Where are you now?
Paying attention in the present moment can help your brain, and your future.
What’s with presence?
More and more, we hear about the power of being present.
Research continues to show the benefits of mindfulness and meditation ranging from greater resilience, brain health, mental health and well-being.
But if you find yourself resisting the advice to practice presence or mindfulness, you’re certainly not alone. What’s more, there appears to be good evidence for why you want to dismiss it.
Why the future grabs us
As someone who has been practicing mindfulness for a number of years, I’ll be the first to admit that something that sounds as simple as awareness in the present moment can in fact be quite difficult.
And if you’ve tried it and given up, I don’t blame you. It can be a challenge.
You may resist it, thinking: “What’s the point of this? I need to get stuff done! I’m sitting here wasting my time. I’m just not cut out for this – I need to plan for [x, y, and z], not sit here and gaze at my navel…”
Sound familiar? It’s not only common, it’s understandable.
According to current research, our minds are drawn toward the future over the present and even the past. Martin Seligman, psychology professor and author of many books on positive psychology, and John Tierney, recently wrote in The New York Times, “Looking into the future, consciously and unconsciously, is a central function of our large brain.”
And, as they point out, research shows that we have bias toward prospection over retrospection. One study found that people thought about the future three times more often than the past.
Interestingly, much of the brain’s predicting of the future occurs without our awareness. Without our controlling it, the brain will touch upon past experiences and information to predict what’s coming next, similar to the way Google’s search engine responds to our searches.
How presence helps us with the future
What, then, is the importance of the present moment?
First, if you are one who tends toward excessive doubt, worry, low confidence or anxiety, your brain has established a pattern of over-predicting negative outcomes. In order to change a negative pattern, you must first be aware of it. You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge. And being aware of the pattern requires presence as the first step to changing it.
Second, as Seligman and Tierney point out, according to prospective psychology research, our emotions exist in the present in order to guide our future behavior. Emotions are essentially a form of instant information for the brain to help it predict the future.
Our emotions arise in the present – often quite quickly – to help us to relate to others, predict their behavior, and decide how to act. For instance, if you are speaking with your boss and notice that you are suddenly feeling uneasy about the encounter, you might decide that now is not the best time to ask for that promotion. If you ignore the feeling and ask anyway, you may regret it. But if you pay attention to the present feeling, you will wisely decide to wait.
Help your brain to be smarter in the present
Our brains are constantly working for us, to predict the future and keep us safe, even when we’re not asking them to – thank you, brains!
We can help our brains out by paying attention to what is present. The more we build our present awareness – of external and internal circumstances – the more conscious we will become to our decisions and the wiser our decisions will be.
To resist building your presence is understandable given the brain’s tendencies, but to persist in the resistance is unwise.
Start by pausing throughout the day, before a decision, and during interactions with others. Breathe. Notice your external surroundings (place and people) and your internal sensations (your body and emotions). Factor the present information in to what you say or do next.
If you commit to building your present awareness, you will commit to a smarter use of your brain!
So don’t delay – no time to be present like the present!
Photo: me in front of Jonathan Gitelson’s Are You Here? at deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park.