What is your mind’s default setting? Are you typically in the past, present, or future? Pay attention to this, and it won’t take long for you to uncover some clues.
In my counseling practice, I ask these questions all the time, and I cant recall a single client whose default setting is the present. Shoot, I’ll tell you straight up that I’ve been doing mindfulness meditation (a present-based psychological exercise) for 10 years, and my default setting STILL fluctuates between past and future.
In my observations, I have realized this: too much future tends to be associated with anxiety and worry; and too much past tends to be associated with depression and sadness (although this can vary depending on the situation). Through meditation, I have become much better at not attaching to these mind states. But outside of making a conscious intention to be in the present, my brain tends to automatically run back to the past and future all too easily, and I have a feeling I’m not the only one.
This makes we wonder, is a sustainable here and now mentality even possible? Can the present become our default setting? I’m not exactly sure, but I lean towards the negative on this issue.
My reasoning has to do with our neurological hard-wiring. Planning for the future and learning from past mistakes were essential components of our evolutionary history. In large part, the human ability to contemplate the past and future allowed our species to thrive, so it makes sense that a strong memory and imagination led to a past/future default setting. Given the innate nature of these brain capacities, it is highly unlikely that we will be able to permanently switch our default setting as a species, nor do I think we’d really want to if it meant getting wiped out by other more physically dominant predators before you and I ever had a chance to exist.
Now, there are some people who claim to have an exceptional ability to keep their minds rooted in the present, but in all the cases I have studied, these individuals spend years in meditation and/or prayer, are isolated from society, and tend to opt out of facing the challenges of everyday people. To most of us, this lifestyle is unrealistic and utterly impractical for obvious reasons.
But this definitely doesn’t mean we can’t incorporate the here and now mentality in our lives on a more frequent basis. I contend that this is totally possible and well worth the effort. Although our minds will inevitably wander back to its default state– because that’s what minds do– there are some practical ways to access the present moment and break up the seemingly endless pattern of the past/future setting.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-American psychologist, has spent decades studying psychological flow, which in basic terms means being “in the zone.” Think about when you are truly engaged at work, in conversation, playing a sport, or doing a hobby of some sort. When the conditions are right, you are able to access a highly focused state where you are completely absorbed by the present task at hand. Specifically, when a given activity has the right balance between one’s skills, level of challenge, and intrinsic reward (pursuing something for its own sake), a here and now mentality can take place. So to better access this flow state, become aware of the impact these conditions have on your moment to moment experience.
Another strategy is to ask yourself more present-based questions. For example, what am I feeling? Where am I at? What am I doing? What’s something in my immediate environment that I haven’t really noticed before? How can I make things a little bit better in my life right now? Orienting yourself to the present in this way will help you access a source of valuable information that would have passed you by otherwise, and it’s extremely effective at breaking up one’s tendency to dwell in the past and future.
As I mentioned before, mindfulness meditation is an excellent way to improve your ability to be in the here and now. The process is as follows: sit up straight in a chair; pay attention to the natural flow of your breath; and when your mind wanders away, just bring your attention back to the breath with an attitude of openness and non-judgement. Now this may feel like a giant waste of time, but that is just the chatter of the past/future default setting. With time, it will be easier to let go of thoughts that have historically kept you stuck, and you will be more available to attend to the present.
Finally, if nothing I’ve suggested here works, just pour yourself a drink.
In all seriousness, my best advice is to be patient with any here and now strategy you try. Pursuing instant gratification will only lead you astray in this journey and, eventually, more distant from the present than ever before. Remember, little by little becomes a lot.