Where is your head at? Where was it just a few moments ago? Quite often our thoughts are time travelling, drifting away from now and into the future or past. Becoming aware of this and choosing to be present is an important part of being mindful.
WHERE'S YOUR HEAD AT?
An important elemtent of mindfulness is recognising which time zone your thoughts are in. We’re not talking global time zones and holidays but rather whether your head is in the future, past or present.
To be mindful involves attending to what is occurring around you and within you right now, in the present moment. As easy as this sounds, living in a world filled with striving,ambition and desire for change, actually makes this pretty difficult.
Personally, I find my thoughts are often caught up in the realms of my imagination, and I don’t mean constant daydreaming (though I do end up there sometimes!). I mean my tendency to always be asking myself the question “What’s next?”. I seem to have developed the habit of constantly looking ahead to my next move based on what I think the future holds. I also catch myself replaying past events, going over things that people have said to me or arguments with the kids etc. but generally, the main direction for my mental-time-travel is forwards.
This tendency for my head to be in the future is not problematic in itself but there are consequences.
For many, the tendency is to to drift backwards in time, to memories. Again, there is nothing wrong with this. Who doesn’t love to reminisce over great times spent with friends or family? Sometimes though, we find it hard to break away from events that were unpleasant or unwanted. This is especially true if the unpleasant feelings were strong. Maybe the event involved embarrassment, shame or guilt?
My impression is that most of us are pretty unaware of where are thoughts are at any given time. It is entirely normal for our minds to time travel, especially when we have an endless list of things to do, when we feel a constant burden to advance or when we have a sense that we don’t measure up in some way.
NOW IS THE ONLY TIME WE HAVE
Although Einstein and Hawking are adeptly able to explain the nuances of time and how it works, for the average person like me, the only moment we really have is this one right now.
The future is our imagination at work, electrochemical activity in our brains generating possibilities and probabilities of what may happen. It’s an amazing ability, no doubt, but it isn’t really real. Based on our experience we can have a pretty good guess at what will be happening just around the corner but it doesn’t change the fact that right now is all we have.
Similar is true for the past. We hold information about the past in the form of memories stored as electrochemical activity in the brain. These memories are crucial for us being able to function as healthy individuals, for our identity, connection with others and ability to communicate etc.
But it doesn’t change the fact that the only moment we have to revel in, enjoy and experience is this one right now.
Below are some slides I use when trying to explain these concepts. They say a picture paints a thousand words, well that’s a good thing because I can waffle really badly!
Humans are amazing!
Our ability to create, in our minds, something that has never been before is truly remarkable and one of the defining features of our species.
Often the future thoughts we have are ones of creativity, inspiration, invention, hopes and dreams. We imagine how good it will be to make X and or have Y or do Z but sometimes we spend so much time creating better moments that we miss the wonder and beauty of now.
Another great talent we have is being able to see potential problems just down the road. The whole health and safety industry is built around this ability. We save ourselves so much trouble by doing this. However, when we get really absorbed in the problems that may arrive our whole body-mind system reacts, sometimes as if it were actually happening. We can then develop patterns of anxiety or stress based not on what is actually happening but on what may come. This can lead to poor psychological, emotional and physical health.
In many ways, who we are as individuals is defined by our experiences, both good and bad. Our self-belief that we can succesfully handle the challenging task before us is probably based in the fact that we have faced other challenges and been able to overcome.
The connections we have with others is also based on the memory of our previous encounters with them. Our minds to pull information from the databanks of our memory to establish how to behave. Imagine how awkward it could get if your wires got crossed!
Some of our memories have strong unpleasant emotions associated with them. When we ponder those events, our body-mind system responds. If those thoughts are particularly compelling we can ruminate on them for long periods. This too can have detrimental effects on our health.
INTENTION AND AWARENESS
Just to make it really clear, there is nothing wrong, at all, with future or the past thoughts. We would be lost without them.
The complications arise when we drift into future pondering and past musings UNINTENTIONALLY.
It’s only when you begin to meditate or attempt keep your attention on your senses, via a mindfulness exercise, that you notice just how easy it is to wander off into the realms of daydreaming, scheming, reminiscing or ruminating. And this wandering is going on all the time… completely unnoticed. And all the time, our whole body-mind system responds to that inner stimulus without us being aware of it.
Mindfulness is a way of training our attention to remain in the present moment, the only moment we truly have, and become more aware of the tendency of our mind to drift.
Something that comes to mind when I meditate and my mind wanders, is a phrase I heard while listening to a wonderful Jon Kabat Zinn meditation.
This particular meditation involved attempting to listen to all of the senses and all of the messages they were sending to the mind, all at the same time – a pretty difficult exercise.
During this meditation he guided the listener to be present, focused on now and on just this.
When you are able to do this, even if it is for just short periods, you are able to enjoy a sense of calm and balance that is hard to put into words.