Dr. Paul on how to bring yourself back into the now

Thinking about the future or the past isn’t bad, but it’s important to be able to shift our attention to the present.

Where do you live? So many of us live in the past or in the future — our thoughts fly about like birds in the sky.

They sometimes fly back to better times when we had good fortune or happy experiences. Other times they rest on a painful branch from the past where we felt hurt, alone or mistreated. Our minds can spend a lot of energy dwelling on the past, even when it’s ancient history. When we’re living in the past, our bodies are in the present, but our minds are back in time.

More often, I find myself visiting the future, focusing on my ever-present to-do list. Sitting in my living room on a Sunday morning, my mind is visiting the week ahead. Where do I have to be, what do I have to do, what will I write for this column, how will I get it all done? Some of this future thinking is useful, but mostly not. The future is always unknown.

When we think about past happy moments, we feel good. But when we reflect on negative experiences, our bodies tense. The mind-body connection is a primitive system — it doesn’t fully understand time. It reacts to thoughts and memories as if they’re happening now.

Future worries bring anxiety experienced as increased heart rate, blood pressure or muscle tension. Past painful memories bring sadness or anger. All these emotions are experienced by our body, which resides only in the present. And yet, our mind is timeless — it can flit about like a bird that can’t decide where to roost. But our bodies are fixed in the here and now.

We’ve yet to invent a time machine that brings our bodies with our flights of mind.

We can’t change the past, but like historians, we can learn from our own history. This is how we develop good judgement. We evaluate circumstances, choices and outcomes from the past and use that information to make new choices in the present.

Future thinking can help us be better prepared. What will we need to know when we move to a new city? What will we need to pack when we are to travel to a cold climate? How can we improve a presentation at work?

But we live in the here and now, despite our mind’s movement across time. How can we bring our attention to the present moment? How can we fully inhabit our bodies? How can we experience our sense of taste, touch, smell, sight or sound?

So how can bring ourselves back into now?

We have to know what living in the present feels like. Do you remember when you were a child, lying on the grass on a summer day, looking up at the clouds traveling across the vast sky? There was no past or future. You weren’t thinking about yesterday or tomorrow. You watched the clouds float by, heard the birds sing, felt the grass on your back and smelled the scents of a warm summer day. These sensations were all that existed — everything else disappeared. Take a moment to recall that experience. This is the experience of being fully in the present. This is the goal of the “mindfulness” meditation that we all read about.

Lie down and take a few long and slow breaths. Notice the sensations in your body, starting with your head and going down to your toes. Pay attention to all the sensations in your body. These perceptions are happening now — not yesterday or tomorrow.

Notice when you’re thinking about the past or the future. Are these reflections useful or not? If not, focus your attention on what is happening around you in the present. Pay attention to where your attention goes.

It’s not that future thinking or reflecting on the past is bad — it isn’t. But it’s also important to be able to shift our attention back to the present, where we are today.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/health-wellness-library.html.

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