There is only now
I was sick a while back. Not terribly ill, mind you, I just laid in bed for a few hours wishing the shivering and sweating were over. I’d been there before. We all have. I was in Vancouver at the time, working on a show. Usually, my inner monologue during these episodes goes something like this.
“I’m shivering under the blankets. I know it’s not that cold in here. What’s wrong with me? Oops, back to the bathroom.” [Monologue redacted while in bathroom] “Oh, Lord, now I’m sweaty. This can’t be good. I should take my temperature, but I don’t have a thermometer here. I hope this doesn’t keep me awake much past my regular bedtime or I’ll be no good for work tomorrow. What if this is COVID? I’m being tested three times a week, but that doesn’t mean one of the crew didn’t attend a super-spreader wedding over the weekend. My heart is pounding, too. That can’t be good. What if it doesn’t slow down?
“Man, I hate this. Not having a diagnosis, not knowing what this is going to turn into, not knowing how much worse it’s going to get. But maybe it’ll pass soon on it’s own. I’ve had something like this before, I think. It’s hard to think clearly, but the symptoms seem similar. I feel so powerless to do anything. Is there something I should be doing? I’m trying to get this one shot right but the camera angle seems off. I keep staring at the monitor with the puppet on my hand, doing the shot over and over the same way. I don’t know what’s wrong about the shot, just that I am doing it over and over.
“Oh, I see. I’ve been having a fever dream. Cool. I hate fever dreams. Now I’m not going to get a good night’s sleep. Will this ruin my workday tomorrow? I hate being in Vancouver like this. I’m starting to work myself into a panic now.”
By this point, I had begun to feel like an animal with their leg in a trap, ready to start chewing away. I wanted to crawl out of my own skin and let my body heal while I went off and had a nice cup of tea and a good night’s sleep. And then the problem with my thinking finally presented itself. You may have already detected it. You can re-read the monologue to see if you can figure out what I was doing wrong.
Or I can just tell you. Notice how many sentences in the monologue had to do with the future. Or with the past. That’s the problem right there. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there is no such thing as the future, or the past. There is only now. As Carlo Rovelli muses in his wonderful book The Order of Time, the future is little more than the plans and expectations one holds in one’s head. And the past is little more than the collection of memories residing in the synapses within one’s brain. Anticipating future bad things is an exercise in creating anxiety. Wishing I had done something different in the past is an exercise in regret. Neither one helps in the moment.
So how did I change my monologue while in bed? I began repeating, in my mind, “There is only now,” like a mantra. Not continuously, but whenever I felt anxious. Instead of wishing the chills or sweats would leave me alone, I acknowledged them. “Here come the shivers again. Hm. That one was a real rip-roarer. OK, now it’s subsided. I’m just going to lie here now and let the minutes and, if necessary, hours wash over me. I might be sicker later, but—there is only now. Right now I can handle laying in bed and shivering. I’m not going to think about work tomorrow. Or getting sicker. Because there is only now. This is what is happening to me right now, and this is not killing me, so there’s nothing to do but float downstream. It’s just time.”
And as for the fever dreams—when I thought about “There is only now” I saw the dreams in a different light. Not as impediments to a good night’s sleep, but as the means by which my body has chosen to heal itself. These dreams are a manifestation of my body working through what it needs to to fix itself. It is not interrupting my sleep. It IS my sleep.
Those of you who have some experience with mindfulness meditation might recognize something similar at work here. Noticing, acknowledging and then letting go of transient thoughts is basically how you do meditation. That and then having something to steer your focus toward, like your breathing. It’s impossible to steer your focus AWAY from something. But I can certainly monologize, as I lie in bed shivering, “Breath in, breath out, oh, there’s a shiver, oh, that’s a big one, now it’s subsiding, and back to breath in, breath out. There is only now. This time. This pillow. These sheets. In Vancouver, a lovely city after all.” And letting time carry me downstream.