Mindfulness is a buzz word these days. I find myself saying it even to my mostly pre-verbal toddler, things like “Please be mindful of the dog’s tail,” or “Let’s watch out and be mindful of poking your friend in the eye.” She mostly just laughs in response.
Mindfulness practice, using our breath and our bodies through walking, sitting, yoga, is an intentional way of grounding ourselves in the present moment with curiosity and kindness. Eckhart Tolle states in The Power of Now that he estimates people spend 80–90% of their time thinking thoughts that are “repetitive and useless.” In a 2010 study, Harvard researchers found that we spend, on average, around 50% of our time thinking about the past or the future, something other than the present, and that this leads to increased unhappiness.
Mindfulness practice sets an intention to shift our thoughts away from the past and future and into the present moment.
Of course, there are times when thinking about the past or future can be useful to help us learn or plan. Reflecting on the past to see if there is anything to be learned and then letting go, this can be a rich and valuable exercise, essential to a self-aware life. Most of us, however, take our reflecting far past useful to rumination. We replay an interaction, a conversation, a scene in our mind. Over and over and over again. Wondering how we could have been so (insert self-critical statement here: stupid, lazy, neglectful, unprepared, insensitive…).
The same is true for future thinking. Of course, plans must be made, consideration must be given to future events in order to live in any semblance of organization. How often do we move far beyond planning to preoccupation, obsessing and organizing over details which are not and will never be within our control. Maybe, just maybe, if we think about a scenario and every possible outcome long and hard enough, our obsession could control the outcome…
Recently, I was standing in the shower, planning for our next family trip, thinking about our packing list, the menu, how to avoid I-95 traffic, how to entertain my car-hating toddler for eight hours, when I realized that I wasn’t sure whether I had washed my hair yet or not. I tried to feel the texture, to remember putting my hand to the shampoo bottle or not, but I couldn’t access the memory of what had happened seconds before. So I washed my hair, possibly again, trying to be as gentle with myself as I could. And soon, my mind returned to trip planning. This time, when I gave myself a gentle reminder to let that go and come back to the present, I felt it.
Resistance. “No!” my brain cried. “If I stop planning for the future, it won’t go right. Something will go wrong!”
Of course something will go wrong. And something will go right. That is the nature of being human. But right then, I realized that there was still a part of me that equates mindfulness, present-moment awareness, with laziness. It felt indulgent to stop thinking about the future, irresponsible somehow. Despite the fact that doing so made me far less efficient at my current task of finishing my shower. Despite the fact that I have absolutely no control over the traffic patterns on I-95 on any given day.
We function in this world with an inflated illusion of control. We create fantasies in our head, imagining how things could and should play out, and in a way, these dreams can help motivate us and inspire us. But they can also hold us back from participating in reality, from joining in the here and now. And usually, when our minds are full of the fantasy of the future, we miss the sights and smells and sounds of the present. We miss the relationships we have right now when we remain in a fantasy about how we want them to change.
We miss our lives.
I know I’m not alone with my doubly-washed hair and my tendency to find myself in the future rather than in the present. I teach mindfulness skills to new moms, and all of us talk about our struggle to stay in the present moment. Our lives are full and busy, and thinking ahead is supposed to get us ahead. But are we truly getting ahead if we never truly just are where we are? We are like helicopters, hovering, touching down once in a while only to propel ourselves back up off the ground. We have trouble landing.
So how do we land in the here and now? Certainly, it’s a practice, and an ongoing one at that. And much of it is simple, repetitive. We breathe, aware of our in breath, the top of our breath, the out breath. We feel the air inflate our stomachs, our chests rise, the movement of air at the tips of our noses. We feel our feet on the ground. What does this floor feel like? Is it soft or hard, warm or cold? We anchor ourselves in our senses. What smells, sounds, sights are filling my world right now? Really smell them, really hear them. Maybe we use a mantra, like “be here now” or “rest” to remind our brains of our intention to land. And we return again and again to our bodies, these bodies that can only ever be in the present moment, gently and kindly when we find our minds carried away into the past or future.
Lastly, we trust. Letting go of our obsessive desire to control the uncontrollable future can be terrifying. And also liberating. Do we believe that if we stop trying to think through every possible outcome, the world will stop turning? Or can we trust that it will unfold as it will unfold, with or without our obsessive thoughts? And that maybe, just maybe, our minds could be used more productively in this moment?
Let’s land together, here and now. I bet we will find more beauty around us than we ever knew was there.
Katy is a writer, and a psychotherapist at The Well in Washington, DC, seeing individual clients and facilitating a mindfulness-based support group for new moms.
Diane Gaston utilizes an approach to therapy that emphasizes all aspects of the individual, including the psychological, emotional, spiritual, and physical. I specialize in PTSD trauma therapy long beach working with those who have affected and held back by past trauma and/or adverse life events. I also work individually and with couples who wish to improve their relationships.