In Kurt Vonnegut's novel, Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim finds himself experiencing time out of sequence. One moment he is being taken by German soldiers as a prisoner of war; the next he is in a cage on the planet Tralfamador. To describe Billy’s unusual flow of experience, Vonnegut coined the now well-known phrase, unstuck in time.
In Billy’s case, we might surmise that his non-linear experience of time is a result of PTSD from his World War II experiences, having witnessed the carnage of war and lived through the fire-bombing of Dresden.
PTSD is a sort of like this. Those with PTSD can relive past events as if they were happening right now. To be unstuck in time in this way is unsettling at the least, and often very anxiety provoking, carrying the residue of all the emotions that were triggered by the trauma. Flashbacks and numbing also can keep us from being present in our current life. Someone with PTSD might feel like they are moving through life as if in a dream, functioning day-to-day on auto-pilot.
Clearly PTSD is a painful state and not a desirable path to becoming unstuck in time.
However, many of us who don’t have PTSD may find ourselves regularly becoming stuck in time. I don’t mean stuck in Vonnegut’s sense, that is, experiencing time in a normal linear progression. Rather, we become stuck in the past or in an imagined future. (I will focus here more on the past.) Something upsetting happens to us, and we play it over again in our heads, sometimes to the point where the emotional injury feels out of proportion to the event that evoked it. This often happens because the offense reminds us of painful experiences in the past that we have never fully resolved.
Add to this the mistaken belief that can fix past hurtful words or actions by thinking about them over and over again.
But I would like to pose a provocative question: Why not simply let go of what is bothering you and come into the present moment? (The fact that your mind can come up with strong objections to this points to the power of the belief that we can fix a past injury by replaying it in our head.)
In podcast I’ve been listening to lately, Making Sense with Sam Harris, his guest —physician and longevity researcher, Peter Attia — described the following incident. Attia was walking in New York City and a passerby deliberately ran into him. Understandably, he became angry and felt a desire to turn around and confront the man. But then he decided to simply observe the emotion of anger that was rising within him to see how long it would last. He was surprised to discover that it lasted, not minutes, but seconds. Seconds.
This reminded me of a recent experience. I was on my usual evening walk and found myself ruminating about the latest offense of someone in public life. I took the offense personally since it was directed toward a community that I hold dear. My anger was like a rolling boil in a pot of thick oil, dark and viscous. And out of this unsavory brew came the thought —isn’t the point of my walk to free myself from the stress of the day and reconnect with a sense of well-being? Why not just let my anger go?
I had to repeat the words let go a few times, but then the anger dropped away. I had become unstuck in the past and was now fully present — at least until the next mind parasite came along.
This practice of steering your mind to the present moment is not magic, although it can feel like it at times. To develop this ability can require practice and repetition, because, as neuroscience suggests, our minds have evolved to be like Velcro for the bad and Teflon for the good.
Moreover, some experiences from the past may be so painful that to heal they require the sort of focused attention that can be found in settings like therapy. But this kind of attention is special and takes place in the context of a healing relationship. It is not merely reliving the past like Billy Pilgrim.
Here are some suggestions for getting Unstuck in Time (i.e., in the past):
- Say to yourself let go when you find yourself recycling the same distressed thought or petty grievance and switch the focus of your attention to something nearby.
- When you get lost in your head, look around you and notice things in your physical environment. You might focus on what attracts you or arouses your curiosity. Or you could focus on colors, noticing everything green, brown, blue, etc.
- If you get stuck in the past, just say to yourself, That’s over now. I’m living right here in the present, becoming a better person, more joyous, more forgiving. (Tailor this to what you are working on in your life.)
- When you feel hurt or angry, notice where you feel it in your body and focus on that instead of the event that’s triggering you. (If it’s convenient, you can place your hand on that part and imagine directing healing attention it.)
- Establish a daily meditation practice where you can practice being present, letting your thoughts come and go without chasing them. Just start with 5 or 10 minutes and build up from there, if you’d like.
- If you are going to spend time in the past, then consider spending some of it savoring experiences that you’ve had that were uplifting and fulfilling. Just take a few deep breaths and let your mind recall a special experience or time in your life in vivid detail. You can make this a regular practice, if you’d like.
There is nothing inherently wrong with thinking about the past and the future. What matters is how we approach it. Are we making plans for the future or merely worrying about it? Are we turning the past over and over like a hamster in a wheel? Or are we reflecting on it in a way that helps us move on from something painful or nurtures and deepens our soul?
This is journey we are all on individually and together. And every day offers us rich opportunities to practice, coming to terms with the past, while living more and more in the present. Through patience and awareness, we can become unstuck in time.
Mark Evans, Ph.D.
Senior Staff Psychologist