Countless mindfulness instructions emphasize not getting caught up in thoughts about the past or the future. Instead, stay in the moment! This is sound advice, of course. For one thing, if you’re chopping vegetables and obsessing about an unkind remark you made to a friend last week, you might chop into your finger instead of a carrot.
It’s also true, though, that this advice can be unhelpful if it is presented and understood too simplistically, as it often is. It can promote the idea that the present moment is a kind of dreamy state of vacuous joy where no thoughts of the past or future intrude. You can just leave them out of the picture. This is honestly ludicrous. If we had no thoughts of the past, we could not remember where we live. If we had no thoughts of the future, we could not make a doctor’s appointment or plan a vacation. Strictly speaking, all thoughts happen in the present. That’s choiceless. The problems emerge when thoughts carry us out of our bodies and off into a la la land where we imagine we are in the past or the future rather than forming thoughts about them. Let’s dig into this a little more, since healthy doses of both hindsight and foresight are part of incorporating more mindfulness into your life.
Healthy doses of both hindsight and foresight are part of incorporating more mindfulness into your life.
One of the keys to mindfulness practice is actually noticing that we are, in fact, thinking. It has been described in some ancient meditation teachings as recalling or recollecting the fundamental awareness we carry with us all the time, which can get covered over by a fog of mind chatter. Recollection is one of the early translations of a word from ancient India that is now most often translated as “mindfulness.” In some sense, our fundamental awareness knows that we are thinking, instead of being carried away by our thinking.
When we notice thoughts in meditation—through the power of awareness—one of the biggest temptations is to push the thoughts away, thinking that these thoughts are the problem. The thoughts are not the problem. The fact that they can steal our awareness away is the problem.
It works like this:
Notice the thought.
Let it be.
Come back to the breath.
(Maybe we space out here, but eventually we…)
Notice the thought.
Let it be.
Come back to the breath.
Through repeating this cycle time and again, we indeed notice our thoughts, but we see them for what they are, just thoughts. They are not truth. They only tell a partial story. Nevertheless, they are the tools we have to navigate the world with. Being able to make better choices about them, through mindfulness, makes us better navigators—more perceptive, more responsive, and ultimately kinder, since we see that fighting makes navigating a lot harder.
Being able to make better choices about our thoughts, through mindfulness, makes us better navigators—more perceptive, more responsive, and ultimately kinder.
One of the mental tools that our thoughts supply us with is the ability to look backwards: hindsight. How did things unfold? How did we get here? Who did what? Hindsight is at the center of so much human activity: reporting, storytelling, much of our conversation, detective work, science, and so on and so on. Looking backwards at how things came together is a key means of learning. But, as we well know, hindsight brings with it lots of problems, as the famous saying “Hindsight is 20/20” reveals, which is really saying that our perception of the past appears to us as 20/20.
In fact, when we look backwards, we have a tendency to forget that we’re constructing the past from the perspective of where we are now, using a loose collection of data that we piece together like a kindergartner making a collage or building a castle out of blocks. And the castle we build is biased, incomplete, and imperfect. Merging mindfulness with hindsight means knowing, humbly, that when we are having thoughts about the past, we are not actually in the past. That may sound like a small thing, but it makes a huge difference. For one thing, it allows us to grieve about what we’ve lost, to have our heart broken, without it shattering completely. Not falling into the trap of actually living in the past helps us be resilient.
Merging mindfulness with hindsight allows us to grieve about what we’ve lost, to have our heart broken, without it shattering completely.
The same goes for foresight, the act of projecting into the future. In this case, we’re engaged in a kind of guesswork about what things will look like in the future—ironically based largely on how they looked in the past. Once again, we are in the playground, putting together a toy world.
It is just as vital, then, when we look into the future to be clear that the future will never look exactly like the version we project; in fact, it is often radically different. Being mindful of the future means truly being open-minded, making estimations and guesstimations, predictions and plans, while at the same time knowing that you do not know the future. Being able to project the future, while acknowledging that it is unknowable, allows us to yearn and aspire and be optimistic and visionary without becoming pollyanna. It also allows us to see around corners and anticipate threats without being consumed by fear.
So, here’s a request to folks who are promoting mindfulness practice: rather than treating thoughts and feelings about the past and the future as somehow extraneous or even problematic, lest we lose our mindfulness, let’s try to be kinder to ourselves, more open to the emerging of these inevitable thoughts. They are not the enemy. They are a core part of what makes us fully and truly human.
The future may just be brighter for it.