The Power of Not Now

Various popular renditions of spirituality and therapy in our current culture encourage us to live in the present moment. We are told to realize the true self in the now–to become conscious, aware, transformed. Sounds good, right?

That is my simplistic take on what seems a common thread of much spiritual and psychological and therapeutic thinking these days. The thread of “living in the present moment” has good precedent in Buddhist and Hindu thinking. I’m not for or against this thinking, but it’s worth playing with for a moment.

To begin with, I wonder why this goal of living in the now isn’t working better, for more people.

I have to wonder how well any of our popular spiritual and therapeutic self-help is working for us. Take a stroll through the self-help and popular psychology sections at Powell’s bookstore. While there’s some good stuff being written, at least now and then, these strolls tend to elicit a certain despair in me. So many theories, systems, and recipes for well-being. The striving for an elusive cure to what ails us goes on forever, aisle upon aisle, world without end. What does that tell us? We want to become conscious, live in the now, make sense of suffering, manage depression, cure addictions, alleviate anxiety, heal wounds, transform behaviors, and renew relationships. And we evidence an unending appetite for new methods of achieving these ends.

What if, instead of striving for a final solution, we slow down and spend some time with the longing in us that drives much of this striving? Our culture values drive, achievement, mastery, and consciousness, and does not encourage us to slow down and feel things that might not be terribly comfortable at first. But I suspect that the human heart, with its longings, confusions, stuck points, unconsciousness, and hurts, will ultimately evade our desperate attempts for a final fix. As a result, we may in the end feel like we’ve failed to live up to some psychospiritual standard of good living–being in the now, being conscious, healed, on top of things, whatever.

A more human approach might help us remember the power of “not now.” We need room to be stuck, confused, defended, and to let our development take the time it needs. The movement of psychological development–individuation, in Carl Jung’s terms–is a spiral path, some have said. Progress is made towards a center, but we also go round and round. That’s just how it is. We are chagrined to encounter our “same old shit” in new and deeper forms over the years. We come around again to the same old joys too, and remember how easy it is to forget them. Real change happens in this cyclical way.

Image of the Spiral

We sense the presence of the center as a kind of timeless “now,” though we don’t get to hang out there forever. If we actually did succeed in fixing / curing / redeeming the innate messiness of a human life, and living 24/7 in a state of ultimate conscious realization of the self, we wouldn’t be living a human life any more. We’d lose touch with the longing that reminds us that there is, after all, a center that we are circumambulating. We’d lose touch with the wounds that open our hearts to others that we’re sharing our lives with.

I think that this take on things makes room for letting go into a development of the self that truly gets the striving ego out of the center… which I think, in the end, is the point of those who tell us to awaken into the present moment–as it is, with all its messy glory, not as we’d like it to be.