Most of us spend significant parts of our lives either dwelling on the past or planning (or dreading) the future. The exception might be when we are young and are living in that moment – remember savouring an ice cream on a hot summer day, wanting nothing else and to be nowhere else?
As we get older, this changes. We propel ourselves into an imagined future, as we live our lives mentally in what we want to exist. My first experience with this was when I started university and – as I worked so hard with my studies and jobs – I imagined myself finishing university. These visions kept me going when little else would. Sadly, what started as a strategy to accomplish a goal (many of our dysfunctional actions start off to address real situations in our lives, but outlive their usefulness) became an unhealthy pattern of living in the future.
Why is this a problem? Other than losing out on your experiences now – such as the attention of your child – living in the future is not terribly productive (how much of what we imagine actually happens?) Also, such projections can lead to significant anxiety, when the future we imagine is not a positive one.
What about the opposite – living in the past? Nostalgia can be comforting, for a moment, but can quickly morph into regret, bitterness and sorrow. Living in the past offers little assistance in making it through the rest of your life.
People present to therapy who cannot stay in the moment. They are depressed about the past or anxious about the future. How can the therapist help?
There are quicker ways to come into the present:
- Grounding in the body. This involves exercises within the therapy session where the client is taken through attempts to focus on what is happening in their body at the moment.
- Changing speaking patterns. This involves encouraging clients to speak in the present, not the past or the future (e.g. only present tense verbs). This can be difficult and cause frustration for clients accustomed to doing otherwise.
- Initial attempts at facilitating a meditative state, perhaps utilising something like Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT).
There is a long-term (or perhaps better worded, a more persistent) way to come into the present:
- Developing a mindfulness practice. Once a client is able to spend 20 – 60 minutes a day meditating, he or she will find that this state will start to work into other parts of life. This is the point. Mindfulness is not about a few minutes of focus, but focus that becomes normalised for the practitioner.
Do you live in the moment? Is the here-and-now your normal mode of existence?
- Spend significant time reviewing the past?
- Do you often find yourself feeling sorrowful about what has happened or what might have been?
- Do you dread the future?
- Do you find that normal things happen without you seeming to notice them (e.g. eating, spending time with family)?
Anxiety has a hard time taking hold when you focus on NOW. Depression loses it power when you find wonder around you.
This moment is all we really have. Make it your focus.
To good mental health!