The Torment of the Past and Future

Our brains and the way we think about the world are basically our real world super power. We are able to predict what is going to happen five minutes from now, five hours from now, and five days from now. We can remember loads of information from our past and synthesize that information in new situations to draw new conclusions. We are able to intuitively recognize what other people are thinking and to deduce how they felt in past situations or how they will feel in future situations. Our brains do incredible work to help us move through the universe and our species would not be here today without our brains’ super powers.

 

But as great as these super powers are, they can also lead us astray and cause real problems in our lives. Ruminating on things we do not like from our past or on our fears for the  future can be life ruining. We can become embarrassed, scarred, and find ourselves in so much pain from our past that we cannot enjoy our present. Similarly, we can become paralyzed with fear, disillusioned with possibilities, and stuck thinking about negative things may happen in the future, causing us to forget our present moment. In Letters from a Stoic Seneca writes, “But the chief cause of both of these ills is that we do not adapt ourselves to the present, but send our thoughts a long way ahead. And so foresight, the noblest blessings of the human race, becomes perverted. Beasts avoid the dangers which they see, and when they have escaped them are free from care; but we men torment ourselves of that which is to come as well as over that which is past.”

 

To a much greater extent than many of us do, we should probably seek out psychological services to help us better order our thoughts. Stoicism has helped me with remembering the present and has given me tools to use to avoid ruminating on the future or past. Combining psychological services with a stoic toolkit can be very helpful in a world where happiness is presented in a way that doesn’t actually reflect the things that will make us happy. We want to plan ahead and strive for a healthy life where our needs are provided for, but if we become so focused on needing out life to have a particular type of car, or so focused on what might happen if we are not able to pay certain bills, then we can ruin our health and our current lives. And if we cannot let go of the past, if we cannot look at what has happened in our life and say, “that sucked, but here is what I can learn moving forward,” then we will constantly be haunted by ghosts. Learning to be present is not just about breathing exercises and comfortable pillows. Being present is about recognizing when our minds have jumped ahead or when our minds are stuck in the past and learning to refocus the mind on the current moment, the only time where we can take any action to improve things.

Compartmentalizing our Experiences is Impossible

Recently I have been thinking a lot about the present moment and I have been working on making the present moment its own moment in time, unconstrained by the past. I am working to remember lessons from Marcus Aurelius and to remember that all I control is my mind and reactions to the world at this moment. At the same time, however, I have recently ready Daniel Pink’s book When and I’m currently reading Cal Newport’s book Deep Work. Aurelius encourages us to be focused on the present moment, and to leave the past in the past and let the future come without thinking too far ahead. He stresses the importance of separating ourselves from the past in order to do the most that we can with the present moment.

 

Research by Pink and Newport, however, suggests that this might not be possible, and that even if we try our best to stay mentally focused on the present, the past unavoidably impacts the way our brains operate in the present. Pink studied the science of timing and examined the ways that the body and mind react to the world as we move through the day. He finds that the time of meetings, of intellectually challenging work, of exercise, and sleep all impact the way we think, feel, and move about the world.

 

Newport in his book looks for a way to perform at his best and seeks to understand how habit, performance, attention, and experience are all linked. He finds evidence to suggest that our minds are not very good at switching between tasks, and that what we have done in the past directly shapes our brains and our performance in the present. The habits we build and the effort we put toward developing our attention either enhance or limit our ability in the future to think deeply and focus on a given thing. What his research, along with Pink’s, finds, is that our current experience and state of mind is directly linked to our past and to rhythms and experiences throughout the day and throughout our lives.

 

The insight from Pink and Newport comes from scientific study of reality, but has also been discovered by those who meditate. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about the inseparability of the world in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness. He states, “The great body of reality is indivisible. It cannot be cut into pieces with separate existences of their own.” the experience we have at one moment can not be compartmentalized and separated from another moment. At any given time we may be doing one thing and not another, but our experience of that moment is to some degree shaped by the experiences we have had throughout the day and in our past. In stoic philosophy, there can be a tendency to want to split what we do and how we experience the world into separate categories, but Pink, Newport, and Hanh suggest that this would be a mistake and may not be possible at all.

 

I don’t think we have to throw out the ideas of Aurelius and stoicism, but we must understand as we focus on the present moment how it relates to our past and to our future. We can perform our best if we think, moment to moment, about how we are connected to other times in our lives and how we can maximize our performance and experience given the time of day and the activities we have been involved with or will be involved with. This drives greater intentionality in our lives which in turn drives better experiences and a better connection to the present moment.

When You Live With Your Mind in the Future, You Will Miss the Future When it is Here

I can remember a time as an undergraduate student at the University of Nevada when I was becoming a bit depressed and frustrated by the fact that the excitement and magic of life seem to be disappearing as the reality (and banality) of work and earning a pay-check set in. I was working at a restaurant to make money, taking classes that were just ok, and worrying constantly about what my future would look like. I wanted to have fun and exciting things to live for, but it was becoming clear to me that my life would likely be quite boring in many ways. I was recognizing and understanding that I would not be a Marvel superhero and every day would not be an action packed adventure in the most interesting places on the planet.

I was not living in the present moment and enjoying the positive pieces of my life. I was stuck in a future mindset, worrying about realities that did not exist and unable to experience the present moment. I was exactly what Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to avoid becoming in his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness. Hanh writes, “Don’t chase after your thoughts as a shadow follows its object. Don’t run after your thoughts. Find joy and peace in this very moment.”

We can spend all our time thinking about the future, ruminating on the past, and interrogating our present self in a way that worries about the thoughts that we have. Or, we can work to become more aware of the present moment, of the smallest details of our current activity, and of the experiences we have at this very moment. Living in a different time (by spending all our mental energy in the past or future – or even by thinking about how dreary our lives are compared to the perfect lives lived by our friends on Facebook) is what drains the magic and the wonder out of life. When we cannot see the fortune of the present moment, then nothing is of value to us and we cannot actually live.

Hanh also writes, “If you cannot find joy in peace in these very moments of sitting, then the future itself will only flow by as a river flows by you, you will not be able to hold it back, you will be incapable of living the future when it has become the present.” This was the state I found myself in during my undergraduate degree. I would look ahead and be excited about a new movie, a basketball game, or the weekend, but because I had not trained my mind to live in the present, that moment would fly by me and I would be worried about the drought of exciting events that would follow the event, and I would fail to enjoy the actual thing and the actual moment that I had looked forward to. Rather than bring me joy and meaning, the present moment was merely a shadow while the future loomed as a tidal wave of fear and depression. Turning inward and becoming more self-aware allowed me to begin seeing the present moment, and seeing the present moment restored the joy and value of small things, such as reading, writing, a short walk, a good exercise, or even just a conversation with a friend. These experiences are the only real things in life (at least as they happen) and the magic is in fully experiencing and living these moments.

Mindful Work

At work, I have often had times where I think past the duty or item in front of me to what I am going to do afterward and what other tasks I can complete or work on once the current task is over. I race through, counting the actions remaining until I have finished everything with the task in front of me. The problem is, I end up taking short-cuts, working quickly and making errors, and not taking the time to truly think through what I am doing. This prevents me from really learning from my work and opens me to distraction.

 

Our work habits are discussed by Thich Nhat Hanh in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness. In his book, Hanh looks at the importance of maintaining awareness of our thoughts and the importance of being mindful of our attention and focus. The more we can be connected to the present moment and the more we can be mindful of our actions and environment, the more we can truly live. This helps us avoid the feeling that we are being pulled in a million directions and helps us avoid the feeling that we cannot make the changes we want to make or accomplish what we desire in our life. Mindfulness is a tool that helps us be intentional with how we live and helps us find a mental balance and stability that can drive a meaningful life.

 

One of the suggestions in the book is, “Enjoy and be one with your work. Without this, the day of mindfulness will be of no value at all. The feeling that any task is a nuisance will soon disappear if it is done in mindfulness.” I know that my work is an area where the stories I tell myself about who I am, what I am doing, and who I think I should be interfere with my ability to do great work. My work is also an area where distraction and a lack of focus has lead to diminished quality and lessened efficiency while I try to complete meaningful items.

 

Mindfulness alone probably won’t solve all of my problems at work, but when I read through Hanh’s quote above, I am reminded that when I focus solely on my work and live in the present, my distractions will be reduced and my desire to simply fly through my work  to get to the next task will also diminish. This should create a space for me to produce higher quality work and hopefully work more efficiently and effectively. Improving my focus and being mindful of my work will give me more pride in doing a great job, and that will help my work be more meaningful, even if I think there are better things I could be doing. With a background of great work and a mindful approach to my day, I will also have a stronger foundation to stand on when speaking with my manager about what has been going well for me, about what I could improve, and about the direction I think my work should take for me to be more impactful and to do more meaningful work. Without mindfulness, my work certainly won’t be the strongest version of work that I can produce, and I also won’t have the awareness to recognize how my work and duties could be improved to make me more impactful to the organization as a whole.

Mindful In All Things

Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Miracle of Mindfulness helped me think about the value of the present moment and the value of engaging in the present moment. Returning to his book to write about the sections I highlighted when I read it almost a year ago is bringing my attention back to the present moment and helping me reflect on why it is so important in our lives to ground ourselves in the here and now. I often find my mind wandering onto other things, often on things that I don’t want to think about or know that I should not think about, when I have the opportunity to do something productive. The result is that the actual thing that I am doing is lost in a haze as I move about on autopilot barely aware of my surroundings and sensations, and the time I had  that could have been productive is squandered as I accomplish next to nothing in a distracted fog.

 

Sometimes I try to think about my life if I had lost one of my senses. How would I live if I could not see or hear? What would I miss the most about losing one of those major senses? How would the world become less contextual and interesting? These types of questions help me understand why it is so valuable to live in the present and fully examine our surroundings using the senses we have. One day I know that my experiences and sensations of the world will cease, so I should take full advantage of the time I have to sense the world and live in the world.

 

Throughout his book, Hanh encourages the reader to bring mindfulness to each action, and to try our best to avoid thinking beyond or outside of the thing that we are doing in the moment. “You’ve got to practice meditation when you walk, stand, lie down, sit, and work, while washing your hands, washing the dishes, sweeping the floor, drinking tea, talking to friends, or whatever you are doing.”  Each of these things are areas where we can be engaged with something while our mind is completely focused on something else, which I explained frequently happens to me. The banal activities that Hanh suggests we bring mindfulness to are activities where our senses can be alive, and they are areas where we can train our mind to concentrate, rather than allowing our minds to be distracted and to flutter about aimlessly. It is a time where we can truly use our senses and value our ability to experience the world.

 

Returning to this segment a year after reading the book reminds me that there are a lot of aspects of even tedious and boring activities that are rather fascinating. The feel of soap on a smooth metal pan, the textured feeling of plastic on the handle of a pot, and the warm feeling of water while washing dishes are things we would never notice if we watched tv, or thought about what we would rather be doing while washing dishes. But by being mindful, we can fully experience these different sensations and recognize that it is incredible just how sensitive our hands and brains are. Being present helps us appreciate the tiniest details of the moment, because it reminds us that we are alive and we are actors in the world who have the unique privilege of being the only one experiencing our particular sensations at any given moment. What mindfulness in every moment does for me is remind me to be grateful for my life and reminds me to soak up the world around me. Living with our mind in the past or with our mind on future possibilities robs us of actually experiencing  the present moment. Our mind is oblivious to the multitude of sensations that we could focus on if we brought mindfulness to the present moment.

Mindfulness Enables us to Live

Thich Nhat Hanh wrote the book The Miracle of Mindfulness to share his thoughts, experiences, and lessons learned from a life of practicing mindfulness. He details the benefits of living a more mindful life, describes techniques to bring mindfulness into our lives, and presents our daily consciousness in varying perspective to highlight the importance of mindfulness as we move through the world. For Hanh, mindfulness helps with living an intentional life and gives one the ability to be more calm and collected and less reactive to the world and all of its stressors.

 

“Mindfulness is at the same time a means and an end,” Hanh writes as he describes what mindfulness should really mean to us. Mindfulness is a tool that helps us think more deeply and clearly about our life and the decisions that we make. A practice of mindfulness helps us recognize when we are working toward our goals and when we are distracted from them, and hopefully helps us identify ways to get back on track. Mindfulness also is a state where we are more productive, thoughtful, and peaceful with ourselves, a goal that we all share as we work to be happy and fulfilled. In this way, mindfulness is an end state that we desire, but also a tool to help us improve our lives and reach our goals.

 

Hanh goes further and describes mindfulness as more than a goal to work toward or even a tool to help us increase our self-awareness and perception. Mindfulness, Hanh describes, is in some ways our real lives. He writes, “But mindfulness itself is the life of awareness: the presence of mindfulness means the presence of life … Mindfulness frees us of forgetfulness and dispersion and makes it possible to live fully each minute of life. Mindfulness enables us to live.”

 

In the past I have written about routines and habits, examining my personal conflict of living effectively with a routine that aids me in health and productivity while simultaneously making me feel as though my life is on autopilot, slipping past me beyond my control. Mindfulness is a way to bridge the conflict that I experience. Becoming a mindful person means that you practice self-awareness and work toward building self-control in your actions and habits. Rather than setting yourself to autopilot, mindfulness brings you to the present moment and helps you focus on what truly matters and how you are using every moment. When you fully experience the present, because you are self-aware and are thinking of what you are doing now, Hanh argues, life will not fly past you in a rush that you cannot remember. Instead, you will be able to take steps to be intentional with how you live, and you will develop the capacity to be cognizant of how you travel through each moment in space and time.

How to Practice Mindfulness

“Keep your attention focused on the work, be alert and ready to handle ably and intelligently any situation which may arise – this is mindfulness.”

 

The sentence above is how Thich Nhat Hanh describes mindfulness. Anything that we do, can be done either absentmindedly, or with mindfulness. We can drink coffee, wash dishes, walk to the mailbox, and write reports at work with full intention and focus, or we can do them on autopilot, never truly focusing on what we are doing. Bringing mindfulness to whatever it is we are doing, whether it is something small and boring like drinking coffee or whether it is something important and nuanced, like open heart surgery, helps us be our best in that moment and helps us truly experience our lives. When the world seems to be going by to quickly, when we are anxious and nervous about what may come in the future, and when we are worked up over news and events from across the world, we lose a sense of who we are and what it means to be us in our own lives. Mindfulness, a focus on the moment and a complete alertness with regard to the task or action in front of us, helps us be more peaceful and more grounded in the present moment.

 

In my own life it is has been easy to be caught up in national politics, fearful of missing out on fun and exciting opportunities, and depressed by the tedious and repetitive nature of my daily routine. I have often been caught up in the story I tell myself about who I am, about what everything around me means, and about what I need to do in order to be successful and well respected. These pressures, stories, and the battle for my attention leaves me in a place where any individual action seems meaningless and where days and weeks rush past me in a blur that I barely remember.

 

Practicing mindfulness is a way to combat these problems. Mindfulness itself does not slow the world down or make what I am doing at any given moment more meaningful or important. What it does, is help me understand where my conscious thought is spending its time. Am I truly focused on where I am right now, or am I letting my mind run in a million directions a million miles away from this place? For me, mindfulness has never been a complete control over my mind, but a recognition of what my mind is doing at any given moment, so that I can take actions to help move my mind back to more meaningful places.

 

Hanh continues, “A calm heart and self-control are necessary if one is to obtain good results. … If we are not in control of our selves but instead let our impatience or anger interfere, then our work is no longer of any value.” We may not have full control over our mind, but mindfulness does help us be more cognizant of our thinking and patterns of thought so that we can begin to shape new habits of thinking to be more intentional and direct with how we use the only thing we have, our mind in the present moment.

Avoid Machine Thought

Recently I have become more aware of how often I have automatic “machine” like thoughts about the world. When I hear someone sneeze I automatically reply “bless you” with no thought as to why I am saying what I am saying. A thousand times a day I have some type of response to someone that is not really a response but rather just a trite saying that I have not thought closely about. In every day we fall back on these automatic machine phrases that we utter without using much brain power. These thoughts sort of think themselves, and we just go along with them.

 

In his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to get away from these routine and automatic thoughts by becoming more aware of our actions, habits, and thoughts themselves. In his book he writes, “Whether it’s sunny or rainy, whether the path is dry or wet, you keep that one thought, but not just repeating it like a machine over and over again. Machine thinking is the opposite of mindfulness. If we’re really engaged in mindfulness while walking along the path … then we will consider the act of each step we take as an infinite wonder, and a joy will open our hearts … enabling us to enter the world of reality.”

 

Rote thinking saves brain space. It allows us to go through the motions of a conversation, a walk, a drive, or a life without having to consciously consider the wold around us as we go. It is automatic, habitual, and has no real meaning or purpose. The machine-like thinking referenced by Hanh serves no purpose other than filler for our days. True mindfulness reveals just how frequently we operate by machine thought. Becoming more aware of our rote habits helps us to uncover what is really taking place versus what we are doing just because it is habit or commonplace in our society. Mindfulness takes away the filler and helps us see the world without the stories we tell about the world, allowing us to recognize judgements, desires, fears, and concrete facts of our life in a more clear way. One of the biggest benefits I have found from my imperfect mindfulness is the pulling away of the narrative that I have attached to so much of my life. Without the stories that I make up and without the filler of machine thought, I have had a better approach to the world that is less driven by fear and stress, and more driven by a conscious choice of what is important to me and my life.

Our Very First Thought

During a typical workweek, when I get into a flow from day to day and wake-up early to read, write, and exercise, the first thought that I usually have, after turning off my alarm, is “x more days until the weekend and I can sleep in.” I really dislike the first moments of waking up. I get up much earlier than my wife, and I am always afraid that my alarm is going to wake her up, so I try to roll over, find my phone, and turn off my alarm as quick as I can. After that, as I groggily pull myself out of bed, I usually think about getting an extra hour or two of sleep in the morning on Saturday and Sunday.

 

In The Miracle of Mindfulness, author Thich Nhat Hanh describes a Buddhist monk named Doc that he once met. Hanh briefly writes about Doc’s daily routine and how he incorporated mindfulness into his day from the very beginning. “When he woke up in the morning,” Hanh writes, “his first thought was, ‘Just awakened, I hope that every person will attain great awareness and see in complete clarity.'”

 

The monk was building awareness and mindfulness into his day from the very beginning of each day. I rarely think beyond the initial moment and my desire to continue sleeping when I wake up. I could certainly allow myself to be a little slower with turning off my phone and I could make an effort to be more aware and mindful in my first moments. Running this thought through our minds at the outset of the day helps us be present and recognize that we are in the process of awakening and that nothing terrible has happened to us yet (even waking up as early as I do is not a terrible torture). This helps to set us up for a productive and self-aware day, something that is often missing when we go through the world complaining about each given moment. Doc’s thought is powerful because it aligns our thoughts to be productive, and opens us to compassion toward others as we are recognizing the mental challenges and struggles that others will face as soon as we wake up, rather than thinking about our own misfortune.

Drinking Tea

A while back I read Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation. One of the key focuses of the book is being more aware of the current moment and appreciating experiences as they are happening. Hanh writes about times when we absentmindedly complete a task or when we do one thing with our mind on a completely different thing. We can still get through what we are doing and we may even want to be thinking about something different, but when we don’t focus our mind on the present moment, then what we are doing never really matters and we are constantly living in an imagined world in the past or future.

 

An example provided in the book involves tea. “While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future–and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.” To actually live one minute of life would be to sit and truly experience what is happening and what we are sensing of the world. All we would need to do to take in the world around us is tune our mind to the our present experience, but it is incredibly difficult to do.

 

In Meditation we are trying to zoom our focus into one sensation, often our breath, to concentrate on just one experience. What we find when we try to do this, and what we may find if we try to truly live one minute of life, is that our ability to stay grounded is often limited. Many forces pull at our attention and move our mind out of the present into a realm of imagination. We think back to memories and past experiences, or we think ahead to the demands that life places on us. Rather than experiencing the present moment and where we are physically located, our minds occupy another time and place. The Miracle of Mindfulness focuses on the benefits of learning to live in the present moment. Meditation helps us understand how distracted our minds become and helps us learn to focus on what is important. Controlling, or at least understanding, the various impulsive thoughts of our mind helps us as we move through life to be more intentional and aware of exactly what we are doing and how the world behaves around us.