Allowing yourself to be right where you are while thinking of a better future are not mutually exclusive.
Two of the most powerful teachings in psycho-emotional-spiritual health appear to be in direct contradiction with each other: live in the moment and create a better future.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we are being advised to take things a day at a time, focus on what we do have control over, and live in the present moment. Other times we’re being told to remain optimistic, this too shall pass, and to take this time to envision and create a better future. Rarely are we advised to do both concurrently, yet both are critical to well being.
Two of my favorite teachers have given me the gifts of both these philosophies, and while not always easy, I’ve had to allow these concepts to co-exist for my own mental health, especially during these unprecedented times. These teachers are Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now (among other great books) whose title says it all, and the late psychotherapist and holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, who in his famed book, Man’s Search for Meaning stressed the importance of having something to look forward to, a future to focus on, especially when faced with an unimaginable crisis. Tolle and Frankl effectively taught the importance of both, respectively, and they offer great tools and suggestions on how to master these states of being.
Tolle’s work and teachings (a synthesis of many other teachers and teachings before him) revolve around mindfulness, including stillness, meditation and the witnessing of our thoughts – which ultimately disrupts the excessive hold our ego has on us. This creates enough distance between our thoughts and our identification with the thoughts so they no longer control us. This is a helpful and proven tool on the path to making the unconscious conscious – to use Carl Jung’s language – so that we have more agency over our internal states and therefore our interaction with the external world. As with all mindfulness modalities, discipline and practice yields more results. There’s a reason it’s referred to as mindfulness “practices” after all.
Frankl developed logotherapy (“logos” is the Greek word for “meaning”), because he believed that human beings are ultimately motivated by meaning and purpose, and that without them, people can fall into despair resulting in a myriad of symptoms such as depression and anxiety. Another key component to Frankl’s work is to use adversity to open us up to our greater purpose and higher meaning; to connect it with something bigger than ourselves and give existential context to our experiences. Frankl believed that a person’s ultimate freedom lies in his or her ability to choose how to respond to any set of given circumstances, even the most painful ones. He wrote, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Finding our purpose often comes from applying meaning to our circumstances in a way that has us not only persevere, but grow and improve as people, so that our circumstances do not become the dominant dictators who reign over us and control our destiny.
A person can focus on a future without losing presence and groundedness in the here and now. In fact, Tolle has convinced me that being rooted in the present moment and accepting our current situation, is a necessary precursor to manifesting the future we want. It sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but what we resist persists, so it makes sense to allow for ‘what is’ before a shift can take place. It doesn’t mean resting on your laurels, it simply means turning towards the present moment, showing up for it fully, and then from the space that creates, you’re more free to do the next right thing. Presence creates that space. Frankl encapsulates this beautifully in his writing, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Often the truth of things lives in a paradox, and I think the dichotomy of the present moment and a future focus is a prime example of that. Can we make room for both, (without fixating one either)? This can be a fruitful intersection between traditional therapy and traditional coaching. Therapy typically focuses on the past (origin stories and root causes) and the problems you’re going through now, whereas traditional coaching typically focuses on future forward thinking – how to do it differently/action steps. As a mental health coach, I think some combination of the two is so important and necessary for transformation, especially in times like these.
In my coaching practice, I apply both the principles of mindfulness and logotherapy with clients. The former helps them create the space to help them feel grounded and centered and can be the canvas for new possibilities. And the latter helps them explore their own meaning and purpose and how to manifest those in the world, as well as reframing otherwise difficult, even tragic situations as something that can be leveraged and alchemized for a bigger purpose/picture…and that often includes a focus on the future. This same concept is expressed beautifully by the poet Rupi Kaur, “The world gives you so much pain and here you are making gold out of it. There is nothing purer than that.” I couldn’t agree more. If I had one word to encapsulate what therapy/counseling/coaching is about, it’s alchemy. Every client who’s ever showed up for a session (online or in-person), I saw as an alchemist.
Both Tolle’s and Frankl’s work is about internal agency, reminding us that even though we might not have control over our circumstances, like the coronavirus and all of the difficulty and loss associated with it, we do have choice in how we respond. Sometimes we need external support and resources to identify and practice those very choices, and luckily, those are available. So if you find yourself having difficulty in either staying present in the moment (rather than being swept away by fearful thoughts and projections), envisioning and creating a positive future – one that calls you to live forward and on and in-purpose (versus feeling stuck, suffocated, immobilized and isolated by the current events), or both, I can help.