Awash in texts, emails and other everyday distractions, many Americans struggle with the sense that they’re forever falling further behind on their running to-do lists. The increasingly popular practice of mindfulness seeks to put the focus back on the body, emphasizing that the only way to the future is to pay attention to the present.
It’s 11:30 a.m. and your work inbox is already bursting with 156 unread emails. Your personal account has upwards of 5,000 messages, thanks to a constant influx of special offers for discounted sculpture lessons and and 30% off leggings. Meanwhile, one friend is texting you about weekend plans while another pings you on Gchat about tonight’s yoga class. You set your phone aside to focus on work, but unlock it again when your boyfriend Snapchats you. A notification appears that wellaware_ liked your photo on Instagram. This prompts you to check how the photo is doing—not bad, 76 likes! You scroll through images of your friends’ dogs and Sunday brunches, only to be interrupted by a Facebook message from your friend Blaine, who wants to know if you can grab lunch. You tell him you’ll be stuck in meetings till 5 p.m., which triggers you to start scribbling down other personal and professional tasks that have to get done by the end of the day. But all you want to do is take a nap—or have a cocktail.
Some version of this reality is true for many of us digital natives. As a side effect of constant distraction, many of us are constantly adding to our mental to-do lists. This perpetual focus on the future leeches energy from the present moment. But how can we be mindful of the present when we’re always thinking ahead?
Why do we obsess about the future in the first place? It’s human nature to want to quell anxiety and uncertainty about what comes next. We try to limit the unknowns in order to bring structure to the future and give ourselves greater peace of mind. We aspire and dream. We also dread. We build emotional architecture around the unknown because manufacturing a plan puts us at ease.
Destructive Thought Patterns
Planning for the future can be a good thing. But sometimes it’s a tactic to avoid thinking about the present or the past. Many of us are subconsciously unwilling to sort through the unruly emotions and thoughts that would bubble up to the surface were they not actively suppressed. Instead of dealing with pain, confusion, anxiety or any past hardship, we fantasize about the future and stay stuck on autopilot. This often leads us to perpetuate the same habits that caused negative feelings in the first place.
Predictability in Broad Strokes
Our lives are constructed to be predictable. Most children can expect to go to school from kindergarten through 12th grade. Some will move on to the fairly unstructured (and therefore, often anxiety-inducing) university environment, while others will start work right away, putting in hours for a shift or grinding away at a nine to five. For the most part, we stay in this pattern until we retire. So it’s no wonder we like to plan: we want to have some say in how our lives take shape.
We start to feel stuck when our current habits fail to serve our larger goals or when we feel pigeonholed by our present circumstances. The habit of wanting something sweet every afternoon sabotages efforts to eat less sugar. Or you have a tendency to glaze over when your partner talks about her day, which reduces intimacy when the intention is to increase it. Maybe you’re tired of getting up and doing the same thing day after day, but it’s just easier to stay in the pattern than it is to break free and try something new. The brain actually likes to be hardwired on autopilot because it takes less energy than making a conscious effort to change the course. With that strong, automatic force hampering our ability to achieve our goals, it’s helpful to take a mindful look at how we think about the future.
Focusing on the future without rooting ourselves in the present moment can lead to destructive behavior, most often procrastination. It’s easy to idealize a moment in the future that seems so far away that we don’t need to take action immediately. We vow to start fresh tomorrow. But that attitude doesn’t serve the future you. The more times we say we’ll start tomorrow, the more we believe that tomorrow is always a viable option. This is a dangerous place to be: you put glass walls up around the life you want to live and stay on the outside, looking in.
Without engaging the conscious mind in the now, we coast on residual habits, patterns and cycles from the past. All past experiences leave us with an emotion. If you use that emotional information to shape similar future experiences, you’re effectively living in the future based on a construct of the past. If we continue to live in the predictable future, we do not allow ourselves to evolve. There’s no space to grow or change. Thankfully, new research shows that the brain is far more malleable than previously imagined. It’s possible to overwrite old patterns as long as we become aware of them through mindfulness and practices that encourage it, like meditation. With disciplined practice, our conscious mind can shape our futures rather than our unconscious, habitual brain.
Accessing the Future through the Present
“When you begin to feel like some potential future reality is happening to you in the moment that you are focusing on it, you are rewriting your automatic habits, attitudes, and other unwanted subconscious programs,” Joe Dispenza writes in his book Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself. In fact, when you visualize yourself in a specific situation, your body will chemically respond as if it’s really happening. So if you have a big presentation coming up and want to give your best performance, visualize yourself in front of the crowd and observe what unfolds. If you’re reminded of a time you failed at public speaking because you forgot what you were going to say or stammered too much, that will shape your future experience. Your nervous system will kick in so that you experience the same sensations as you did when you failed, shaping the future before it even happens. Take an opportunity like this to empower yourself by envisioning the talk the way you’d like it to go. Your body will start setting itself up for success chemically.
The Future is Now
Instead of looking to the past or future to inform the present moment, what if we acted as if the present moment was all we had? The past is gone, the future has yet to arrive and the present moment contains all possibilities. Mediation teacher and yogi Ally Bogard observes that meditation is simply full absorption of the present moment. We shed feelings about the past and anxieties about the future that do not serve us when we remain present. In the moment, quite literally, we are able to create the lives we want to live. Making this mental shift—stripping away the unnecessary and performing a KonMari method for the mind—is the only way to make real progress on any “future” goal or aspiration.
“If we focus on an intended future event and then plan how we will prepare or behave,” Dispenza writes in Breaking the Habit, “there will be a moment when we are so clear and focused on that possible future that the thoughts we are thinking will begin to become the experience itself.” The point is not to just plan, make goals and set about achieving them. It’s to mindfully ask yourself how every action and decision you make can help you climb the ladder toward your future self.
This interview originally appeared in the Anxiety issue. For more inspiring stories, check out Look Ma, No Hands! Risky Playground Design and Upping the Ante: Jessica Walsh on Creative Play.
Photo courtesy: Lindsay Mueller