come and go from our presence. We lie down, stand up, walk, run, sit. Our feelings & moods change, not unlike the weather. No matter what's happening, it's here & now if we experience it as reality unfolding in and through our bodies. We can touch it. Taste it. Watch it change & not change. We feel our bodies moving through it, indeed moving as it. It's our real life. Our real world. It's where we are born, where we live, and where we'll die. It has mountains we can climb, flesh-and-blood beings we can interact with, oceans we swim in and fish in, doorknobs we can twist with real hands.
The past is like a stream of virtual reality beckoning for our indulgence. Like an advertisement trying to grab our eyes, a customer ringing the service bell, the imagined past is constantly tugging on our mind's sleeve for indulgence.
Our bodies never leave the here and now. That includes our brains. So what leaves? Our attention. Our intention. Our willpower. Our presence. We rip them from the here & now and pipe them into the virtual reality stream we call the past.
Similarly with the imagined future, or the alternate present - they are not places, realms, real experiences akin to the here & now. They're more like VR goggles we're slipping on and off without realizing what we're doing. Or we do realize, and we believe we're doing ourselves a favor - either learning something valuable, or giving ourselves a much needed or much deserved break from the overwhelming or underwhelming now.
Really, we're dividing ourselves - channeling our mental awareness into the imagination while our body drifts along in the present, like a ship whose captain is absorbed in a video chat or an engrossing film. We become robotic, slouchy, reflexive, reactive. We're running some degree of autopilot. When things get difficult, we don't want to come out of VR - who wants to leave the warm jacuzzi for such a chilly, turbulent pool?! - and so we double-down on our retreat into the imagination, and leave our body to fend for itself.
Lacking the guidance of our full presence and intelligence, the body instead operates on association - it compares the present to the remembered past, and uses the past as a guide for how to act now. We operate by rules and practiced habits. There's no potential for creativity, resourceful improvisation, inspired courage, playfulness. At best, we employ a behavioral program suitable to the situation. We may get so adept at deploying these programs that we forget what full presence is, what it feels like, how it differs from the robotic way. We may even start mistaking the robotic way for real life. And go into the grave so deluded.
One wrinkle here is that even if we do commit to being present, to experiencing the raw realness of the here & now, we're so conditioned to our habitual escapism that it may be difficult to sustain a natural, flowing presence. We may last a few seconds in a raw realness, and then we feel a tightness or lump in the throat, a fuzziness in the head, an aching or jolting in the chest, knots in the gut. Something feels wrong, off.
What's wrong? How do we fix it? Before we know it, we're back in imagination land, trying to figure out what's wrong with the here & now, rather than openly embracing the here & now's unfolding, which includes our struggles to remain engaged. We spend our lives off somewhere trying to troubleshoot life. And all the while life is passing us by.
Another wrinkle is that sometimes it is healthy & wise to imagine. We may want to use the past as a guide to help us make wiser decisions now or later. We may want to imagine likely future scenarios so we can prepare. We may want to improve the present situation to prevent harm, promote thriving, improve the flow of love and friendship.
The difference is between doing so consciously & conscientiously, & doing so compulsively & carelessly.
This requires awareness & honesty.
If we find ourselves in imagination, we can ask how we got there, what we're doing, whether it's serving our true good. At a minimum, these questions momentarily break our entrancement with the imagination, which can be so immersive we don't recognize it as imagination it all. This then empowers us to choose between imagination & reality. And, as we notice ourselves slipping back into imagination, or struggling to pull ourselves from imagination, we can begin to notice our addiction patterns, our escapist patterns, & thereby train our intutions to recognize & soften those compulsions.
Now consider how this truth connects to the others in a logic divine.
All is perfection, all is One, all is lOve.
There is nothing wrong with attending to imagination rather than reality. All unfolds perfectly & lovingly in time. And imagination & reality are One. Each moment we spend in imagination is precisely as it should be, without exception.
The question really is - if we've noticed an unhealthy pattern, & we believe it's possible to change it, why not do ourselves that kindness? Why not give ourselves the gift of presence?
Put differently - the past unfolded perfectly, the present is unfolding perfectly, and the future will unfold perfectly, no matter how it unfolds. If it unfolds with you diving in and out of imagination as you have been, perfect. If it unfolds with you increasingly grounding yourself in the flow of the here & now, perfect. If you make commitments now, and take efforts now, to be more present, perfect. If you do nothing different and keep repeating the former pattern, perfect.
At a certain point we realize it's not about right or wrong, good or bad, perfection or imperfection. Those take care of themselves.
It's really about honesty and self-care. What do we really want for ourselves? What are we willing to do to make that happen? How committed are we to changing our path?
There may have been a time when we didn't realize we were suffering unnecessarily. Or, we just didn't think there was anything we could do about it - that's just being human, that's just how life is.
Over time our understandings evolve, we discover new ways of being, new methods for improvement. Allowing our intuition to evolve and recalibrate through the dynamic interplay of awareness & recognition & time, we gradually decondition ourselves from escapist habits and allow our presence, which was there all along, to increasingly become who we are.
Suffering stems from confusion within; confusion within stems from disbelief
Indulging imagination requires disbelief. The disbelief that here & now is what's real & best for us. And disbelieving that compulsively dividing our attention between imagination and reality is unhealthy, destructive, unwise.
Without these disbeliefs, we couldn't lose ourselves to imagination as we do. We'd recognize we're lost and opt out, choosing instead our home, our real life, the flow of beingness and space and time. Disbelief keeps us confused and the confusion keeps us susceptible to the tugs & holds of addiction. Our addiction to imagination keeps us sneaking off there, and staying there, long after it's clear we're suffering.
In other posts I talk about theories and practices for breaking our inner addictions. I won't recap them here. I'll just say briefly that our friends in this effort are intuition, an opening heart, compassion, and patience. There's no whiteknuckling our way out of thought addictions. No amount of willpower or abstention is enough. Part of the reason is, when we're approaching the addiction as a problem, we're adopting a negative framing, which only feeds into the scarcity paradigms the addiction draws power from.
If instead we recognize our addiction as a situation, and we recognize positivity and time as our allies, we give our intutions the time, data, and processing needed to learn, evolve, and ultimately change the situation. Maybe that's what the masters mean by surrender - we surrender our will to our intuition and our warring to our heart, accepting that intuition and heart can generate the deep and lasting change that willing and warring never seem to provide. We rededicate our will to non-will, rededicate our war to non-war. And in the tremendous mental and energetic space this frees up, we allow our intutions and hearts to discover the wiser way, and we commit to being kind & respectful to ourselves and others durng this sometimes difficult process. We change our outlook from what can life do for me to what can I do to become more truly & fully alive.
Right now, we can breathe in through the nose, feel our bodies from within, sense the physical environment around us, and give gratitude for this moment, this here, this now, this being rawly within it.