What Time Zone Do You Live in—the Past, Present or Future?

We can enrich our lives in the present when we can flexibly envision our future.

Posted Aug 25, 2019

I routinely pose this question to my clients in order to better understand the lens through which they experience their lives.

Some report they often focus on the past, while others do all they can to avoid thinking about it. Others say they live predominantly in the present or the future. And certainly, many indicate living, to various degrees, in all three zones.  

Overall, it is my clinical observation that a key component of well-being is mindfulness about which zone we are devoting our energy. So, it makes perfect sense that we may have nostalgia for moments of the past. We may recall moments of happiness as well as the challenges. (Some recent research indicates we may have nostalgia regarding the challenges as it reminds us of our resilience for having lived through them.)  

I agree with the perspective espoused by Buddhist psychology that we are most alive when we live more fully in the present. Real presence, whether with the world, others, or ourselves, rests on the capacity to flexibly attend to the details of what we are observing.

This includes the capacity to flexibly direct attention to our inner landscape—including our thoughts, feelings, and sensations. We feel most alive at such moments because of the vibrant interaction of our thoughts, feelings, and sensations. As highlighted by Buddhist psychology, the past is a memory of things we can no longer control, and the future can only be imagined. 

At the same time, it is our uniquely human capacity to project ourselves into the future that can further enhance our well-being in the present. Specifically, this entails our capacity to engage in “what-if” thinking. Such thinking can help us define our values and the “guardrails” by which we live our current lives and whom we wish to be in the future. 

Our capacity to project ourselves into the future is essential for self-discipline. It enhances our freedom to creatively choose how we wish to live our lives. And yet, all too often many of us are stuck, too fixated on aspects of one zone that inhibit our ability to best make use of our capacity for constructive “future time-travel.”

The challenge of being overly attached to a zone

Regardless of the zone we say we are living in, many of us are actually deeply anchored in the past. Only self-reflection, sometimes aided by counseling, can help us to gain this awareness.

For example, it’s often the case that the tendency to experience certain feelings in the present, such as shame, guilt, sadness, and anger, is related to past wounds that have not been more fully addressed. Some of us, driven by anxiety and fear, are preoccupied with the future, but the combination of our nature and nurture may make us vulnerable to envision our future constricted by our past. 

We may be overly attached to the past when we are preoccupied in our thinking about what “should have” or “could have been.” Or, we may similarly be overly attached to the past when we intensely avoid thinking about it. This is true when we have had wounds that need to be addressed and mourned if we are to move on. Such preoccupation undermines our capacity to more fully engage in our present or with our potential future.

Being overly preoccupied with our future can similarly sap our capacity to be fully present in our lives as we are living them. This may be reflected in obsessive rumination about the attainment of happiness in the future—preoccupied with the achievement of a goal such as purchasing a home, having a relationship, attaining success in our career, or gaining wealth.

Fueled by anxiety, we may be preoccupied with thoughts of imagined threats to the satisfaction of our desires, including our overall safety and security. There is a huge difference between planning for the future and having concerns about it, versus obsessive rumination about it. 

While not usually addressed, our being overly attached to certain aspects of the present can also undermine our well-being. This is especially the case if we live with an over-attachment to our feelings, thoughts, or sensations while living in the present zone. Some of us may reside too much in the present when we have little inclination to think about or plan for the future. And while this may offer some a powerful sense of freedom, it inhibits our capacity to live a more meaningful and fulfilling life.  

This was evidenced by Jeff, of one of my clients, who proudly proclaimed that he really made commitments in his relationships. This was reflected in a response to friends who invited him on Tuesday to play soccer with them on Saturday. He responded that he would let them know Saturday morning.

Jeff thoroughly maintained this mindset, even knowing that he loved soccer. When questioned about this, he indicated, “How do I know how I’ll feel on Saturday? I feel freer and more spontaneous when I wait until the last minute to decide if I’ll play.” 

I then suggested that perhaps he was really a hostage to his emotions of the moment, even when he experienced such freedom. With greater flexibility, he could have reminded himself that playing soccer put him in a good mood, rather than assessing his mood at a given moment before committing himself to join his friends.                         

123rf StockPhoto/Vilmos Varga
Regarding the future
Source: 123rf StockPhoto/Vilmos Varga

When a future focus helps foster emotional well-being

“Non-identification,” a core concept of mindfulness, entails the capacity to observe and experience our thoughts, emotions, and sensations without being overwhelmed by them.

Mindfulness is not about changing our experience. Rather, it helps us to not be overwhelmed by it. It is not about distraction from our feelings or emotional avoidance. Rather, it provides us a reminder that our feelings, thoughts, and sensations are transient.

The capacity to envision ourselves in the future offers us an opportunity to strengthen this mindset. It furthers our capacity to be mindful to our feelings, thoughts, or sensations of the moment, without being held hostage by them. This capacity is a core component of resilience when dealing with difficult and challenging emotions.

When we primarily live in the present or the past, we fail to take advantage of our uniquely human capacity to project ourselves into the future. As such, while living primarily in the now can enrich our lives, there are times when living in the future can powerfully contribute to how we choose to live in the present.  

For example, the capacity to focus on the future is an inherent necessity for self-discipline. It’s often the case that beginning any project requires a great deal of psychic and physical energy to overcome the inertia of sitting still.

This is poignantly evidenced when trying to move a stalled car down the road. It initially requires several people to provide the force to get it in motion, but once it has momentum, fewer are needed to keep it moving.  

The internal dialogue that reflects intense self-criticism, perfectionism, or fears of failure further strengthens our inertia. Such inertia may be a key component of procrastination with regard to engaging in any challenging endeavor—such as attending a social event, going to the gym, having that uncomfortable conversation with a loved one, or engaging in a creative pursuit. 

Such thinking undermines our self-discipline and a greater commitment to our future self. This is often the case when we have not resolved conflicts about feeling controlled. It is reflected in a comment made by a friend of mine when she stated, “No one is going to tell me what to do—including myself.” 

Whether due to anxiety or issues of control, envisioning the future is an intensely powerful way to move past the inertia of the moment. It is an empowering approach to transcend the fears, anxiety, or self-doubt embedded in such moments. Doing so may require that we first focus on our experiences of the past as an aid for dealing with our future. 

For example, when confronted by social anxiety, we may recall a time when we were nervous about attending a particular social event but felt great pleasure at the end of the evening. Using this memory can serve as a foundation for imagining ourselves in the future.

Creating such a vision first requires focused attention on being fully present with the thoughts, feelings, and sensations associated with that distinct moment of pleasure. This experience highlights how our recall activates an experience that we are present. We can then envision that present experience occurring in our future—rather than focusing on the present fears and thoughts about attending that event. 

This calls for more than just telling ourselves we will have a good time. It requires a focused presence with our internal landscape at the moment in the now as a possible experience upon leaving the social event and returning home. Further, it’s helpful to identify the range of our experience—perhaps feelings such as joy, satisfaction, connection, or the sense of mastery that accompanies personal growth. 

This approach is motivating when trying to develop any new habit. However, it calls for developing realistic expectations that include remembering that: 1) change takes time; 2) it is incremental; and 3) being human, learning includes making mistakes on the road to greater mastery.

The cultivation of self-compassion is especially essential for helping us anticipate and negotiate every stage of this process. It offers us the resilience to disappointments we may experience when we’ve not reached our desired goals. It helps us to accept our humanity, which means we make mistakes, have flaws and are imperfect.

It is important to note that many of us may be challenged in our capacity to assess memories of positive experiences to draw upon for such imagery. While each of us is capable of cultivating such imagery, developing these skills may require professional help. For a broad range of reasons, including some already described, we may be stifled in our capacity to let in the good.

Living in the “now” offers our richest sense of being alive. However, being able to mindfully direct attention to our future self offers us expanded freedom to create our lives in ways that most resonate with whom we wish to be.

This capacity rests on discipline and being attuned to our most compassionate self–that part of our self that asks us, “What is in our best interest?” in spite of what we may be feeling in the moment.