It’s a really grand idea, in theory, to live in the present; to stay out of one’s head.
In practicality, though, it’s awfully hard. And maybe not the best mantra. Everything in moderation.
Like most of the rules that I’ve tried thus far, I’ve realized essentially that “the rules” are not meant to be hard-fast rules. “The rules” are training wheels – you tell them to beginning improvisers (like myself) to get them on the right track. But eventually, in order to become more talented, more comfortable and automatic in your play, one has to learn when it’s okay to bend/break the rules. The rules, while initially helpful, can be sort of limiting.
Take, for instance, my current profession: graduate student. If we were all living by my rule for the month of April (“Be present”), no one would go to graduate school. Or medical school. Or commit to long-term romantic relationships. Or start their own companies. Or run for office. Or become parents. Or do ANYTHING at all that is even REMOTELY difficult. Our ids would take over completely (please forgive the expression, fellow psychologists). The world would be in a state of disarray. The thing is, there’s more to life than the present, and if we don’t plan for the future, then we will be lost when we get to it. My “staying out of my head” rule actually started to backfire on me during April.
At first, it was amazing. I made all of these discoveries that I didn’t know that I was going to make. On stage: I made a discovery that my character was a divorcee who had a fascination with ensuring that she died in an intriguing way. It was such an exciting discovery to make, and one that I am not sure taht I would have made had I not been very attuned to what I was saying and the gifts my scene partner was giving me. I went into the scene (a Home Depot) knowing only that I really desperately wanted to paint my kitchen red. Everything else evolved from within the scene! There are actually countless other less salient examples of this that I’ll refrain from detailing in depth here. The point is, it (“being present/staying out of my head”) worked. Off stage: I let go of the guardrail I had on my emotions, and as a result, I had some really amazing experiences when I just flung myself wholeheartedly into my relationship. With Y moving in a few months, there’s no certain promise of a future – that really forces me to appreciate the now. I stopped stressing about whether I was balancing my life the “right” way (it’s so difficult to strike a balance between family, friends, a relationship, work/school, personal, etc. Those of you who know my 5 S theory have heard me gripe about this). I just decided that there is no objective “right”. What is “right” is what feels “right” in this moment. You can’t beat yourself up over your decisions or behaviors; they shape who you are as a person. I even worried a little bit less about what others thought of me and my decisions, because when you’re trying to really live in the moment, there’s no thought of the future social implications of your behaviors. It’s freeing, really.
But then, the backfire. On stage: I found myself going up to perform without anything at all in my head. That is a terrifying feeling. I tricked myself, thinking, “Aha! Look at me! I’m so awesome- I’ve stayed out of my head!” But without even a something there to grab hold of if I needed it, I was insecure. And frankly, did not have a lot of gifts to offer to my partners. I understand that the whole “stay out of your head” thing is meant to keep people from analyzing their choices while they’re still in the scene. It’s supposed to get them to listen to what’s happening, to respond from their gut, to respond naturally. But sometimes, you need to get in your head in a scene. You need to identify a pattern that is occurring, in order to figure out what that says about you and your character. You need to know your characters, and their relationship, and that’s hard to do without analyzing trends in the way that they’re interacting. As I’ve heard in improv classes many a times, “play to the top of your intelligence.” Off stage: I found myself dragging my feet to do work that wasn’t absolutely necessary. “Sure, it would be a good career move to stay in and write this manuscript tonight, but it will be there tomorrow.” I found myself looking heartache in the face as I realized that I don’t know what is going to happen, and I have been a little bit reckless. I found myself thinking, “Wow, you live so close to your family; what if something happened to them tomorrow and you hadn’t visited in a while. How would you feel then?”
Yet, here’s the problem with planning for the future: it’s so uncertain. You know that saying. that the only thing that won’t change is change itself? TRUE. A recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy (love that show) spoke well to this point:
“We spend our whole lives worrying about the future. Planning for the future. Trying to predict the future. As if figuring it out will somehow cushion the blow. But the future is always changing. The future is the home of our deepest fears… and our wildest hopes. But one thing is certain, when it finally reveals itself, the future is never the way we imagined it.”
In fact, one of the reasons why the future isn’t the way that we imagine it is because we, as humans, have a variety of cognitive biases. In psychology, thinking about the future is called affective forecasting, and we are notoriously bad at it. When we consider events in the future, we ascribe them greater intentionality and greater value than events in the past. We forget that humans adapt (to both positive and negative events) and we exaggerate how much influence unique events will have on our future happiness and well-being. It’s hard to plan for the future with any sense of accuracy because we are biased when we consider it, which means it makes even more sense to live in the present and stay out of our heads. Chances are, when we get to the future that we’ve been thinking about (or the scene on stage that we’ve been planning in our heads), it will be different anyhow. What’s the point? Why not carpe diem?
My middle-of-the-road statement is that it’s wise to be conscious of the future (all behavior is driven by our goals and motivations, and what are those if not future-oriented?). But we should also be aware that our opinions of the future are biased, and as such, that we can only control it to a certain extent. It’s just as important to embrace today, too.
So, yes, understandably I’m a bit disillusioned with the concept of carpe-diem, of getting out of my head. But I can appreciate its merits, of which there are many. Do I regret my living in the moment? Nope, not for a second. I’m a person who fully disbelieves in regrets. Especially given the seeming futility in trying to map out what happens next (in life or on stage), it seems that, like all things in life, the advice to “be present” and “stay out of one’s head” is best when balanced.