There’s a 1968 cop/action film starring Steve McQueen called “Bullitt.” It’s a classic for its car chase scenes through the rolling urban hills of San Francisco.
One of the most memorable scenes for me is toward the end, when Bullitt is in the car with his girlfriend, played by the beautiful Jacqueline Bisset, after she accompanies him to a crime scene where she sees a dead body. It dawns on her that she is horrified with his world. She makes him stop the car. They get out by the side of the road, and she says she can’t understand how he can live with such violence and not be affected by it.
“What will happen to us in time?” she asks him.
Bullitt pauses thoughtfully, looks at her, and replies calmly: “Time starts now.”
I love that moment in the movie. That line transcends that scene, that film, because time does start now.
What the character is trying to convey is that we can’t live in the future, We can only live in the present. The present is what matters.
The message of that scene has been on my mind lately. It’s Mental Health Awareness month, and “time starts now” have become guiding words for me.
I venture to say that most people struggle with anxiety. Our brains exist to think. But an excess of thinking is unhealthy. The biological purpose of our brain is often highjacked by what I’ve heard Buddhists call “the monkey mind.”
The monkey mind is a mind that can easily spin out of control: thinking of the future in a long succession of “what if”s and dwelling excessively on the past.
Michael Pollan’s excellent book “How to Change Your Mind” explains how these thought loops can become unhealthy when unchecked. Constantly surmising “what if” scenarios can lead to fear and anxiety, while ruminating too much about the past can spiral into depression.
I think it’s good to reflect on the past in order to make sense of your life and to learn from your mistakes and weaknesses, as well as your strengths. It’s useful to understand your patterns if you want to create positive changes. But if you get caught up in anger about the past and don’t investigate the emotion to try to understand the reason behind it, you could poison your own mind.
Similarly, if you’re always anxious about the future, your mind can get trapped in fear. Thinking about how you want your future to look can be useful because that allows you to set goals and plan how to meet those goals. However, there will remain factors outside your control, and if your mind starts focusing on lack of control, you will feel helpless and afraid.
Fear, anxiety, anger, depression: these are common emotions. If you can catch yourself when you are feeling these emotions, then you can start bringing awareness to your thoughts and feelings, which is to say, your state of mind. And when you become aware, try saying to yourself: “Time starts now.” Maybe that could be a mantra to pull your head out of the future or the past.
For instance, I now realize that some thoughts and emotions I have are no longer relevant. They are the detritus of yesteryear. When I’m able to recognize that, I can slough them off. I visualize my hand wiping them away, like removing dirt from a surface. It’s a useful image for me.
There’s a theory that our minds like to conjure up past and potential dramas so that our ego engages and makes us feel excited as we live in these thoughts. The next time you start dwelling on something that pissed you off, say, a number of years ago, notice how your body reacts. Your heart probably beats a little faster. Your blood pressure probably rises. You might feel a rush of adrenaline. In short, you probably feel excited.
Don’t get me wrong: Excitement is great. To feel excited is to feel alive. That’s why we like the feeling. But there are healthy ways to prompt this feeling, instead of focusing on dramas that don’t really exist except in our heads. For me, a good, hard workout or working on a project that’s meaningful to me are ways to better channel my desire for excitement.
In the last few days, I’ve started a new practice: The moment I wake up, I say to myself that today is going to be a good day. I’ve started telling myself this because I have come to understand that today is all we really have. Right now, at this moment, we are alive, and that is good. In truth, that is amazing. It is a great gift to wake up and be alive. If you can focus on that, the past and the future are irrelevant. The only thing that matters is: Time starts now.