Hindsight No. 20: Mindfulness and Memory

Hindsight for May 30, 2022

(Photo from toolshero.com)

WHEN I I unexpectedly slipped into a black pool of anxiety and depression a couple of years ago—another unwitting casualty of the pandemic—I learned a new word from my psychiatrist: “mindfulness,” defined as “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” 

It’s a therapeutic technique to keep your mind from straying into dark forests and crevices, focusing instead on the pen in your hand or the chunk of melon you’re about to swallow. Accompanied by meditation and measured breathing, it slows and calms you down just long enough for you to understand that you’re alive, you’re safe, and you will be well. It puts you back in control of your runaway thoughts and emotions, giving you back the composure you need to face your problems for the day.

It works. Of course I still take my nightly dose of sertraline (your doctor might prescribe something else; don’t take my word for it), but even just the awareness that you can, on your own, stake out a little zone of peace and quiet around yourself is liberating. Paradoxically, it allows you to deal with the stress of the moment by putting you in the moment. It’s the anticipation of terrible things about to happen—especially bad for imaginative minds—that brings on the fear and anxiety. Mindfulness snaps you back from that bungee jump to despair.

I thought about this last week as I encountered many friends online still in shock and grief over their electoral loss, brimming with agitation over what political atrocities could be forthcoming, and eager to begin the campaign for 2028 pronto. The trolls are gleefully feeding this anguish: one prayed that VP Leni’s plane would crash, another declared all Kakampinks “enemies of the state” who deserve to be hunted down, and yet another—despite doing it herself—faulted the Robredos for the crime of taking graduation pictures. 

When I realize that this is the world we now live in, roiling with nastiness, idiocy, and barbarity, I feel like reaching for something stronger than Zoloft to ward off the bad vibes (I also have a prescription for Xanor, but haven’t touched it for a year). But then I remember the old Jedi mindfulness trick, take a few deep abdominal breaths, think about places the ogres can’t reach, and soon enough I’m functional again, capable of absorbing the absurdities and ironies of the hour.

One more thing about mindfulness: it works well with daydreaming of the positive and wishful kind. The writer Sam Brinson quotes the psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman: “A wandering mind is more creative, better at future planning and goal-driven thought, and helps with memory consolidation.” Kaufman argues for a balance between focusing your thoughts and letting them stray, which is relaxing, and a relaxed mind is better at making creative connections.

I don’t know if you could call it daydreaming, but lately my mind has drifted back to my own “golden era”—a time when things felt good and I felt good, when the country was in a bouncy mood and seemed to be going in the right direction: the mid- to late 1990s, the FVR years. We had a lot of problems—a rash of brownouts among them—but you could sniff the optimism in the air. (Full disclosure: I was one of FVR’s speechwriters, so it’s possible that I drank the Kool-Aid and fell for my own prose.) 

Beng and I got ourselves a decidedly downscale apartment close to West Avenue where huge rats scurried overhead at night, and we bought our food from the talipapa down the street. Having brought up that memory, I realize that we like thinking and talking about the past mainly for the fact that it’s over, it already happened, which means that whatever it was, we survived, presumably for the better. I’m sure it wasn’t as rosy as I now make it out to be, and that I’m blocking out the less pleasant parts. But that’s the way the memory works, the way it protects us from pain and provides us with some sense of certainty, some clear point of reference, in these nebulous times.

Just recalling how it was ten, eleven years ago fills me with a combination of wistfulness and regret. It was a time when despots around the world—Egypt’s Mubarak, Libya’s Khaddafi, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il—were being toppled or dying; Donald Trump’s presidential ambitions were still something of a joke; China was being rocked by pro-democracy protests; and a new platform called Friendster made waves on the Internet, where there were still pockets of innocence and honesty to be found.

It was a time when people and politics still retained a modicum of civility and intelligence, when the truth was nothing but the truth, when human rights were not to be cursed or spat upon, when bad leaders got their due, and when God seemed to be awake most of the time, sending a bolt of lightning here and a swath of sunshine there. It was the world before Covid, when all our friends and loved ones were still alive and laughing over their beer and sisig, when face masks were for the sick, when people danced and even kissed and made love without fear. The future sounded like it would be a wonderful place; technology and human genius would make sure of it.

When I woke up last week to the news that 19 schoolchildren and two teachers had been massacred in Texas, I tried to imagine what a mother there must have felt, how she would have given her own life to turn back the clock just one day. I was only beginning to be inured to the savagery in Ukraine, and now I saw that it was always possible for evil to become even crueller. For a minute, the aches left by May 9 felt dull and trivial.

There are things that Zoloft will not banish, but I know that mindfulness and the memory of a saner past can give me the cool head and steady heart that I will need for the long fight. Bring it on; we will survive, if not prevail.