If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
The power of the mind to project itself to the future and make plans for it, is one of the main differentiators between humans and animals. It is at the core of the human experience and defines us as a species.
Without it, we wouldn’t store the autumn harvest for the winter, we wouldn’t create projects and goals that take years to complete, and we wouldn’t save for retirement. It is part of the gift we call having a vision. Imagination.
We also have the capacity to imagine different outcomes in the future, both the plausible and unlikely. Without which we wouldn’t make buildings to withstand rare events like earthquakes and floods, we wouldn’t keep fire extinguishers in our homes, and we wouldn’t use the seat belt in the car.
This power however, is a double-edged sword.
Imagining a negative future
Constantly projecting and imagining future negative scenarios is a major source of anxiety. I know, because I’ve been there.
In fact, I’d say that anxiety itself is merely us creating and spending time in a mental future which contains things we don’t like or want to happen. No matter how unrealistic or improbable that future is.
This can become so habitual and ingrained for you that you’re not even aware of it. You only know this general feeling of unease – or plain terror – but not the cause. Unravelling what this projected future scenario is, this expectation of disaster, is the role of therapeutic intervention.
When we walk the mental path towards a future destination, it can be hard to gauge the likelihood of each event. We have a bias towards thinking that what happened before will happen again. And we have a bias towards seeing and identifying threats.
This is something we share with the animals. Identifying threats towards survival is a basal instinct. Enemies, predators, dangers. There are things we have to avoid in order to survive.
The future is unknown
Now when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic all these things kick in, mix together and go into overdrive. Suddenly there is an external threat out there, but how big is it, how likely are the scenarios, and under which circumstances are they more likely? There are still so many unknowns and we don’t like unknowns.
A problem is that emotions are contagious too, with anxiety being one of the most contagious ones. So these emotions of unease and pending doom spread throughout society, much faster than the actual SARS-CoV-2 virus itself. We can thank social media for that.
If there’s anything that this pandemic has done then it is to show us, in clear daylight, that we do not know the future, we don’t have control over it, and we cannot take anything for granted. We can no longer pretend otherwise.
This can be anxiety-inducing in and of itself, depending of what kind of relationship we have with the unknown and ultimately with the universe. But it’s something we have to face and accept as part of the human experience.
In one way you could say that the pandemic has triggered a global existential crisis. And our reactions to it is in part determined by the extent we have contemplated and found our own answers to these deeper underlying existential questions.
Grieving for lost future projections
When I listened to the Zenfounder episode about Grief and Courage in the time of the pandemic, I thought about this ability to create visions of the future in our heads. Sherry Walling talks about dealing with the grief that comes from cancelled plans, a business that is going under, or freedoms of movement that is temporarily lost.
Much of this is about our expectations. How much we have lived in a projected (positive) future, and been looking forward to it happening. And when that projection is gone we feel bereaved like we have lost something that was ours, even though we never had it in the first place. The only place we had it was in our heads.
Both a projected positive future (which can give you hope and joy) and a projected negative future (which can cause worry, stress and anxiety) are a result of how we imagine things to be. No matter how rooted your scenario is in probable events, it still only exists in your mind until it actually happens. If it ever does.
Becoming too attached to your inner images is not a good thing. A positive image that doesn’t happen will make you disappointed. And a negative image that doesn’t happen will cause distress completely unnecessarily.
Imagination without attachment
So is the ultimate solution to live only in and for the present moment?
No, I’m not sure it’s viable or even desirable. The capability of thinking about the future is so ingrained in the human experience that I don’t think you can not do it.
Perhaps something like it is within the realm of possibility. There are individuals dedicating their lives and spending decades in monasteries working on this seemingly simple thing. Of pure being, in the now, without attachment to the future or judgement of the past.
But being without attachment to the future doesn’t mean that you don’t ever go there in your mind. The attachment is all about the labels you put on what you see. Good, bad, wonderful, catastrophic.
I think that being so much in the moment that you cease to ever plan for the future – whether a trip next year or what you will have for dinner tomorrow – is neither feasible nor desirable.
And the ability to visualize beneficial outcomes is one of the biggest advantages we have in creating a better future for ourselves. I think it’s one of the best uses there is for our creative imagination.
It’s just that our biggest gift also can become our biggest burden. I think we all need a reminder now and then to not get too caught up in the future scenarios we have in our heads – both the good ones and the bad ones.