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Are we even able to live in the present?

Humans are constantly time travelling

Here at The Watch NOW we talk a lot about living in the present moment. For many people, this is a difficult concept to grasp; some may even consider it unattainable, at least for more than a couple of seconds. According to neuroscientist dr. Caroline Leaf, author of the book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess, people often misunderstand what it actually means to live in the present. According to her, our constant time travelling between past, present and future is simply the way our minds work.

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Constant time travelling

According to dr. Leaf, the human mind spends between half and three quarters of its waking hours time travelling between the past, the present and the future. I’ve written about this before myself and I have a theory that this time travelling is essential for humans. Because unlike animals, we don’t really have a strong instinct or reflexes that help us survive. Instead, we depend on learning from our past experiences and planning for the future. This, I believe, is our survival mechanism. But dr. Leaf says that many people are also forgetting about context. Because the moment you create a new memory, it is no longer in the present; it immediately exists in the past. It can remain very powerful though: a single memory can affect your entire future, simply by reminding you of what has happened and what can still happen.

Living in the now: only part of the process

Are you having trouble staying focused on the now when practising mindfulness and meditation? Don’t worry about it. Leaf thinks the ability of the human mind to remain in the present simply has its limits. She says it will just calm you down for a couple of seconds. Before long, your mind starts shifting again, time travelling between the past, present, and future. Is meditating pointless, then? Absolutely not. “The deliberate exercise, trying to stay in the now for a few moments, is a very good practice to develop the mind,” she says, “but it’s not the solution to managing chaos.” The whole ‘living in the now’ thing is merely part of the process as a whole.

Embracing the full context

All right, so if trying to stay present is only a part of it, what else can we do to silence the loud voices of our minds? Instead of desperately trying to avoid thoughts about the past and the future, Leaf suggests that we should embrace the entire context of it. “You have a narrative, you have a story, you are responding in this moment because of everything else about you,” she says.Your NOW is a reality because it is rooted in all your memories. So instead of ignoring your memories, Leaf thinks we should try to make more sense of them. I’m not telling you to overthink every single thing that’s ever happened to you. Just take some time every now and then to reflect, write and reconceptualise. It may not happen instantly, but eventually this should help you to put your past, present and future in context, and gain a sense of peace.

Final thoughts

According to dr. Leaf our natural tendency for time travelling means we are literally unable to stay in one place (the present) for too long. However, that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. Meditation and mindfulness are valuable tools to ground us and calm us. But aside from that, we should also respect the fact that our past, as well as our thoughts about what is yet to come, shape our current moment. Embracing the entire context of our past, present and future can help you to manage the chaos in your head – and might even increase your ability to stay in the present a little longer.

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