It feels like years that I’ve been actively engaged in trying to figure myself out. Not with any lofty ‘enlightenment’ goal, necessarily; just trying to troubleshoot, problem solve, make sense of my choices and their consequences. Even now, I play the ‘what if’ game in my head: second-guessing the paths I’ve taken and wondering how my life would have been different if…..I also wonder if all of this thinking is part of my overall problem. I feel comfortable blaming Socrates.
This still-revered Greek scholar and philosopher (born roughly 470 BCE – let that sink in for a minute) made the pronouncement, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” His statement was supposedly a very quiet utterance, made under painful and dramatic circumstances – perhaps why the local scribes took note and preserved those words forever. Socrates was on trial for “impiety (although he was religious, he scorned state-sanctioned gods) and corruption of youth (minds and bodies, supposedly)”. Socrates was convicted and given a choice: permanent exile, or death. Rather than be cut-off from the people and places that provided the flow of learning and wisdom that were as necessary to him as air to breathe, Socrates chose death (by drinking hemlock). To this day, a wide variety of organizations still use variations of The Socratic Method: a special kind of conversation and discussion that stimulates insightful thinking and deep learning.
In my current stage of life I wonder how truly valuable the “examined” life is. Having just written that, I also acknowledge what a ridiculous and banal affliction this might be considered by the many people struggling with survival in the Here and Now. Just a quick glance at my bookshelves exposes me as someone who has both the time and resources to invest in print and recordings from the Self Help genre.
This wasn’t always the case, however – my shelves being lined with so many options. When I was still a teenager, a dog-eared copy of the book “Be Here Now” (written by Ram Dass in 1971) was circulated among my friends. It’s still in print and popular. At the time, it was the only personal guidance book I’d come across that made sense: the Present Moment is all there is. Any time at all spent in the Past is pointless: misspent time and energy.
But why is it still so hard to not look backwards occasionally? I believe it’s because – despite what Ram Dass, Eckhart Tolle, Abraham and others tell us – the unconscious mind is in fact a treasure trove of information that (for most of us, anyway) is still being processed in our daily lives. What happened Then still impacts our decisions Now. This is one of the reasons why dream therapy is often helpful: things that get pushed down and away bubble up, regardless.
I do my best to live in the Now. I do practice Mindfulness (for me, that word is just shorthand for Slow the F— Down). But I also reflect on people and events from my past. I give myself permission to disobey the majority of books in my library. In other words, I don’t allow myself to wallow in nostalgia or regret. I do, however, take quick dips into those cool, deep and dark waters of my personal history when it feels right and necessary. (Typically, this is when I catch myself repeating a thought or behavior pattern that didn’t work then, and needs to be jettisoned now.) I’m fussy, though: others don’t get to bring up my Past (they do so, at their peril!). My learning, from previous mistakes, is my personal responsibility and my personal domain: it’s a sensitive and tender place that I visit in quiet moments and don’t need to dialogue about. Likewise, I don’t remind others of their past mistakes – large or small – as tempting as it may be at times. There are people out there who are paid to listen and to help, and, plenty of books to read.