I was having a coffee with a friend yesterday and she was saying how she lies awake at night with her over active mind playing out every eventuality for the weeks and months ahead!
Do you find yourself constantly planning ahead or anticipating what might happen? What impact does it have on you?
I used to be very organised! I did quite a bit of event management and had everything sorted down to the last detail way ahead of time in my head, and had many sleepless nights! I was always asking myself ‘what might go wrong?’ ‘what happens if….?’
It can be useful to anticipate things that might go wrong but if we are doing it all the time, what is the cost to ourselves? is it good for us to be organised in that way?
It all came to a head with me when I was on a retreat in the West of the Ireland in 2005. My mind wouldn’t shut down I was planning everything under the sun including many things that didn’t need planning or would never come to fruition! To start with, the time of silence on the retreat seemed to make it worse, as there was suddenly more space in my head to be filled!
I remember sitting outside in the mountains. Everyone else had gone for a walk but I had stayed behind. It was magical listening to the sounds of nature. I was all alone in the early spring sunshine. Then suddenly it dawned on me that nothing existing apart from that moment in time. There was no future, no past, no need to plan anything right then. I just needed to sit in the sunshine. And in that moment, I decided to let go of tomorrow, let go of the future and live in the present as much as possible.
To start with I felt free, it was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, telling myself there was no need to worry about tomorrow. But then unexpectedly, I was swept with a feeling of sorrow and loss. I had lost the hope of the future, always thinking of something better down the road to work towards. Is this it? I said to myself as the future disappeared in front of my eyes. But this is it!
We constantly strive for a future, when that future comes it passes without a fanfare as we immediately set our sights on the next future. Always waiting for a better time. We miss the magic of now and lose that forever. We regret not enjoying our children more, not spending quality time with friends and family when those opportunities then pass. We tell ourselves these things will be there forever then one day they are gone.
Why do we live in the future in our heads? I think we get into this state for a number of reasons:
- If we are unhappy as a child or adult the future may look brighter so we spend time there instead of in the present.
- We may need to be efficient and organised in work, and to avoid disasters, get into the habit of checking and planning all the time. Making mistakes is unthinkable! It becomes a kind of safety mechanism.
- If we become accomplished at living in a future state, our minds carve neural pathways that go into default to do exactly that, even when they don’t need to.
- Of course, it is nice to think of a better brighter future, always something to work towards in life so we become charmed by the imaginary future and something better to work towards.
The mad thing is that our perceived future is an unreal state that might or might not happen and we waste so much time going there in our heads.
Working with clients I notice that people who spend a lot of time in this future state are more prone to suffer with anxiety. They tell themselves that by going through things in their minds they are warding off impending disaster. They find themselves preparing by going through scenarios over and over again in their heads. But our minds cannot always distinguish between now and the future, so if in our heads, we are running through a catastrophic situation we might as well be there now! By being prepared we may be forcing ourselves into a false reality that is harming us and causing us unnecessary stress.
Learning to live more in the present moment has been the biggest factor in reducing my anxiety and living a more peaceful life.
A couple of present moment exercises
Press the pause button
Take time each day to press the ‘pause button’. Whilst sitting or standing take a deep breath and as you breathe out relax your body. Then say to yourself ‘I see’, look at something in your field of vision, really looking at it. Perhaps you notice the colour or shade, the shape or a movement. Watch and focus on seeing it for just a few seconds. Then say to yourself ‘I hear’, listen to the sounds in the room or outside perhaps a busy street, perhaps the hum of the computer just listen and do nothing else for a few seconds. Finally say to yourself ‘I feel’ and feel your body not your emotions or thoughts just your body, perhaps the clothes against your skin, your back against the chair or your toes as you wiggle them!
Take a moment in time
Each day take a moment to smell a flower, taste the coffee, stroke the cat, watch a child play; breathe in the air, run in the rain or something similar. And when you are doing it just concentrate on that one thing and nothing else.