The link between past and present
You could say there are two doors in life: one with ‘past’ painted on it in bold letters, the other with ‘future’. One we know; the other is uncertain. But we also have something else: the key to both of these doors, labelled ‘present’. After all, it’s in the present moment, the 'here and now', that we decide how we will deal with past issues and what direction we would like to take in the future.
Living in the moment is the key to a fulfilling life, according to Dr Fuschia Sirois, who is reader in health psychology at the University of Sheffield, UK. “It’s of paramount importance to have a balanced perspective of time and to involve the past, present and future in our lives equally," she explains. "For instance, many people think about the future, but they don’t see it as part of their own life, or part of who they actually are. We have to unite with our future self and bring it into our lives.” For instance, we can decide how our future can and should look – and what things would make us feel fulfilled, happy and full of joy.
We also need to know what to leave firmly in the past. For example, we’re constantly deciding whether or not to bring old injuries back into our lives or whether to distance ourselves from them and continue to live towards our ideals. This sort of decision-making can be seen when we decide to stay in the same job and continue being angry with our boss – or to look for a new position, where our abilities are more appreciated.
Here and now
“Focusing on the current moment brings more pleasure into our lives: it helps us to regulate our behaviour and deal with setbacks; it makes us grateful for what we have and improves our health,” says Dr Sirois.
But she also warns: “Living in the present moment isn’t always positive. There are people who live in the present because they are afraid of the future. They may say, ‘Today is all I have, so I live as much as I can, whatever it may cost.’ This attitude is related to negative behaviour, together with alcohol abuse or eating or gambling addiction. Therefore, the important question isn’t: ‘Am I living in the moment?’ but ‘How am I living in the moment?’” It’s also important to consider how the present will affect the future. For what we do now determines what happens months or even years down the line.
Smart planning is key
“This exact perspective of time is important for us as people, otherwise we couldn’t plan anything, from our next holiday to our career,” says cognitive scientist Jim Davies, from the Institute for Cognitive Science at the Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.
“Actually thinking about our future can be very powerful – but we have to do it in the right way. For example, I have been writing a book and I could sit here and imagine how the book will eventually end up in the shops, and that everything will be wonderful when that happens. It sounds great – but it just doesn’t work.”
This is because the matter is more complex: if we imagine something very intensely, our body responds accordingly and sends the signal to the brain that this is all actually happening now. As a result, we might rest on our laurels, so to speak, and put in less effort. Davies continues: “It’s better to consider how I should handle the matter right now. Imagining goal attainment isn’t as good as imagining what you must do to achieve the goal. When you’re working to achieve your goal, be present in the moment.”
Letting go of the past
But what about the past? We’ve all had experiences in which we’ve been hurt and possibly even traumatised. And yes, we’ve also had truly wonderful moments. But let’s forget all that. Ideally, we learn from our experiences, from knowing not to pick up a hot plate without gloves to when to trust our feelings. It becomes damaging when we get stuck in past hurts and traumas, thinking about them again and again and letting them live on in our mind.
At some point, there comes a time when we can let go of our past. Or at least those parts that are no longer helpful. We don’t need to grab a hot plate 18 times to know that it’s hot. Once is enough. When the wound has healed, the pain subsides, and what remains is the knowledge: I will never do that again. This applies as much to loveless mothers, violent ex-partners or unpleasant schoolmates as it does to hot plates.
For those already living a fulfilling life in the present, mindfulness doesn’t even seem like a concept. One pioneer in the subject of mindfulness is Ellen Langer, a multiply distinguished professor of psychology at Harvard University in the US.
She developed the term a good 45 years ago, and she regards mindfulness as something we can all learn, for instance by focusing on the current moment, being open to new experiences and being aware that there are different perspectives in life that are equally valid.
Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leading expert in mindfulness and inventor of the renowned Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Programme defines mindfulness as a particular form of attentiveness that comes into being when we deliberately focus on what's happening in the present moment, without constantly evaluating whether this moment, this situation or this person in front of us is good or bad.
The concept of "now"
Those who are mindful are centred individuals; they are not swept away by the challenges of the world, but rather respond to them appropriately, as they happen. They have their own feelings in focus, without disrupting those of others. It’s not about fading our negative emotions out, but rather recognising and accepting them as a part of life, giving them space if they are there – and letting them go when the right moment comes. And that is how, in the all-important ‘now’, we can shape both the past and the future, by deciding how we will deal with them. We are the masters of our lives, and sometimes there’s a door we need to lock – whether it has ‘past’ or ‘future’ written on it. But the key to both with the word ‘present’ on it is always with us.