Lost in Time: how temporal dislocation screws us up

Lost in Time: how temporal dislocation screws us up

Temporal dislocation is a term I have coined to make sense of how people react to their own experience of the passage of time. How we let time affect us, how we relate to past, present and future, what we focus on and how and where we get stuck has a huge bearing on our happiness, peace of mind and mental health.

By Ben Bruce - Psychologist

© May 28th, 2010.

What we focus on becomes empowered. We notice more about what we pay attention to. We see what we are mindful of as it pops up randomly in our experience. For example, if you are a motoring enthusiast you will notice particular vehicles and details of cars and branding that others would overlook. You can describe your experience of reality with a bearing on what motoring events were going on at the time. It becomes an anchoring point for your time.

So we start to see how reality is a picking and focusing, a 'selective abstraction and bias' based on our underlying programming and point of focus. We also don't notice certain things going on out there in reality when we have a biased focus on other things. This can be more or less constructive or destructive. If we don't pay attention to unhelpful things, we are then not wasting our time on those things. If we ignore supercilious things that are going on, we can be freed up to focus on stuff that is actually helpful and to our advantage.

Now to apply this to the subject and experience of time:

If a person is overly focused on the past they are clearly not focusing as much on what is happening Now (where focusing on the Now has many beneficial effects as posited, for example, in Eckharte Tolle's work 'The Power of Now'). If a person is overly focused on the future, they too are not noticing all that is happening Now. Their minds and hearts are 'elsewhere'. If this is extreme, the person can become stuck. They can become 'lost in time'.

Being stuck in the past has different effects and outcomes to being stuck in the future.

If a person is focused on the past, at best we would call them historically reflective or nostalgic. There isn't really anything wrong with this. In deed we can learn a lot from what has happened in the past, from studying history. We would expect a person to think about what they or others have done in the past when the person is having life crises. People can think back on history to learn from their mistakes, as well as learning from the actions and experiences of others. We can learn from what others have done and not make the same mistakes. For example, a leader or politician could reflect on how other leaders before him may have been too dominant and how this led to subordinate factions rebelling. Conversely the leader could learn not to be too soft and flaky as this would also incite others to take over if they see this as a weakness. This reflection could help the leader become more prudent and carefully balanced in order to avoid a coup.

At worst, being stuck in the past can lead to something beyond nostalgia and learning from reflection. A person stuck in the past can 'head screw' themselves going over and over the details of things that have happened. The person could obsess about how bad and wrong things have been and become stuck this way, or they may have a pining for past situations to happen again. Pining for past loves, good times, friends and noodle salad (in the words of Jack Nicholson's OCD-ridden character from 'As good as it gets'). What the pining person doesn't realize is that it can never happen again, not exactly the way it happened then because the person and the world are different Now. All the subtle variations assemble, such that you can never go back. Yesterday's history. Tomorrow's a mystery. All you can do is put your best foot forward Now and create something new that is suitable for the current day. Typically when you do this you'll find it is much better than anything that happened in the past; if you can put aside past nostalgia and any regrets that would otherwise overshadow the present Now from becoming its own Golden Age. Courage over fear is what is needed to face the 'brave new world'.

To draw upon an example, people may say about themselves, their job, and their relationship or family 'I just want things to be how they were before that event happened'. Can't you see this is fundamentally impossible, because the event has happened (whatever that may be) and things will therefore never be the same? Life and the world can never be static. The only constant thing is change. At best we can enjoy things as they happen, as well as to reflect and learn from difficult experiences that we go through. We can build and strengthen our hearts as we experience meaningful beauty in all its forms. We can then brings ourselves back to where we are Now. We need to RETURN TO NOW at some point, because NOW is the only moment that exists at all.

The error that people make, that causes them to be stuck in the past is that they reflect and get nostalgic, and.......stay there. They do not come back to the Now in order to APPLY that which they have reflected on. This is a huge feature of growing old. The person gets stuck in nostalgia. To some extent this can be good, as an ageing person puts their affairs in order, processing and making sense of their life, becoming wiser and even preparing themselves for death. However, this nostalgia can also take them out of the fertile and creative energy of the Now, such that they age prematurely. For example, 'getting set in one's ways' and talking about 'the good ole' days' is a typical sign of becoming geriatric. Why not process the past, becoming all the wiser by doing so, AND make one's 'hey day' recreated right now? This is what 'recreation' means. Go out and do something different. Sort something out. Learn a new skill. Enjoy yourself. As it is said: you are only as old as you feel (and think and act, I would add).

Interestingly for those who practice meditation, the predominant focus is about coming back to the point of focus on that which is happening now (for example one's breathing or an affirmation or noticing experiences as they occur). During meditation, when you notice that you have gotten distracted this is a reminder to come back to Now, to the current point of focus. The more we do this, the more empowered, disciplined and strengthened the mind becomes. The more rejuvenating and healing our sense of awareness and observation becomes. We become THE EMPOWERED OBSERVER. In truth, the essence of who we are is our sense of awareness beyond the thinking mind: our pure consciousness. Conversely the thoughts we have and the mind that holds the thoughts is a tool to be utilized. Unfortunately for many people they lack discipline of their own minds and make a fundamental attribution error; that they are their mind and their thoughts (and if the thoughts are disturbing or the mind haunting and obsessive, this creates a rather lackluster opinion of the self, to say the very least). Identifying with one's thinking mind is a fool-hardy path often leading to shame and suffering, self-rebuke and recrimination. The better able we are to 'sit with' our own conscious awareness, to observe the thoughts and sensations as they come and go and rise and fall, the more we can learn to reside in our awareness and direct our thinking, from 'the Now' to whatever we need the thinking mind to do for us (not against us).  Meditation in this way creates a disciplining exercise, a template and training exercise such that the mind can be better used and understood as a system or tool of thinking. The training of regular or semi-regular practice creates a good habit so that being an astute observer and being in the Now, becomes easier and more automatic over time. In this way, we find THE Way, the Tao (as the ancient Chinese knew, and some of the contemporaries remember).

Being stuck in the past, at worst creates Depression. People stuck in the past are unable to draw from the essence of life that is happening Now. Rather, they are in a dead existence, a 'no-place' that no longer exists except from within their own biased memory. This echoes back to the present and slams against the Now, having a jarring effect that renders the person as a ghost-like reflection of their former self. To an extreme end, after death we could extend this to see how a person has so lost touch with the Now, that they have become haunted by their own nostalgic/depressive reflections, unable to apply this to the Now, and unable to draw from or even experience the Now. This has been called by other theorists and authors a 'hypostasis of self'. I do believe that a haunting (a ghost phenomena, of which the empirical evidence if one cares to look at it, is indeed overwhelmingly clear) is exactly this - a hypostasis (which means existing in a static way below and beneath the true self, cut-off from the Now. How hellish.).

Conversely, people can be stuck in the future. At best a person who is focused on the future can be called a 'planner' (or even a prophet if they are able to predict it). Being focused on the future in this way can render 'long sight' or wisdom and typically occurs if we can apply what we have learned from the past, and what we see happening now and we can assemble all of this data to make predictive outcomes. Focusing on the future can be good in order to plan for unforeseen events, like making savings of money, storing emergency provisions and making a storm shelter in case it is needed.

However, the major problem people make when it comes to planning or predicting is that they get caught up in the stress and fear of what might happen (of which a whole raft of random, foreseen and unforeseen events could occur, each having different spiral-out butterfly effects). They are rendered powerless by this biased abstraction simply because all of their time and energy is sucked away from the Now. They do not return to the present moment to actually apply their plan to reality and make the necessary changes. So at worst, the problem with a futuristic temporal dislocation bias is that the person is rendered powerless with Anxiety. As Shakespeare said in Hamlet's soliloquy: 'Conscience makes cowards of us all and...(we) lose the name of action'.

So we see that being stuck in the past brings Depression and being stuck in the future brings Anxiety. Interestingly Depression and Anxiety are the most common clinical psychological disorders that people face. About 1 in 5 people are presently experiencing some kind of Depressive or Anxiety episode (so the research tells us of the Western world, at least - perhaps people in the so called ‘third world’ are too busy looking for food, shelter and safety that they haven't time to wonder if they are depressed and anxious or not). Depression and anxiety can be acute, reactive and time-limited or it can become chronic, lasting over time or recurring from time to time in episodes. Additionally a person often has both disorders, depression and anxiety in at least 30-60% of cases. So we see an overlap correlation and I think this is due to the underlying problem of being stuck or lost in time. A bold claim, yes, but I am prepared to make it confidently.

Could there be anything worse than not only being stuck in the past OR in the future but actually being stuck and lost in BOTH the past and the future SIMULTANEOUSLY?! How discombobulating would that scenario be? Clearly, the answer is Very.

If a person is 're-trained' to consistently ask themselves 'Am I thinking overly of the past or present?' and trained to focus on what is happening Now - they can become at peace and at one with themselves and their experience Now. Most meditative exercises are all about noticing what is happening Now. The reason for this is that Now, and our focus upon it for an extended period of time brings about a happy, relaxing trance state and this can turn into a generalized relaxed yet mindful and considerately responsible approach toward life.

For example, if I were to focus on my breathing right now for an extended period of time, coming back to my point of focus whenever I get distracted by sensations, sounds and smells and sights and thoughts (of other things, the past and the future), I would deepen into the experience and 'let go' of everything else. My own sense of myself and the world within and around me would deepen in congruence with this point of focus. I don't need to maintain a 'cat like state of readiness' regarding what might happen in the future if I can let go and just feel and experience what is happening Now. I can see the clouds moving across the sky, and quite literally smell the roses Now. Similarly, life is for the living Now, not for yesterday. In this way Depression can be helped to resolve itself by letting go of the past, coming back to what is real Now and making things better for ourselves now. Deepening our experience of life in such a way has a bearing on how we understand the Universe and indeed, God. Regardless of your particular beliefs, if there is a primary and reflective consciousness that created the universe, is that creative moment a past occurrence so that God is thereby enslaved to time and stuck in a retrospective yester-moment of past glory? Or is God transcendent of time such that whatever He has done, is doing and will do is indeed happening right Now? This leads to the subject of the Eternal Now: the theory that everything is happening right Now throughout all eternity, such that time is actually an illusion. Quantum physicists from Einstein onward have also conceptualized that time is an illusion.

So if you find yourself lost in time at some point in your life, pay attention to what your mind is doing and re-orient your awareness to all the subtle things happening Now. Pick something, anything, and deepen into the experience of that (preferably something beautiful and inspiring or at least neutral). You may be surprised at how good it feels and how much easier things naturally become for you in your experience of your life over time.

- Ben Bruce.

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3 Responses

  1. Kate
    Thankyou for this, i am going through a hard time with being stuck in the past. This made me feel not as crazy
  2. Ben
    Thanks Kate! Being in the Now is a sign of psychological health. If you are stuck in the past or in the future this needs to be addressed. This isn't necessarily one's fault; it may be the case that intrusive memories or unresolved issues pop into one's mind because they are begging one's attention. They need to be dealt with: discussed, journalled, explored, confronted, counselled, forgiven and released. This is when we can rally our resources and come back to the present. Whatever we do is thereby more empowered. The connection between our positive thoughts and the manifestation of these in realities with events and patterns like coincidence and synchronicity then increases. Life becomes more wonderful even magical and fulfilling. You become a more powerful person, and change, growth and revolution quicken.
  3. I am definitely stuck in the past. I think about it every day. I really enjoyed reading your article. I agree 100% that it is a "first world" problem, but does that mean it's not legitimate? Not at all. Not a day passes that I don't obsess about what has happened that I miss so much, whether it's experiencing something as simple as a childhood video game, to the first time I kissed a girl. I am going to attempt the meditation techniques that you mentioned. Good article.

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