It is a common misconception that mindfulness is all about living in the present moment.
It is something that I have had some struggles with over the last few years. Trying to remain present 24-7 is pretty impossible, believe me I have tried. It is exhausting and not particularly effective.
Practising mindfulness is so much more than being present. It is also and more importantly, about our relationship to the past, the present and the future. It is about awareness, seeing clearly your thought patterns and loops of behaviour and putting that bit of space in, so that you are able to react and respond in a considered manner.
Thoughts about mindfulness in relation to the past, present and future seem to crop up a lot in people’s practice and life, so I thought it would be interesting to delve into it a little further
The past has brought us here to this very point in time. It has formed who we are right now. The past could be the breath we took before this one, or it could be an event that happened twenty years ago. It has happened, it is gone.
I have noticed something very interesting in my relationship to the past since practising mindfulness.
1) I don’t visit it half as often as I used to.
2) I look back more fondly, with more compassion at the special moments that have formed who I am today.
3) I don’t deny the negative parts of my past, but I don’t dwell on them as much anymore. It has been and gone and just maybe within those so-called negative points in life, a valuable lesson has been learnt.
Mindfulness can help us to be much more aware of how we relate to the past and to notice when we are stuck in the past and lost in things that have gone. It can also help us to be more comfortable with the transient nature of our lives.
a) Take the time to notice your thoughts about the past. In meditation or just in your everyday life, try labelling your thoughts. If you become aware of a thought, say to yourself past, present or future. Soon you will build a picture of where your thoughts go. Being mindful of your thoughts like this can help you to notice your natural inclination to the past, present or future. You can then take appropriate and considered steps to adjust the thought pattern and behaviour.
b) Try not to deny or push away your past. Hold it lightly in awareness, remember that from this moment, the past cannot be changed or altered. The past is now just a thought or a memory.
c)Remember that the practice is to loosen the grip and not so much of the pushing and pulling. Hold it lightly, watch where your thoughts go, are you constantly remembering the negative things? or are more of those special moments cropping up.
d) Be aware of any judgements that crop up about your past and let them go.
Slowly and very gently over time, the practice of awareness can alter the way we view our past and the amount of time our mind wanders back there.
Okay, the big one. The lovely, beautiful, present moment. It came as a bit of a shock to me when I started to become more aware of my mind wanderings, how little time I spend in the present moment. My mind liked and still does like to time travel. This is the same for most of us. We may look like we are here but in our heads we are flying around like Doctor Who in his Tardis.
The present moment to me is like pressing a big reset button. The more we practice mindful awareness, the more this present moment starts to become like a default setting and somewhere we can come back to in order to feel more grounded.
This is not to say that the present moment is always this blissful place of peace and happiness, on the contrary it can be challenging and not always pleasant. However, if we are closely aware of it, we can start to notice that a lot of the unpleasantness and unease actually comes from the past or the future, not this very moment.
If I am aware of this very moment, actually all is well, I am breathing (yippee), the computer is working (at last), my fingers are hitting the right keys on the keyboard (most of the time), George is curled up on the bed behind me and I have a cup of tea ready to drink. Not always but very often it is the thoughts of past and future that get mixed up with the present moment. In turn, that can cause the unpleasantness and that sense of unease that is felt very much in the present moment.
a) Find your anchor. What is going to bring you back to this present moment? For me, I have yet to find a more effective anchor than the breath. Simple life-giving breath. More than just taking a deep breath, feel the air coming in to the nostrils, imagine it flooding into the lungs, feel your belly rise and fall, get intimate with it, this very breath, right now. Your signature anchor is going to help you return to the present, it could be feeling your feet on the floor, or just simply looking up into the sky and watching the clouds roll by.
b) Make tuning into your anchor a daily practice. Even if it is just for 5 minutes a day, tune in, use your anchor to be firmly planted in the present moment. If you meditate, make your anchor your starting point that sets your intention to your mindfulness meditation practice.
C) What words do you associate with the present moment? immediately I think of simplicity, beauty and peace. It is worth taking the time to consider what the present truly means to you and let it sink into your mind.
d) Be gentle but firm. Judging and giving yourself a hard time for not being present is going to make it feel like a battle. I love the analogy of it being like training a puppy, they learn with patience, kindness and just a little bit of firmness, as does the mind. If you become aware that your mind has wandered, gently bring it back to your anchor. It is okay, our minds will wander, that is a fact of life, but when you fall in love again with the present moment, whenever you come back to it, it will be like slipping into a warm bath or those comfy pyjamas after a long day (or whatever floats your boat)
I have recently gained a new perspective on the future thinking mind. I am sure I have subconsciously thought about the future but I have tried to make a conscious effort to not go there. I have noticed that I have linked future thoughts with a sense of unease, an anxiety felt in the body. So it was easy for me to judge these future thoughts as bad.
All this however has been thrown upside down in quite a positive way. As a trainee life and performance coach, a lot of the work I am going to be doing is to help people reach a goal or future state that they have in mind.
You can imagine how this made my left eye twitch a little. I mean how does that fit into my mindfulness work and this present moment thinking.
As always with this practice, it takes a little while to see the answers. It came to me in one of my study classes. It was all about goal setting…
“Always frame your coachee’s future goals in the positive”
Our minds are naturally skewed to see the negative. How often I would build a picture of the future and how things could go wrong, what disasters could happen and how I could end up in a fine old mess. No wonder there was a sense of unease and a lack of motivation to proceed.
Very similar to the past, we can mindfully deal with the future in a similar way. Thoughts about the future can be really helpful, they can help us grow as a person, change our lives for the better and give us a sense of momentum. As always it is more about our relationship to future thinking that can trip us up.
a)The future is yet to happen, the thoughts we have about it are just that, they are just thoughts not reality. It sounds simple, but being aware of our thoughts about the future can be the key to working with it effectively.
b)Be aware of when you are following those familiar patterns of rumination about the future. Use your present moment anchor to come back in order to try a different approach.
c) What is the reality of the situation now? Mindfulness can help us see what the true reality of any situation is, without the mental overlay of rumination. From this reality point we can clearly see what options we have available and make positive steps forward.
d) Could you try looking at the future a little differently? After all it hasn’t happened yet, you may as well try to imagine it in a more positive way.
e) Are you aware of how much time your mind spends thinking about the future? Be it in a positive way or a negative way, if are minds are always thinking about the future, our journey of life can be missed. The future can only play out from this very moment. It is truly, the only moment we have.
f) As with the past, hold it lightly, gently with some compassion. Try being more curious. Your mind will wander and that is okay. Be aware of its wanderings , label your thoughts and come back to the present. Notice the negative thoughts and try reframing them in the positive.
This isn’t a one size fits all, we all have different thought patterns and relationships to the past, present and future, it is just my own take on it.
At times it can feel like we are at battle with life. I think it can then pay to look at how we are relating to the past, present and future. To be more curious about our thought patterns and to take an exploration into what we think about and how much time we actually spend in the present moment.
No one area can be denied, I have learnt that the hard way. Mindfulness and meditation isn’t about blotting out the past, ignoring the future and clinging on to the present moment. It is more about taking an exploration, being curious, holding it all in awareness and seeing clearly how we relate to certain aspects of life, without judgement and with a nice big dose of compassion.
I wish you well. As always, be kind to yourselves, enjoy the exploration and take good care.