I am on the riverbank. In front of me, a river of my thoughts, feelings, emotions. Not a peaceful river. It’s loud and turbulent, twisting in its bed, mesmerizing. A moment later — and I am caught by the current. Attracted by a random thought, I become part of the river. I become my emotions and feelings. I am struggling with the rest of the river, fighting. Fighting something. Fruitlessly. Hopelessly. Was there ever a riverbank? Was that just an illusion?
This metaphor of the river and the riverbank is helpful in describing my cognitive processes. I habitually live in the past or in the future, beating myself up about something I’d done or fretting about something that may happen. It takes effort to be in the present.
It took me a while to see that “being in the present” does not mean forcefully ignoring the past or the future. It’s about being apart from them, just on the side, on the riverbank. When I am on the riverbank, I can hold my emotions lightly, without getting entangled in them. I can sense my feelings as reactions to emotions. I can see my thoughts arise and let go of them. An observer, not an actor. There’s so much clarity and crisp understanding in these moments, in such contrast to the murky, unruly river.
I am realizing that I spend most of my life in the river. After a stressful day, I often marvel at the sheer power of the river’s pull and how closely it held me, had me nearly forget about the existence of the riverbank. I can go days and weeks trying, and failing to find it.
But I’ve felt the beauty and peace of the riverbank. I want to practice, and develop new habits to find my way to it more often. In the harshest tempest of my emotions, I want to learn how to stand on the riverbank and make my choices, rather than having the choices make me.
Every experience I have is a new lesson in life, a new addition to things that I’ve already learned. This process of learning happens whether I am aware of it or not. With every lesson, I also learn how to learn. That is, I continuously increase my capacity to learn.
Depending on the depth of my capacity to learn, the nature of the lesson shifts. When I was a child, my learning capacity was still nascent, and the lessons I learned were simple. Things were high-contrast: bad or good, sad or happy, dangerous or safe.
As I grew up, my capacity to learn deepened. I started seeing a more subtle and complex world and that this growing complexity is not the change in the world itself, but rather a change in how I make meaning of it. As my capacity to learn deepened, new dimensions of complexity opened up, with new opportunities to learn.
Thus far, the learning happened in the context of my previous learning. What I learned in the past shaped how I would learn in the future. The stark nature of the early childhood lessons created sharp edges in the foundation of my continuous construction of meaning.
I am now recognizing that these sharp edges limit the extent of my capacity to learn. They are these unseen forces that collapse my choices, blind me to alternatives, especially in challenging situations. David Burns called them “cognitive distortions”. James Hollis gave them a more dramatic name of “woundings”. Brené Brown talks of armor. All these are different takes on the same thing: the natural outcome of learning when my learning capacity is a work-in-progress itself.
Thus, the deepening of my capacity to learn now includes re-examining the lessons from the past. Through careful archaeology of Self, I am challenged to understand the nature of my assumptions and beliefs, the context of meaning-making in which I learned those lessons, and learning different lessons with my current understanding of the world.