If you had been asked to picture what the world would look like in a year, in late March 2019, could you have imagined everyone wearing masks, working from home, and hardly any traffic on the streets as our world went into lockdown? Although we have learned a lot about how to respond if we have another pandemic, even the most advanced science in the world has not been able to provide certainty on what happens next. It’s almost as if the future is not as certain as it once seemed. When we think about the future we use our imagination, but this is often based on what we know about the past. Interestingly, the same areas of the brain that process the past are involved in imagining, planning for, and anticipating the future.
Every day we wake up and begin the day, washing, eating, travelling, working, relaxing, and socialising. And although we only ever live in the present, we can also mentally time-travel in our heads about the past and future. Although most animals live only in the present, some can plan for the near future. For instance, scientists from Lund University, Sweden found that ravens were able to choose a bigger reward, than being offered a snack immediately, which they did not receive until up to 17 hours later. Only humans can anticipate weeks, months, and years into the future. This ability to imagine, plan and anticipate future events is one of the defining characteristics and evolutionary advantages of being human. For instance, our ancient ancestors may have planned a hunt around an annual animal migration and communicated with each other about when and where to go and how they would work together.
It’s easy to know about the past; it’s what we did yesterday, last week, or last year. We can bring up last week’s diary; show the photos we took, read messages we sent, and so on. The future’s more difficult; some things are predictable and many are uncertain. You can view the meetings for the coming week but cannot completely predict what will happen; travelling back from work you know that a train will arrive, but there’s always the possibility that it may be delayed.
Recent research found that people spend three times more thinking about the future than the past. Of course, about half of this thinking will be automatic mind-wandering. The other half will be proactive thinking on purpose as we do our best to manage our future lives through preparation, planning, and predicting likely outcomes, which allows us to prepare for the future as far as possible. Thoughts that emerge when our minds wander can be useful and powerful. This is triggered for us by what’s called the Default Mode areas of our brain that become active when our brain registers that not much is going on. For instance, we could find ourselves imagining a future situation, rehearsing conversations, and anticipating how we feel emotionally, as we walk to the shops.
Psychologists call the human ability to consider and evaluate what may happen in the future, Prospection, which has become a growth area of research. It’s commonly thought that the main focus of psychotherapy is about exploring an individual’s past. Yet leading psychologists have proposed a different view. For instance, Carl Jung said, “I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.” The emerging new discipline of Prospective psychology takes a similar view: when we experience low mood or anxiety we’re less influenced by past memories than the limiting and negative thoughts and feelings that anticipate future events. Once past and future thoughts are untangled, it’s easier to see that it’s actually the thoughts we’re entertaining about a future event going wrong or not working out that causes us difficulties. By being more aware of our thoughts about the future, we’re better placed to challenge negative, depleting, and limiting thoughts and replace them with ones that are more positive, nurturing, and expansive.
The fast-paced, uncertain, globalised, 24-7 world of today tends to make us even more future-oriented than our recent ancestors. There’s certainly more impatience around. How long does it take a driver behind to beep if the car in front hasn’t immediately pulled away when the lights change? This impatience is a bit like a neurosis, where we’re frantically wanting to get to the next moment as if that is so much more important than the present one, we’re experiencing. This widespread lack of patience causes people to be irritable, frustrated, and unkind as if other people have no right to get in their way. It also brings greater unease, stress, anxiety, and worry, which are rarely grounded in the present.
So how can practising mindfulness make a difference?
- Becoming more aware of thoughts about the past, present, and future
- Knowing when thoughts are unintentional mind-wandering and intentional thinking-on-purpose
- Noticing whether the thoughts are negative, depleting, and limiting or positive, nurturing, and expansive
- Recognising that thoughts are just mental content and that you are not your thoughts
- Acknowledging feelings of anxiety or low mood and exploring how these may have been reinforced by negative or worrying thoughts about the future
- Being kind, caring and making life easier for your future self; for instance, getting your clothes ready for the morning and making lunch the night before
We live in the moment but think a lot about the future. And in the fast-paced and uncertain world we live in there seems to be much to think about. Becoming more aware of and noticing the thoughts we have about the future determines our relationship with it, which directly affects our health happiness, and wellbeing.
Suggested weekly practice
- When you observe your mind-wandering see if the thoughts are about the past, present or future.
- Notice when thoughts about the future are useful, maybe anticipating and exploring possibilities as well as getting some sense of how you may feel emotionally in these imagined future scenarios.
- If you notice that you feel anxious, see if thoughts about the future are supporting and possibly amplifying the anxiety.
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware.
There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
- Play the settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps.
- Then play the second practice to explore your thinking about the future with openness awareness and kindness, noticing and gaining insight into any limiting patterns that are no longer useful.