I spend a lot of time thinking about the future.
When I meditate (and other times, too) I sit. I follow my breath. And if I’m paying attention, I notice when my thoughts turn away from my breath. Sometimes, they turn to some other aspect of my momentary experience: my shoulder hurts, my foot’s asleep. But far more often, where they go is to some sort of future concern. It might be banal (what am I going to cook for dinner?). It might be more eventful (contemplating some major change in the configuration of our house, or lives). It might be prurient (fantasizing about some lurid thing I want to do with, or to, someone).
My goal in meditating tends to be pretty straightforward: I want to be here now. I want to see, clearly, without judgment, what is happening right now. What’s happening to my body. What’s happening in my mind. Thoughts are, to this way of thinking, a thing to be observed, rather than a reality to be inhabited. If I’m planning dinner, I try to notice that: That’s interesting, I think to myself. I set myself out to sit here, still, and to pay attention to my breath, and somehow, my brain wants me to stop doing that in spite of my plans and, instead, to think about dinner. As if I couldn’t think about dinner in ten minutes or four hours.
My brain is like this. The meditative experience of being fully present in the here-and-now, of constraining my thoughts to the very immediate moment, is somehow quite foreign. Even to me, someone who has made a practice of doing this for years, now. And it’s always interesting to note just what it is, at the moment, that’s making it so hard for me to stay with the here-and-now.
I have no idea how common this is, but, judging from what I read, what I see, what I hear, we all have a tendency to prefer to inhabit the past or the future, rather than the present. Or if not to prefer it, at least to have a tropism toward it.
For me, the past isn’t that interesting. I don’t, often, find myself revisiting things that have happened. Or rather, not outside of emotionally raw moments. When I feel wronged, badly, or intensely remorseful, I can spend some considerable time on that. But in general, I don’t revisit the past all that much. (Incidentally, this is me: many people tend to spend as much time in the past as I do in the future, or more. We all are different.)
But in general, it’s the future that animates me, that distracts me. It’s a bright and shiny lure, always more compelling than the here-and-now.
I think this is about fear more than anything else, at least for me. When my thoughts turn to the future, invariably it’s in the hope that, by thinking about the future, by rehearsing it, I can in some way influence it, change it, predetermine it, control it. (And therefore, at least implicitly, avoid some undesirable future – even if only undesirable in that it looks different than I might hope.)
This is, of course, almost always wrong. (Just as economists have famously predicted twelve of the last four recessions, I have predicted 2,467 of the last 12 disasters in my personal life.)
Not that planning doesn’t have its place: it does. You can’t bake a cake without selecting the type of cake you’ll bake, buying the ingredients, preheating the oven, etc. But planning rarely takes as much time as we (as I) devote to it. Planning itself is a discrete activity, one that can be accomplished remarkably efficiently, usually.
Why do we, do I, spend so much time planning?
What am I scared of?