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Staying Present with a Wandering Mind

It’s common for people to ask, “If mindfulness is all about being in the present moment, then how does planning for the future or reflecting on past mistakes fit into the concept of being mindful? And if I’m supposed to accept the moment just as it is, will that make me a ‘doormat’ to other people? Will it make me numb, complacent, or unwilling to take action?” In this post, I'll answer these questions along with articulating the importance of staying mindful even when our minds wander to the past or the future.

Future-Thinking Can Cause Anxiety, but it Still Happens in the Present Moment

It’s important to internalize the idea that there is only NOW. As much as we are conditioned to imagine future fantasies as real, or as much as we like to replay that argument with our ex from 3 years ago and tweak it so that we “won,” the truth of the matter is that right now is all that exists. I don’t think this point can be overstated.

Even planning for the future is an activity that is happening right here and now. Likewise, memories arise as mental activity also in the present moment. Not understanding this axiom of mindfulness engenders us, for example, to believe that our thoughts about the future are fact. I'm going to get to work and my boss is going to be so upset with me for leaving work early last Friday. Yet,

how many times have our assumptions been proven false? Do we have to believe every thought we have to be true?

Even if our assumptions do turn out to be true, there is no sense in adding additional anticipatory pain by envisioning the events before they happen. Our time-traveling minds can cause us to re-live pain and hardships many times over. But at what point is it too much? Or we may realize it had never been necessary at all to hash it out hundreds, maybe thousands of times! The question is, can we catch ourselves in the moment while we're doing this, so we can keep it from escalating further?

While we are "future-tripping," it's possible to bring about even light touches of mindfulness, to first even acknowledge that it's happening it at all. It is possible to be mindful even as we’re filling out our to-do list for the week, for example. In fact, doing so would likely make the experience more efficient and enjoyable. However, when I do this, I sometimes get completely overwhelmed with all the things I need to do in any given day, and I have an urge to just disengage and say, “Ef it!” I’ll just watch a few YouTube videos then I’ll come back to it later.

Looking more closely at this experience, I have found that that feeling of overwhelm really comes from feelings of not being good enough and a lack of confidence. Which then leads to worry, anxiety, and fear about either not completing my to-do list or not completing it well enough. Then once I get back from my YouTube break, the cycle starts over because of course I hadn't done anything different other than disengage. In this example, mindfulness shone a light on some of the underlying facets of my behaviors, all of which arise in my conscious mind.

Just as one may finally realize they are reliving old memories over and over, I had noticed another kind of mental state in my to-do list making: overwhelm. However, this is easier said than done. Being mindful of the mind can easily become overwhelming in itself. Another avenue toward presence includes awareness of our ever-present companion (and sometimes enemy): the body.

A Note About the Body

Being mindful doesn't mean thinking about the present, it means being aware of it. Is it possible to be aware without thinking? Now, I'm differentiating between thoughts and thinking. Having thoughts does not mean we have to grab on to them, mull them over, and think about them. As difficult - or impossible - as it may seem, it's possible to be aware of thoughts and at the same time NOT engage in thinking.

A cornerstone, I feel. to doing this is by maintaining an awareness of our physical body. Anytime you think of mindfulness or presence, I don't think it should be separated from being mindful of the your body as well. Awareness of the breath is a very effective way of doing this, and is a key reason so many meditations and relaxation techniques are centered around the breath. And to really make this point clear, mindfulness of the body is not a thinking about the body, but a feeling into and simple awareness of it.

Just as I mentioned noticing thoughts, but not thinking about them; the same goes for physical sensations: noticing them, but not thinking about them. This takes practice, but the reward is immeasurable. Looping back to the experience of future-thinking, try maintaining a sense of the body while doing so. This can be done even while your reading this now. Can you feel the sensations of the device in your hands? The feeling of your body breathing? At what point does the mind separate from the body, if at all?

The body does not tie us into mental knots the way the mind does. Giving your mind a break by widening attention to include the body helps to unravel (and prevent) those infuriating Gordian knots of cognition and emotion.

From Noticing to Self-Understanding

Back to that to-do list. When I am able to work on it with alert mindfulness, I can notice relatively early on when feelings of overwhelm or fear arise. And from this noticing they immediately have less power over me. In contrast, when I’m unmindful - or mindless - then I am not even aware that such mental afflictions have manifested at all! And unbeknownst to me, they are at the driver's wheel of my own behavior.

For how can we be truly free if our behavior arises from a part of us that we are unaware of in the first place?

Think to yourself: How could I bring more mindful awareness to my own future-based thinking? A question like this can activate a more sensitive radar to the mind states that distort our perception of everyday experiences. When we become aware of the anxiety that arises within us every time we think about a presentation we have to give, then we have given ourselves a key to explore further:

What kinds of thoughts are feeding this anxiety? Are these thoughts true? Will entertaining this anxiety help my presentation at all? What does this feel like in my body?

This is just another example of how to skillfully apply mindfulness around future-based thinking, while applying a practice of inquiry. Without being aware of the anxiety at all, we become victim to it. The things we do, say, and think then arise from a place of disequilibrium.

The ball continues to roll as we then mistakenly identify ourselves as an “anxious person,” when who we really are lies undisturbed beneath the cloudy distortion of anxiety and other afflictive emotions and mental storylines. When we learn how to accept our situation as it is, such “mental noise” falls away on its own, like clouds parting to reveal the ever-present sky.

Acceptance Amidst Action

Mindfulness is meant to be infused into wholesome activities. (Click here for a more detailed definition of mindfulness). This means that if we are willingly allowing suffering to go on, then it’s not mindfulness. Someone injecting heroin into their veins, no matter how present they are being with the sensations of a piercing needle into their flesh, would not be practicing mindfulness.

That being said, the awareness of allowing others to take advantage of us, for the sake of “accepting the moment,” is not mindfulness either. Practicing mindfulness properly points us in the direction of our own inherent intelligence, and than we know what to do. The following lexical equation states just this: Mindfulness + Wise Discernment = Intelligence.

We accept the moment as it is to the degree that it is not causing harm to ourselves or others.

And when action is called for, we are encouraged to do so without the spastic reflex of mindlessly forcing a change to occur through grasping or craving. So, even in the process of taking action, there is a quality of acceptance present with us the entire time. Presence can arise in stillness and during movement. No sense in stressing about being late for work, wondering what the boss will say. Better to remain present with the act of just getting there; sitting still in a moving car.

Throughout a mindful, contemplative journey, one must always be refining this quality of discernment, knowing when and how to act (whether this is physically, mentally, or through speech) and when and how not to act.

A Balancing Act for Self-Care

No matter how mindful it feels like we are being, we always maintain sensitivity to what is arising in our minds. Future thinking is not inherently harmful, but doing so WITHOUT acknowledging the presence of harmful mental activity such as anxiety, worry, overwhelm, or self-deprecation will only perpetuate internal struggle and suffering.

In the opposite direction, wise reflection is very important to self growth. However, neglecting to address feelings of regret, guilt, or sadness that can come from reflecting on past memories, will only arrest the development process. And again, awareness of our physical body is key in assisting for a deeper reflection to happen in the first place. When emotions arise, ask: How does this feel in my body? And stay there as best you can, lest a waterfall of judgements and thoughts crash down in response to the emotion.

We look upon the past with acceptance, which means we look upon it by NOT wishing it were different. What a winless battle that would be in the first place: to wish for a different past. We look to the future with acceptance as well, meaning we are open to the full mystery and unpredictability of it. Because as soon as we try to fixate on any kind of future outcome, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment if said outcome does not come to fruition.

Of course, this does not mean we give up.

The more fully present we are with what is happening now, the more fully accepting we can be to whatever happens next.

And thus the more aware of the negative thought patterns that get in the way of being realistic about what the future may hold. Similarly, we become more aware of the wisdom embedded in past mistakes when we reflect with kind awareness.

Yes, only now truly exists. And “in” this now is the immeasurable expanse of your own heart and mind. Wherever they take you - the Andromeda galaxy or Thanksgiving dinner at your in-laws - mindfulness can always be called upon for a safe voyage and a smooth landing.


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