Not Happening Now!
A few decades ago the phrase “Be here now” was one of the most popular phrases in practice. It was not only popular, it also held a very pointed and succinct message that goes to the essence of what practice is about—which is to be present. An equally powerful, although slightly more subtle, message is: “Not Happening Now!” Instead of focusing on being present, the emphasis is on uncovering how much mental spinning we’re adding, and how it obscures the reality of the present moment.
This obscuring mental spinning is particularly obvious when we’re emotionally distressed. In fact, doesn’t much of our distress come from the negative thoughts that we add to whatever is actually happening? For example, when we get sick, it’s very common to begin weaving negative imaginings about the future. An extreme example is when we have a bad headache and begin imagining we might have a brain tumor. It’s also easy to get caught in future think when we have a financial setback or relationship difficulty—where we begin creating scenarios of doom.
The antidote is to say, “Not Happening Now!” This phrase is a reminder that most of what is causing us anxiety in the present moment is only happening in our mind. When we say the phrase, we can follow it by asking, “What am I adding?” This question points us directly to thoughts such as, “I can’t do this,” which is based on a negative self-image; or “I shouldn’t have to go through this,” which is rooted in a sense of entitlement; or “It’s his fault,” which is based in blaming, and in stories about the past. In each of these examples we’re adding a mental spin to what is happening.
In fact, in almost every example of our emotional distress, what we’re adding to the present moment is either from the past or from an imagined future, and in each case it makes the situation worse. “Not Happening Now!” cuts right through a lot of our mental confusion, and because it is so direct, it has become one of my favorite practice phrases.
Sometimes, when I’m sitting in meditation, if I become aware that I’m imagining a difficult conversation with someone, all I have to do is say “Not Happening Now!” and it’s like poking a pin in a balloon—the balloon just disappears. There still may be a residue of anxiety or anger or sadness to deal with; but without the added mental spin, any emotion that is there can be experienced more directly. In other words, this phrase allows us to drop the stories and actually be here now—to come back to what is actually happening now, such as breathing, the bodily experience, or awareness of the environment.
This phrase has been particularly helpful to me of late. When my mind started weaving scenarios of worry or doom about an upcoming surgery, I had to learn where the line was between “Not Happening Now!” and thinking about what I needed to do on an objective level. For example, when I was trying to choose what kind of surgery I wanted to have, I had to consider the different risks involved in the four choices. It’s easy with risks to jump into negative imaginings about what would happen if the risks became realities—like losing my whole kidney, or worse. So it was important to not get caught in the imaginings, while at the same time objectively evaluating what to do.
In making decisions, it’s always partly a crap shoot, but we can at least be more clear in our choices when we don’t get lost in excessive thinking. Again, the phrase “Not Happening Now!” allows us to drop the stories and actually be here now—to come back to what is actually happening now, such as breathing, the bodily experience, or awareness of
Don’t Go There!
Another very helpful phrase is “Don’t Go There!” This phrase may not need to be used very often; but when we’re caught in obsessive thinking, it is perhaps the best phrase to cut through our addictive thought patterns. When we’re feeling emotional distress, our minds can become fixated in thought loops, especially if we’ve been criticized or feel threatened. Thoughts of blame and self-justification, which are defenses against a perceived attack, can become relentless.
When caught in this addictive cycle, it can be very difficult to get out. Even if we sit down to meditate, the mind is most likely to continue in the compulsion to blame and self-justify. Just following the breath (or other tried and true meditation techniques) doesn’t seem strong enough to break the addictive cycle of thinking.
The one tool that I’ve found to be effective in these particular situations is to say the phrase, “Don’t Go There!” The instruction is to say the phrase every single time the obsessive thinking begins. Over and over again: “Don’t Go There!” and then return to present moment awareness. It’s as if we’re wielding a sword, cutting off the thoughts each and every time they arise. If we do this consistently, after a while the addictive cycle will be broken.
It’s similar to tending to a fire: each time we put a log on the fire it burns hotter; but as we stop feeding the fire, it will eventually go out. Saying “Don’t Go There!” is a way of putting out the mental fire; we’re depriving the mind of the fuel that comes with each thought.
This practice has been very helpful to me lately. Sometimes my mind would get caught in the “what if” thought loops, such as, “What if I waited too long and the cancer has spread?” or “What if things go wrong and I lose my kidney—then what?” Saying “Don’t Go There” has allowed me to break out of these thought loops in a way that simple thought labeling could not do.
It’s good to remember that normally, our practice is not to oppose our thoughts or try to stop them, because trying to stop our thoughts or feelings can easily lead to suppression. Rather, our basic practice is to be open to whatever arises, and to observe it with curiosity. But when we’re caught in obsessive thinking, sometimes we have to shift gears. However, as soon as the mind cools down, we drop the practice of saying “Don’t Go There!” and return to simply observing the mind.
Using this phrase is a good example of how practice can never be reduced to a formula. Practice is much more an art form; and how we apply that art is based on an increasing understanding of the subtleties of what is going on in the present moment.
Edited from The Authentic Life: Zen Wisdom for Living Free From Complacency and Fear,
by Ezra Bayda, Shambhala Publications, 2014