Human beings have the ability to place their thoughts in the past, the present, or the future. Some other animals have this ability too – they can remember where they put things, enjoy them in the moment, and plan how they are going to find other things. So we are not unique in this respect. What is relatively exceptional, is humans’ ability to perform extended contemplations. Again, some other animals have similar abilities, but, well, we are human, so let’s share thoughts about how we work.
When you remember what was, you are picking up memories. Memories are remnants of what you have already experienced or thought. Because you spent so much early time in the presence of your carers, many of your embedded memories are highly influenced by them. You saw the world through their eyes. They gave you a running commentary on the universe. You learned language through this lens, and learned to see your world a particular way. You are full, even now, with the vocabulary, thought-structures, and sensations, of life with your early guardians.
When you indulge in past thinking, therefore, you are contemplating the legacy your companions in life have left you. When you grieve someone, you are contemplating what they were that you are not (otherwise you would not need to grieve, because you would already carry them in you). When you regret, you are seeing that your relationships were not what they could have been. You are becoming a historian in your own life, learning to reinterpret, and develop new languages that were not available to you at the time.
When you focus on what is, you are attending to the universe with your present mind and body. Your are still influenced by the past – whatever you have learned, is rolled up into the skills you have now. If you have trained yourself to watch with equanimity, then that is what you will do. If you have not progressed as much as you would like, and are still angry, or upset, or anxious, then your vision may be distorted by fears beyond your control.
When you undertake present thinking, you are experiencing yourself, and the world around you, from moment to moment. You will notice that, like the sky, your experience changes constantly – thoughts, like clouds, appear and disappear. If you are lucky, you will have times when you become immersed in the present moment, but with awareness, so that you are both free from control, and in control. It is a bit like being a bird flying on an upcurrent. You can find balance and support, and feel relatively effortless.
When you contemplate what is to be in future, you are participating in the flow of endless change. When you plan, you acknowledge that you can influence that flow. When you are afraid, you understand that the flow might hurt you. When you look forward to things, you understand that the flow might help you.
When you undertake future thinking, you are using your ability to formulate concepts, and then to manipulate them in your mind. You might daydream about what would happen if… You can run through possible scenarios without having to experience them directly. You can make wise moves, based on seeing several steps ahead.
GETTING STUCK IN A TIME ZONE
It is possible to get stuck in any one of the three time zones.
If stuck in the past, you might be replaying endless reruns of your history. This might interrupt your ability to enjoy the present, or plan for the future, because you are so wrapped up in what has already been. This is common when a person has been overwhelmed by a past event. The mind and body cannot move on, because they are trying to resolve what still feels like a threat or trauma.
If stuck in the present, you might be indulging in a constant chain of present stimuli. You might be denying your past, not wanting to go there. You might also be denying your future, unable or unwilling to contemplate it. This is common in those addicted to drugs for example. Such a person might plan to an extent (to obtain their next fix), but is happiest when in the right now, enjoying the stimulus.
If stuck in the future, you might be attached to it, because your past and present have been so awful for you. It is the only thing that brings you hope. In contrast, it might be dominating you because of fear – perhaps you are terrified of some impending doom, and cannot take your eyes off it, and are obsessing about it, because it will change your life so much.
BALANCING YOUR TIME ZONES
Finally, it is worth considering how we might better balance our time zones. One way of contemplating this, is to try a ‘best of’ meditation. This helps you filter your past, present and future, and join them together in some interesting ways.
A ‘best of’ meditation works like this.
First, spend a few minutes focusing on a part of your past that you are comfortable with. Perhaps remember how it felt to be in the company of someone you hugely respected. Spend some time getting back into that space.
Second, bring yourself back to the present, and spend a few minutes simply being where you are. If you are meditating, then focus on your breath, or a mental or physical object. If you are walking, attend to your surroundings. Try, in particular, to focus on something you consider good in some way.
Third, imagine meeting a person or event in your future. That person or event may not even exist yet, so you will have to use your daydreaming imagination to get there. Give the person or event good qualities. Allow yourself some time there.
This method also trains you not to be scared of any particular time zone, so that you can be more balanced, and more in control of your thoughts.
If you are successful, then you will feel more fluid, and better able to shift between past, present and future in a more balanced way.