Write here; write now.
My second truth: The past is a fiction; the future does not exist. All that I have right here and right now is all that there is. Nothing else matters.
It occurs to me as I sit down to write this that I should at least make some concessions to the target audience…English teachers and the manager of English teachers…I will try harder to exemplify this truth by relating it to our common practice. I get a bit carried away at times…
As with most of these truths, on first sight, it might seem a bit twee. “Turtles on a Bike,” you might be exclaiming, taking care not to offend anyone’s religious sensibilities, “Can this guy not write anything that doesn’t have an aura of new age claptrap?” Unfortunately, I’m not sure if I know how to answer your question so I am going to assume that it is rhetorical.
That said, I am reminded of the words of Steve Peters who says something like the following [adopts Middlesbrough accent]: “This is only one mind model of many. Many of the others work for many people. I’m not saying that this one is the best or that the others are wrong. This is just one I’ve put together and it works for some people. If it works for you, goody! If it doesn’t, no problem. Good luck with whatever does work for you.” Seriously, the man is like a twenty-first century buddha.
Right. Enough lionising. Now let’s turn our attention to the truth…and let’s begin by establishing the truth behind the truth. I think most people wouldn’t have any difficulty in agreeing that the future does not exist. But when you push a little bit further, you find that although they can conceptualise the fact that the future is not real, they do have very clear expectations about what is likely to happen. It’s almost as if they can say that the future does not exist, but they believe that it will one day exist. In English, we say “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Despite the fact that we have Shakespeare on our team, this is a remarkably dull and prosaic truism. We turn to the Spanish who have coined a much better phrase with is virtually swathed in cynicism and irony and who would listen to somebody talk about their future hopes and reply, “Well, if that’s what you’re waiting for, you might as well take a seat.”
Dear reader, I am writing to tell you that your future may very well end before this blog post has finished being read. Or written, in fact. Are you still here? Good. You may not be for very much longer. This is not alarmism, exaggeration or bombast. Just a very simple statement of the fact that Death may swing for you any second now…THAT’S how real your future is. In Steve Peters’ words: There are no guarantees.
A trickier concept to come to terms with is the fact that the past is just a fiction. “Oh no it isn’t,” I hear you chant, “It’s real. I know. I was there.” Listen. You need to read with a more open mind. You need to be thinking, “Hmm. I think he’s wrong, but let me imagine that he is right and I am wrong. Let’s see if that makes any sense at all.” Let’s.
The evidence for the past being a fiction has grown quite considerably since computing power allowed neuroscientists to get a better glimpse inside the heads of people. Previously, people thought that memory banks (that is, human memory banks) were huge depositories of information. Metaphors sprang up that likened the mind to a library wherein one could pull out tomes about That Time A Seagull Ate My Ice-cream in Clacton or The Day That I Found Out That Doris Loved Another Type of Animal More Than She Loved Me. As science developed, rumours spread that the memory was like some sort of huge video-renting library with titles such as The Man Who Farted Loudly on a Bus or The Woman Who Walked Into Class With Her Skirt Tucked Into Her Knickers. These days, many people think of the memory like some sort of immense hard disk that spins around furiously while burning episodes into itself with the sort of passion that one finds in films like Girl, Interrupted. All quite wrong, of course.
In fact, say the People in White Coats, our memory is a chunk of inefficiency. The brain processes every experience it has and quickly registers light details, smell details, sound details, emotional details, dialogue details, character details etc etc etbloodycetera. Then it moves on to the next instant, then the next, then the next and I think you get the picture.
One day, the brain is called upon to speak up in court. It panics. The brain lingers under the illusion that it is running the show. It believes that it tells the body what to do and that it alone is special in all of the cosmos. It tells itself, “Phew-ee, Jimbob. The brain sure is an amazing organ. It is sooooo complex. Much more so than the pancreas!” The brain talks about itself in the third person almost incessantly. It is, and I have to swear here I am afraid, an utter arsehole. And now I need to apologise to all the arseholes out there. If arserholes could talk (and who’s to say that they can’t), I imagine that their favourite joke would be, “Opinions are like brains. Everyone’s got one and they’re usually full of shit.”
With the brain on the witness stand, let’s see what it does. It says, “Right. I want to make a film about that day on the beach with the bottle of Jagermeister. Let’s see…I need to find any memory that has sun because who goes to the beach to drink oneself into oblivion if it’s snowing. I need some sexy chicks in bikinis and some gorgeous hunk in speedos. I need to make sure that all of the action is happening around me, because I am the centre of the universe. I need to remember that the lead character had the same haircut as my dad when he was younger so I will get my dad to play the part. The day began badly for me because I realised that I was in a dead-end job and was stuck there for the forseeable. So that needs to flavour the mood.” Then it weaves all of this data together to find images and characters…any images or characters… that it can to play out the Day On The Beach With The Bottle of Jagermeister. It is not a faithfully recorded version of reality. Memory is much more similar to a mad casting director with delusions of grandeur. And it gets it wrong continually, as this book will help you understand.
The buddhists have been saying this for donkey’s years. They understood -and understand- that the mind creates a past and tells you that it is real; they understand that the mind hankers after a future (usually one that is brighter than the present) and then forces you to hanker after it too. But the only reality is right here, right now. The past can only ever be in your head. The future can only ever be in your head. But your head can only ever be in the present. Ooh..aren’t I clever! That’s the brain talking there…
“But when did you write this, Mr Smartypants? In the paaaaa-st”
“I’m writing it now, m****r-f***r.”
“Yeah. But I’m reading this in the future.”
“Really? Who won the football this afternoon then?”
So…hopefully, I have established that there’s no point in yearning for the past or anticipating/dreading the future because this takes you away from the present. I hope you will be able to see that it is not wise to go wandering too far away from the present because the present may suddenly run out unexpectedly and rather than pushing you to the nearest garage for a refill, your friends and family are likely to push you through the curtains at the crematorium. Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think…
Now what does this mean for the English language teaching professional? It means the following:
Stop dreading that class this afternoon. Every time the fear gets hold of your reproductive organs, ask yourself: But where are they now? If the answer is not “Right in front of your eyes”, understand that what is terrifying you is a mental filmshow and utterly unreliable. Transfer this knowledge to every part of your life. Any time fear crushes your va-va-voom, ask yourself But where is it now? Be terrified only of what is happening right here and right now. If you have time to be terrified, it is not really terrifying. Really terrifying things need immediate reaction.
Don’t chew over what the feedback said. It doesn’t matter whether the feedback came from the students, the DOS, the psychiatrist or your mother. Listen to it. Process it for meaning. Then leave it. Walk away from it. It is now part of the experience. And the experience is past. Now is the present. The present may well be shaped by the past. But not in ways that are within your control, darling. You are not the film writer. You are just an extra. This applies to whether the feedback was good or bad.
Don’t have any illusions about what lesson planning is. It is not a clear cut guide to the way that the lesson will proceed. It is a bureaucratic requirement that ironically forces you to use a product created in the past to predict how things will go in the future. The reason why everybody says things like Yeah, man..it’s just a plan. You can change it. is because everyone knows at some level that the only thing available to you is to react to the present as it unfolds itself. Those who try to stick to the past plan while the present throws up buccaneers and seamonsters are those who end up crying themselves to sleep.
All your proud bleating about how you are a little bit OCD is annoying, is false, is delusional. Being a little bit OCD is like saying, “I am convinced that I am better than you because I plan meticulously for every possibility and I can deal with whatever life throws at me.” In my experience, these people can only deal with whatever life throws at them if what life throws at them is a bunch of roses. When life scoops up a handful of poop, they go to pieces and start crying and blaming everyone else. Being a good teacher/manager/human is not about having planned for every possible outcome; it is about being able to respond constructively to whatever outcome presents itself. You don’t need to plan to do this. You just need to have your eyes open.
The lesson did not go well; the lesson was not a disaster. These are stories about the past created by an egotistical brain that either wants to torment you or raise you up on eagle’s wings. Perhaps the only thing worth saying is The lesson went.With insights like this, you are best keeping your mouth shut.
Pretty much everything you remember is unreliable and objectively wrong. Maybe only in trivial details, but wrong nevertheless. The conversation you had with your colleague that will later drive you mad because they did the exact opposite of what was discussed? You didn’t have it. Your recollection is as wrong as your colleague’s. You are a pair of idiots for ever believing otherwise. Don’t start blaming each other or accusing each other of being liars. You are both victims of Memory. Memory is a dirtbag. Look at the unfolding disaster and work together blamelessly trying to put things right.
An example of this may be found in my past. There was a situation wherein I was an angelic paragon of virtue and understanding. The other person was a deluded viper, striking at me from a distance and then coiling up again to attack afresh. I ended up having a complaint made about me. Go figure. Of course, the other person’s reality was that they were the angelic paragon and I was a king cobra, spitting venom. Who’s right? Both of us. Which is to say neither of us. What’s really happening? The relationship is struggling. We needed to work together to build it up again. As both of us were stuck in our Memories, this could not happen. Result: double shots of misery and pain for everyone! Hurrah!
The corresponding values for this truth are acceptance (what is is all that can be) and appreciation (after this there might be no more, so make the most of it). And I really do mean after this. Death might be just a millisecond away. Is reading this adolescent nihilism really making the best use of your time? Go forth into the world and marvel at the trees, baby. That’s where you’ll find me. Hasta la vista…