One of the goals of the Thoughtfulness Practice is to bring more presence into your life. By presence, I'm referring to attending to your environment, your surroundings as well as your inner state. When we focus on living in the present moment, we generally find life to be a peaceful, enjoyable, and potentially an even magical experience. One way to expand your sense of presence is by managing the amount of time your spend focusing on the past and/or future.
Too Much Past
When we spend time thinking about past event, whether we find them 'positive' or 'negative', joyful or sorrowful, extraordinary or commonplace; we spend less time focusing our attention to the present moments. Our minds, as storage and retrieval systems, are often busy pulling out old 'movies' to show us, replaying them over and over, sometimes as a means to possibly help us figure something out about the events, and at other times, for no apparent reason.
Often, time spent pondering past events proves to be anxiety-causing, as we tend to remember emotionally-charged events that have the potential to place us in a state of anxiety. Remembering and talking about anxiety-producing events (memories) from our past can serve a purpose, when used as part of a therapeutic process, for example. But when 'used' as a pastime, with no clear purpose or outcome in mind, these thoughts provide little value and can even cause us ongoing harm.
Perseverating on 'negative' events can change our perspective and even our orientation, giving us the impression that our lives are lower-quality. Focusing on those events that cause us anxiety can result in elevated levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), higher blood pressure, and cause outbreaks, rashes, and nervousness. Most of these conditions can be lessened or even avoided altogether where we to spend less time pondering the past and more time in the present.
Within the Thoughtfulness Practice, the condition wherein someone spends a large amount of time remembering past events, reviewing them verbally and non-verbally, and replaying certain anxiety-causing events over and over, we would say that the person is "using too much past." Why "using?" We use the term "using" because thoughts are produced by the mind and "used" by the self. Storing, saving, recalling, and using thoughts is always a choice made by the self. (See the article 'The Functional Mind' for more.)
Too Much Future
As with thinking about the past, thinking about the future can cause similar conditions in the person. When we think about the future, we're creating stories (fantasies), based on what we think might happen. The problem with taking our visions to heart is that virtually all of them are not true.
Our minds are constantly producing thoughts, often in the form a short 'movies' that play in our mind's eye. These movies are one of our mind's ways of trying to help us navigate life. We must always keep 'in mind' that our minds are problem-solving, highly creative tools that make us special and unique. They are also capable of producing a large amount of material in a short period of time.
When left unchecked, the mind will tend to produce hundreds if not thousands of possible outcomes for the future. It will show us these as a way to help us be prepared for those times, if and when they come. The mis-managed mind will continue to produce and play thoughts over and over again, sometimes causing the 'users' the same types of anxiety as do thoughts about the past.
Thinking about future events in detail, whether it be a conversation with someone else, giving a presentation, tackling a job or task, or doing any number of other things, can be helpful in certain situations. Considering options is a good way to prepare and be ready. Using the mind to develop a plan or procedure can be time well spent and result in productivity. Allowing the mind to run free in your head, showing any and all 'movies' it chooses, whether based on facts or fiction, whether they cause you joy or anxiety, can result in the same types of problems as using too much past. When someone spends a large amount of their time focused on the future, worrying about what will happen, considering all types of undesirable outcomes, we say that they are 'using too much future.'
The Thoughtfulness Practice teaches us that one way to increase our time in the present, is to reduce our time spent thinking in terms of the past and future.
A Thoughtfulness Practice:
- When you find yourself thinking about the past, consider the quality of the thoughts. Become an observer of your own thinking process and ask yourself: "What is the purpose of using this thought right now?", "What is the feeling attached to this thought or 'movie?'", "Have I considered this thought already? If so, is there any point to repeating it?".
If you find that your current thoughts are about something over which you have no control, consider making a mental or physical note and return to attending to your present surroundings.
If you find that the thought has an emotional charge to it, invite that emotion to 'speak more fully' within your body, rather than pushing it away. Try to find out what the emotion wants to 'say' to you. What is the message? If there is no message, feel the feeling as much as you can. Often this will allow it to dissipate or lessen.
If you have had the thought before, know that your mind is repeating thoughts in an attempt to be productive and helpful, but that you needn't spend additional time reviewing thoughts that you have already considered. Lessen repeating thoughts by focusing your attention in the present, feeling your body from within and attending to all that your sense bring to you from your current surroundings.
When we lose touch with the present, our minds tend to anchor in the past or future. Becoming aware of time spend in the past or future is one of the first steps in developing your Thoughtfulness Practice. You may find yourself in the past or future. Return to the present by acknowledging that your mind is simply trying to help, to figure things out, but that what you need most is simply to be present. Be grateful that you have a creative mind, but manage your thoughts in a responsible way, using only those thoughts that are purposeful, productive, and valid in relationship to your life as it is in the moment.
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