“The meeting of two eternities, the past and future…is precisely the present moment.”
–Henry David Thoreau
There are a lot of different ways to think about mindfulness and no one way is better than any other. It helps some people to think of their mind as the sky and of their thoughts as clouds drifting across it, impermanent, transitory, present and then gone. Other people like to think of their thoughts as an excited puppy, constantly peeing on trees and sniffing things it probably shouldn’t be. If the sky analogy helps you, then use it. If the puppy analogy helps you, then use it. Today I’d like to share my favorite way of thinking about my thoughts. Something that really helps me is thinking about thinking in the context of time.
It is so easy to get caught up in past thoughts- the good, the bad, and the ugly. If you ever find yourself reminiscing about that awesome date you went on, fuming over how unfair your teacher was, or trying really hard to forget about that embarrassing thing you said to your in laws, then you do this too. Another easy way to get stuck in past thoughts is to hold on to feelings from the past. If someone gets you really angry, and a week later you’re still angry, then you are not experiencing the present moment, you’re experiencing the past.
I once heard that the center of your life is what you end up thinking about while you brush your teeth at night. When I brush my teeth, I always find myself thinking about what I’m going to do next. Whenever I have a spare moment it’s always devoted to planning and thinking about the future. This is where anxiety can be a real pain. You can’t control the future, so it’s easy to get caught up in a world of “what ifs”. Yes, it can be extremely useful to think about the future, but if you can’t appreciate the present moment because you’re too busy thinking about what you’re going to buy at the grocery store tomorrow, it’s time to rethink how you’re thinking.
I find that for myself, present thoughts actually occur rather rarely. Present thoughts are thoughts like “That cookie smells delicious” and “This hug makes me so happy”. Present thoughts can also be things like “This dentist’s office is striking fear into my soul” or “My heart is beating much faster than usual, I think I might be panicking”. Present thoughts come in all shapes and sizes. They’re important to experience because once they happen, they immediately turn into past thoughts. They’re here, and then they’re gone. And then you have another one, and another one, and another one, and….
Whenever I’m having difficulty with feelings from the past, or anxiety about things in the future, I take a minute to evaluate: am I in any danger right now? If I take five minutes to be present right now, will anything bad happen to me? Almost always, the answer is no. Taking five minutes to only experience present thoughts, to disregard past or future thoughts, is a great way to give yourself a break and I always find that when I do this, I am better able to deal with whatever situation I am having difficulty with.
What do you do when you’re overwhelmed with past and future thoughts? Is it difficult for you to be present?