Let’s begin with the basics: Past and future do not exist. They are not real. Einstein may insist that past, present, and future are all the same, but most of us can’t do that math. All any of us have is this very moment in which we exist, right here, right now.
The past is a thing, of course, but not a thing that can ever be experienced as present reality. Like everything that we do experience in our lives, the past is a creation of our mind. It’s made out of memories, thoughts, emotions, and whatever scars and triumphs we bear in our bodies and minds. But is it a place where we can be, where we can take any effective actions for our lives? No. In the most simple terms, it’s too late to do anything in the past.
The future is the same, but even more imaginary. We cannot exist in the future. We can pretend to exist there – I see myself in five years as a happy, successful person who has overcome my current challenges bla bla bla – but the truck that hits and flattens us tomorrow makes clear that the future is a fantasy land.
This isn’t too say we have no relationship with past or future. We do, because we can have a relationship with anything in our mind. In a way, we can use our memories, thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and so on, to transport ourselves, in our thoughts, to the past or future.
The past, after all, is where regrets live. It’s where we remember why we believe ourselves to be a failure. It’s where we go to remind ourselves why even trying isn’t worth the effort. It’s what we look to in order to give up on hope. Or perhaps it’s a place we reconstruct so we can deceive ourselves about what reality is in the present. So many options for the past, and none of them involve being able to do something that will change what actually occured.
The future, on the other hand, is a place we can fear. We can also fantasize about the future, which prepares it to become a past we can regret. If the past taught us to hate ourselves, we can look into the future and convince ourselves we’ll remain unlovable. The future, like the past, holds so many options, and again, none of them can be touched with our hands. You cannot have that conversation with someone tomorrow until tomorrow.
At which point the future has become the present. Just like the present has made the past, the past.
The present is right now. As my fingers come down on this keyboard, over and over, I am experiencing the present. The cup of tea I finished ten minutes ago still lingers as an aftertaste in my mouth, but it’s drunk and gone. The cup of tea I’ll get up to make in a while is still an idea, a plan. The present is nothing more than me sitting here, typing away, trying to sort through the muddle of thoughts in my mind in the hope that I’ll be able to create a decent short essay.
Every moment I live through shapes me. New memories are formed; some old ones fade away. New thoughts occur; old thoughts are recalled. I reconsider opinions and beliefs. I experience new things, re-experience things for a second or perhaps a thousandth time. I age. I apply what I’ve learned to become, I hope, a healthier person, perhaps reminding myself that this feeling of dread is just a mental construct with a physical manifestation and my fear is a choice I can make in this moment or perhaps the next.
Perhaps “being in the past” or “living in the future” is just a matter of semantics, a way to describe exploring what you’ve lived though or hope to accomplish. This, however, is a productive option only for those who are mentally healthy. For those with anxiety, depression, trauma, addiction, and all the rest of the mental health challenges so many of us face today, the past is where we learned to be unhappy and the future is where that unhappiness will continue.
Which is how suicide becomes a rational choice.
Mindfulness is such a powerful tool – tool, not a lifestyle or religion or commercial commodity – because it allows us to see the past and future for what they really are: things our brains fabricate and which we have the absolute choice to reject. My past where I’m a failure who deserves not a whit of compassion? I have yet to fail at anything today. I am a a failure because I don’t write? I am writing this very moment. And the future where I continue to fail because I’m too afraid to try? Well, I have the possibilities to take steps today, however small, to build towards succeeding in my plans and dreams.
I can jettison my past and future because I’ve learned to use mindfulness to keep myself rooted in the here-and-now. I’ve learned to use mindfulness to pay attention to what my body is telling me, including the sensations in my head that indicate my moods. I’m learning a bit more every day how to respond to well-trained habits and reactions so that I can choose how I will live my life according to the values I continue to explore and construct each day.
There is not a single thing I can undo about yesterday. It’s like trying to unburn the fire I made in the fireplace. I have to figure out a way to do something tomorrow other than wait for tomorrow to become right now. I can prepare for tomorrow, but I’ve spent my whole life preparing for tomorrow. A fat lot of good that has done me in most of those tomorrows. In the end, I existed nowhere other than in the present, just as I do as I conclude typing this paragraph.