Nostalgia Gets a Bad Rap But ‘This Weird Old Trick’ Might Help Us Calm Our Anxiety by Focusing on What Really Matters
Being here now gets a lot of press.
I just googled it now and here’s what I got:
About 25,270,000,000 results (0.68 seconds) ~ Google search for “be here now”
I also got an immediate come-on from Amazon trying to get me to buy the book, Be Here Now, by Ram Dass.
One of the few moments that I have ever been able to be here now — to have been there then? — (what is the proper syntax when speaking of such mysteries?) — was when I went to a workshop by artist/writer/genius Lynda Barry at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. It is a place, coincidentally, where you can find the Ram Dass library, “which is designed in an eight petal lotus blossom shape to represent Ram Dass’ service to public health, advancing social justice, and supporting spiritual development throughout the world.”
But it wasn’t the Ram Dass library where I felt herenowness at the Omega Institute in August, 2017. It was the gardens. We had to get up at the crack of dawn to get breakfast before our morning class. Every morning after my tofu scramble in the caf, I wandered out into the gardens drinking from my second mug of coffee, watching the mist evaporate, watching the plants and flowers and trees and the stone Buddha heads revealing themselves, watching myself awaken in more ways than one...
I was so blissed out in those moments, so at peace, so at one with what was happening that it was hard for me to believe that it was me being there then. I mean, I bought a coffee mug at the Omega gift shop that said JOY on it and I wasn’t being ironic. I actually got a little misty-eyed when I paid for it. Enlightenment. Suckerhood. Sometimes it’s a fine damned line.
There have been quite a few moments like that in my life. Sublime moments. I try to take mental snapshots of them and to return to them when I need solace. It’s just that I can lose sight of them when I’m in the shit of anxiety.
At other times, being in the shittiest of shit, then coming out of it, is what makes me remember the sublime moments, or makes me create new ones in which I can immediately feel that what is is good.
For instance, Sunday morning I woke up to see our little dog, Lana, waking up. What would her eyes be like? Her eyes were blurry for a second but then they focused on me. Normal, blessedly normal! And they stayed focused on me instead of darting back and forth like they had the night before when my husband and I had rushed her to the emergency vet.
When the shit truly threatens to turn what is into what was, oh my, we see things clearly then, don’t we?
When the threat to what we love subsides and when it seems like what is might just keep on keeping on like we hoped that it would, it’s then that we are engulfed with a sudden nostalgia for our present.
“Whatever happens. Whatever what is is, is what I want. Only that. But that.” ~ Galway Kinnell
Nostalgia, usually a word used in regard to the past. Usually used with some irony or at least suspicion. We know that when we look back on the past it can seem better than it felt to us when we were in it, down there in the shit of it. Why?
As someone who is addicted to nostalgia, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this. Why is it that, so often, more often than I want, I can’t seem to feel happiness in the present moment? It could be I have some alexithymia (difficulty identifying my emotions in the moment), in addition to having anxiety, from being on the spectrum, and having ADHD, and having PTSD.
But as my new therapist says, we’re all on a spectrum if not the spectrum. There’s a syllogism at play here, for sure. All humans are somewhat bad at being present. I am a human. Therefore, I am going to be at least somewhat bad at being present.
But why, why is it that we humans see most clearly in those moments when we look back? Looking back on the distant past or on the recent past after some existential threat has passed — why does that throw things into the sharpest relief?
I think it’s because I remember significant moments as if they were photos in the album of my mind. I’m sure a lot of people remember things this way because emotion has a way of searing visual input into our longterm memory.
But I remember the swirl of stressful bullshit around those significant moments in my life only as vague feelings, easily dismissed in retrospect. Fellow humans, is it the same for you?
When I look back, I might remember the feeling of resentment that I felt when an obligation, or an unavoidable nuisance, or my own monkey-mind kept me from being as present in a significant moment as I wanted to be…but I can’t SEE those bad feelings like I can still SEE the shining faces of the people and the animals that I loved back then. And when I see those faces in my memories, I am flooded with feelings of love and happiness.
For instance, when I look back on this day in the early aughts when our “old” dogs (RIP) found a traffic cone on our street that had been left behind by road workers, all I remember was how ecstatic the dogs were when we gave them permission to try to destroy it.
I remember that it was remarkably sturdy, that orange cone, the only thing those two chewing machines couldn’t shred in minutes. I don’t remember what I was anx’ing about re: work, money, politics, needing to reseed the back lawn because the dogs had torn it up running around like maniacs (okay I remember that last one but I don’t feel the urgency behind the thought).
Nostalgia can be an unhealthy addiction, a sentimental sedative, that keeps you and me from being present (and I bet even Ram Dass indulged in it now and again).
We look back on our pasts because we know how things turned out then; and it comforts us because we’re anxious about what we can’t control or predict in our nows.
But I discovered when I was in grad school — at the time, it was the most stressed out that I had ever been — that this nostalgia drug could also work as medicine. I could use nostalgia to fake myself out of anxiety about the present and fling myself back into the now. I bet you can, too. Maybe you’ve already discovered this?
I remember when I made the discovery for myself, it was a blizzardy night shortly before finals week and I was stressing about all that I had to do. The wind howled around the house like a monstrous wolf, flinging snow against the windows. But my husband and I were snug in our bed, and the “old” dogs were snug in their beds at the foot of ours. Thor was snoring gently, or as gently as he did anything. The pack is together, I thought.
And something about that felt like a memory. It was déjà vu. But cozy instead of eerie. It made me able to FEEL how much I loved them, my pack, right there in that moment. The worries that had been dogging me fell away and I fell asleep.
I think I have been struggling a bit lately because I kind of forgot this trick. This old trick, if I can remember to use it, could help me to pretend that I am looking back on this now from a future in which I can no longer remember the shit that is plaguing me with worry.
The telephoto lens of this trick’s fake 20/20 vision might help me, and you, to get close-ups of all those precious faces in our heres and nows, and to LOVE them — here and now — with all our might.