Sunday, May 7, 2017

The 'Tweens: Learn Not to Always Feel Stuck Between the Past and the Future

In the last decade or so, the term "tweens" started surfacing.

It generally refers to kids who are too old to be kids but not old enough to be a teen, so they're in between—or tweens.

Now people are using the term to refer to lots of different age groups—from older toddlers who aren't quite young children, to older teens who aren't quite adults. 

And because almost everything that floats around in my brain eventually becomes about how it can apply to me, I realized that I think I'm a tween. (I suppose we're all tweens, at least in the sense that we're all somewhere between birth and death.)

I don't know if it's human nature to constantly be looking ahead. But I'm very rarely focused on where I am. I'm always looking to where I want to be, or where I think I'm going to be, or where I'm worried I'm headed.

When I was a teen, I wanted to be an adult. When I was an adult, I wanted to be a wife. When I was a wife, I wanted to be a mother. And now that I'm a mother, I am already looking ahead to what's next; I'm thinking about being a mother-in-law and a grandmother. And recently the thought came to me (while I was thinking about being old, but not really old) that in terms of a price of a movie ticket, I'm somewhere between being an adult and a senior citizen. I'm a tween.

Will this feeling of always being between life's milestone markers ever end? Will I always feel like I'm between what has just happened and what will happen next? Even on a smaller scale, I'm always thinking about what needs to be accomplished tomorrow and what I didn't get done yesterday.

Where's the now in all that? Where's the living in the present moment?

I am 42 years old with a healthy, independent daughter and a loving husband and it's taking pretty much every ounce of concentration I have to think about where I am, at this exact moment in my life. I am sitting in a comfortable chair at my desk in my living room. I do know that, but it's hard not to get lost in thinking about what happened before or what is going to happen next.

I guess it's called the circle of life. And any given point on a circle is between two other points. We are always between yesterday and tomorrow. Always between life and death...and possibly whatever comes after death. We are always in between. We only ever have now.

How do we learn to just accept that its okay not to be the same people we were yesterday or to be okay with the fact we might end up being where we don't want to be tomorrow, particularly if we're facing things in our lives that are unpleasant or unexpected?

How do we let go of the past but still enjoy our memories or not worry about the future? How do we plan for tomorrow so we are prepared without losing a sense of where we are today?

For me, it's required spending a lot of time acknowledging that I don't have control over things. I might be a bit of a control-freak, as many people with anxiety are. So my path to being able to enjoy memories of the past or to allow myself to be excited about the future has been through constant reminders that I have to let go of most of my instincts to try and control things. I can't make things change when they don't happen the way I wanted them to. And there's no amount of planning that will ensure that the future turns out the way I want it to. 

I've had to accept that I simply don't have control of, well, almost anything. And the only thing I can truly control is how I respond right now. I can only control my own actions in any given moment.

But I still struggle every day. I have to constantly remind myself that there will never come a time when tomorrow is completely predictable, so no matter how much of today I spend trying to prepare, I can't know what tomorrow holds.

My mom definitely didn't think she'd end up chronically ill. And she never imagined that her main identity outside her family would be as an author. 

As a person with a chronic illness, has it been a struggle to overcome ruminating about the past or worrying about getting more sick in the future? Have your Buddhist studies helped?

It's been a tremendous struggle. At first spent a lot of time thinking of things I should have done in the past while I was healthy, things that I can't do now—such as visiting your family in L.A., especially when Malia was little. I grew up in L.A. after all. I want to show her all my favorite places.

And when I wasn't thinking about that, I was worrying about the future. I won't go through the list of worries. I'm pretty sure that anyone who is chronically ill and is reading this will have a list that would be similar to mine. 

It helped to become aware that both living in the past and living in the future were neither skillful nor nourishing. I was pretty unhappy.

You asked if my Buddhist studies helped? Yes. In fact, they felt like a lifeline to get my me back on track, sick or not. I'll just mention one of the many ways it's helped. I pick this because you brought it up: the realization that we control very little of what happens to us and we control a lot less than most of us think we do. Imagine if we could control things:"Body, wake up healthy"; "Mind, stop thinking stressful thoughts"; "Be happy today and every day; that's an order." Wouldn't that be nice? 

We all know that life doesn't work that way. Things happen to us, based on our past conditioning and the circumstances we find ourselves in. I'm not saying we shouldn't try to control something if we think we can make things better for ourselves or others, but we shouldn't be surprised or dismayed when, in the end, we turned out to have very little control.

One more thing on this subject. In the First Noble Truth, the Buddha offered a list of experiences that all of us can expect in life. Among the items on the list are getting older and encountering health problems. It really helped for me to have the Buddha "tell it like it is" in this way. 

It made me feel normal—and whole as a person—even though I was chronically ill.

Do you think that becoming chronically ill at a relatively young age has made you appreciate the importance of living in the present moment?

It's helped tremendously (not that I wouldn't rather not have become sick). 

For example, take this house, its contents, and its yard. I never appreciated them until the four of us became constant companions. Having to be here all day led me to start paying attention to what was right around me. One thing was the backyard. I’d spent time there before I got sick, but I wasn't truly acquainted with what was growing there. Now I'm "friends" with every tree and bush (and I put "friends" in quotes to emphasize that this is not my hippie background talking).

And I have a few bonsai trees in my bedroom. I can tell you which branch on each one has new leaves coming out. 

So, yes, I'm much more aware of the present moment. But you asked about whether I'm more aware of its the importance of living in the present moment. The answer is "yes" because I've learned that living in the past and living in the future by thinking about them all the time leads to unhappiness. This is because it leads to suffering because, along with those thoughts, come those "wants/don't wants" that we can become obsessed with, but which can't be satisfied. (Of course, I'm not talking about reflecting on the past to learn from it or enjoying sweet memories; and I'm not talking about reasonable planning for the future.)

I do still have my bad days though. I had one on Monday. All I could think of were the things I couldn't do anymore. I was miserable. Once I became aware of what I was doing, the thoughts lost their tight grip on me...but they did persist. Yet I knew that everything is impermanent and that if I was just patient and nice to myself, the blue mood would blow away in a bit. It did, leaving me an opening to find things to appreciate about my life right now. 

(A note about the last paragraph: I realize that this reliance on impermanence to "blow moods away" doesn't necessarily work for people who are clinically depressed. It can be so much harder for them.)

So, yes, being chronically ill has definitely helped me appreciate the value of not focusing on the past and future but living in the present moment.

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