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Past-Thinking, Future-Thinking, and Meditation Practice

A French philosopher named Jacques Derrida argued that human beings are consistently too late to catch the beginning of anything and too early to catch the end. So, that leaves us in the middle – always in the middle.  In other words, the past is in the past and the future hasn’t happened yet, and so we’re always living in the present.

The funny thing about our minds and the way we think is that we can physically exist in the present while living mentally entirely in the past (e.g., lost in recollections of good and/or bad memories) or future (e.g., looking forward to when a problem will resolve or fearing when something might go wrong).  Most people tend to gravitate more towards past-thinking or future-thinking.

Do either of these sound like you?

  • Past-Thinker – A past-thinker tends to either reminisce about good times that once happened or finds themselves lost in the memory of bad experiences (with bad feelings). Sometimes a past-thinker will focus on past events and wonder about “what-ifs” (e.g., what if I said this or did that?). Regardless, when we’re living in the past, we’re rejecting the present and missing out on opportunities for fulfillment and healing around us now.
  • FutureThinker – A future-thinker tends to dread something that will happen, worry about something that might happen, or fantasize about something that could happen Again, the problem here is that none of these things have happened, and so they are impossible scenarios to prepare for. When we lose ourselves to thinking about the future, we again reject the present moment and miss out on the opportunities for fulfillment around us.

Whether we’re a past-thinker or a future-thinker (or a combination of the two), our brains and bodies can’t always tell the difference between something imagined and something real.  For past-thinkers, if we imagine something really scary or upsetting from before, we’ll find ourselves in the present moment re-experiencing those hurtful feelings now (scared, sad, angry). For future-thinkers, if we imagine something scary coming up soon (e.g., a job interview, a presentation, a blind date), our bodies will begin to respond now to anxiety we might feel in the future. In either case, our blood pressure might begin to rise, our brains might release stress-chemicals like cortisol, and sometimes our nervous systems can even activate a fight-or-flight response!

Thankfully, if we stay in the present moment, we are OK. In the present moment, we are not only safe and far away from anything that happened in the past, and we are also a safe distance from anything that hasn’t yet happened. So, regardless of whether you’re a past-thinker or a future-thinker, I want you to pay attention to what is going on around you right now.

Let’s try an experiment together:

First, on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being as low as possible and 10 being as high as possible, how anxious do you feel?  How sad do you feel? How angry do you feel? If you’re feeling a different emotion, feel free to give that feeling a number as well. If you want, write those numbers down on a scrap piece of paper. Next, I want you to read the following paragraph slowly to understand what we’re going to try. Then, if you’d like, we can try it!

Wherever it is that you’re reading this, I’d like to make sure that you are seated comfortably. If you can remove any of the distractions around you, that would be helpful, too. Next, I’d like you to fold your hands in your lap and place your feet solidly on the ground. And, if you can, I’d like you to sit up straight so that you are comfortable and yet relaxed. In this position, I’d like you to start noticing the pace of your breathing and try to slow it down. I recommend starting with a count of three, so that you breathe in for a count of one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand. Pause briefly, and let out your breath slowly for a similar count of one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand. Before reading on, let’s just practice that breath at that pace for a few moments.

Do you have a good sense of that pace?  Good.  Once you feel like you have a good handle on the pace of the breath, I’d also like you to start to pay attention to the sensation of the air moving into your nostrils (is it warm?  is it cold?). Notice if you can hear yourself breathing in – what does it sound like? Does the sound change as you breathe out? All you have to do now is continue to practice this deep breathing – not by trying to do it, but just by relaxing and noticing the way you are breathing. Continue to breathe in for a count of one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand. Then pause, and let out your breath slowly a count of one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand. Continue to focus on your breath as you do this.

Once you have a good handle on the sensation of breathing and the pace of your breathing, I’d like you to just stay there with it.  Over time [especially once we reach the end of this paragraph], you might find that your mind begins to wander. You may begin to think about the past or the future again – and that’s OK.  It’s an old habit, and we don’t want to change it so much as just notice it. So, I’m going to stop talking (err… typing, I guess). I want you to remain comfortably seated – tall yet relaxed – and to breathe for three counts in, pausing, and three counts out. Just continue to notice the sound and feeling of your breath as it moves into your lungs, is held, and is then released.  Without keeping too hard of a count of breaths, see if you can get to a count of about 20. If you’d like to, you can do more. Feel free to try this exercise with your eyes closed, too!

So, what was that like for you? If you closed your eyes, take a moment to take in your surroundings again. Now check in with that same 1-10 scale and reevaluate your sense of anxiety, sadness, and anger. Are your numbers the same, or did they change? In what way?

What we just did was a brief meditation exercise. For some of you, this may have been a relaxing experience. For others, it may have made a profound change in your feelings of anxiety, sadness or anger. For others of you still, it may not have had much of an effect at all. What people sometimes misunderstand about meditation is that we don’t meditate, but rather we practice it. In doing so, sometimes meditation happens to us.

Throughout your day, you may find yourself continuing to go back to thinking about the past or the future, and that’s OK. But, my hope is that this exercise helps you to realize that you have control over your mind and what it thinks about. Practice guiding it the way you would a new puppy: with compassion, kindness, and patience. If you would like to explore your gravitational pull towards past-thinking or future-thinking or practicing this meditation exercise, please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services in Orlando today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment.

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