by Megan Taylor Stephens
Is there gas in the tank? Is there money in the bank? What should I make for dinner? Is this lottery ticket a winner?
Living in the Future
“I can’t wait until Vancouver, B.C.!” I proclaimed in my childhood diary. “Only 52 more days til Europe!” I shouted. I grew up with a single mom teacher who loved to travel and show us the world during school holidays. We didn’t have a nice car or fancy things, but we had exciting vacations. In a way, I think this backfired.
Looking ahead to the starred day on a calendar truly got me through lots of tedium at school and in life—boredom with classes, low level friend drama, breakups with boyfriends. Small things didn’t matter because pretty soon we were off to escape the confines of this uneventful town. I looked expectantly toward summer vacation like I did the final countdown on my student loan payoff date or the birth of my very past due and excessively large firstborn child.
As an adult, I can see that I am firmly future-focused. And I’m starting to wonder if too much foresight is bad for the psyche.
Identifying the Problem
The other day, I checked off a day in my calendar at work, which happens to be at a school—the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. It goes without saying that I am very much looking forward to summer vacation, even though it’s only December. As I marked off another day in the calendar and scanned to see how many were left, I felt a pang of guilt. Why am I so impatient to get through 24 hours and move on to the next day? What am I trying to get one day closer to? If I’m honest, why do I often wake up hoping for time to speed up and the day to be over? This does not seem like a good way to live.
Apart from general pandemic malaise and the wear and tear of parenting teenagers, I think two major issues interfere with my ability to live in the present. First of all, travel is in my DNA and without a trip in the future, my life has felt aimless. I’m fully aware that this a super snobbish, entitled problem. Poor Megan grew up seeing the world, and she suffers so without a trip planned for the future. My point is that it’s somewhat detrimental. This “I can’t wait for the trip around the corner” mentality is now just my way of getting through life. Ticking the days off the calendar feels like getting one step closer to a glimmering pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. You never know if you’ve made it to your destination, because: Oh my gosh! There’s another rainbow over there!
My second problem is that I am not very Zen. I’m more mindless than mindful, more Tigger than Pooh. Try as I might to be Type B, my Type A, mildly ADHD reptilian brain is having not of it. The most mindful I usually get is something like, “Look, a squirrel!” It’s kind of like smelling the roses, right? Kinda sorta? Anyhow, my hypothesis is that those are my two biggest challenges. And because I have no trips definitely happening in the future (I blame COVID), that leaves me with exploring how to be more mindful and in the moment.
The Research on Being Present
We can’t avoid the need for some amount of future thinking. Our success as Homo sapiens relative to Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis probably comes largely from being able to plan ahead. Coolidge and Wynn (2001) postulate that executive functioning skills such as planning were a central factor in Homo sapiens’ superior cognitive development and success. As far back as 150,000 years ago, our well-developed prefrontal cortex started letting us build animal traps, paint hunting diagrams on cave walls, and migrate around the world. All activities based on “prospective thinking”!
That said, all of us have heard about the benefits of rooting ourselves in the present by incorporating mindfulness and stillness into our lives. Studies show that mindfulness boosts our immune system, improves sleep and concentration, increases compassion, and decreases stress and depression, to name only some perks mentioned in “Five Ways Mindfulness Meditation is Good for Your Health” (Suttie, 2018). Sitting quietly while we feel the inhale and exhale deep in our core. Naming three things we’re grateful for every day. Noticing five things around us that go with each of our senses. I feel less Tiggerish just writing about these.
The opposite of mindfulness, mind wandering, is correlated with less happiness. After developing an app called Track Your Happiness, Matt Killingsworth wrote a paper in 2010 with Daniel Gilbert entitled “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind.” The title gives away the conclusion: that mind wandering makes people less content than those focused on the present. Moreover, the researchers discovered that people think about what is not happening as much as they do what is happening. (I may have found my people!)
Like a good researcher, I decided to study how bad my “prospective thinking” or “mind wandering” problem really is. For 12 hours, I journaled about my effort to remain in the present and to try not to have thoughts of the future. How hard can it be for me to notice and smell the roses? My goal was to not let my mind or actions wander into more than one hour ahead of my present time and space. Well, here’s how it rolled out from 6:30am to 6:30pm (condensed version):
6:30am. The alarm goes off. It makes my heart rate lurch and my eyes shoot open. I am certainly living in the present now with my life-affirming cardiac palpitations.
7:00am. I thought about what to bring for lunch and banished it from my brain. I’m sure there’s some stale snack in my office drawer. Or I could eat an overpriced lunch in the cafeteria. Stop thinking about future food. Remind your primitive brainstem that you have ample fat reserves to protect you from starvation.
7:30am. I rode my bike to work while playing groovy 80s music on my speaker. “Don’t stand so, don’t stand so close to me,” sang The Police. Kind of creepy and pervy when you really listen to the lyrics. Hall and Oates interrupted my thoughts with: “I can’t go for that. No, no can do.” Seems like a good statement for teachers who are pushed to the limit. Then Fleetwood Mac crooned, “Saaaara, you’re the poet in my heart. Never change. Never stop.” Who was this paragon of a woman?
The songs kept coming. While listening and sometimes singing along, I noticed the intricate blades of dewy grass that sparkled in the morning light. I inhaled the fresh morning breeze and savored it deep in my lungs. The music brought a smile to my pedal.
8:15am. I scan through my schedule to see who I will work with today. Oops, don’t scan ahead. Just find the students as you wish to work with them. It will somehow work out. I catch up on emails and get some lessons ready instead.
9:00am. I grab two students from their self-contained class and we work on social and communication skills. We practice staying one arm’s length apart while we walk to my office. We role play how it feels to be too close and why it’s not appropriate for the time and place. We then do a language game where they answer WH-questions. They enjoy rolling the dice, picking out the shapes and numbers on the cards, and trying to answer the questions. My brain is in the present with these two boys.
9:30-11:00. More lessons with other students: a Wheel of Fortune style game and a 45-minute class lesson on verbal self-advocacy. The students are doing great. High interest and good participation. My students with autism are loads of fun. Being a speech-language pathologist is loads of fun.
11:45am. Lunchtime. I skipped food in lieu of doing some paperwork for an IEP meeting tomorrow. Is this a forbidden future action, or is it just me doing my job in the present, much of which involves prepping for meetings? I daydreamed about going on a trip to Hawaii, my old stomping ground. I could squeeze a week in with my daughter during winter break. She has been asking. She visited once as a baby but doesn’t remember it.
12:15pm-3:00pm. I worked with one student on her speech sounds and another on his speech fluency. Then more paperwork. Then some scattered thoughts. Who knows if the Omicron variant of COVID-19 will shut our lives down later. I imagine basking on the beach and can almost hear the whooshing waves.
3:00-3:30pm. I thought I could intermittent fast until dinner. Nope. I’m starving. I walked to a food cart and got a bite to eat. Burmese food is delicious. It packed some serious spice. The sun felt nice.
3:30-4:00pm. More paperwork, emails, bureaucratic frivolity. I thought of appointments I should schedule. When was my last pap smear? I think I should do teeth whitening. The dog really needs a nail clipping and that other gross thing I didn’t know about until I got a dog: expressing anal glands.
4:00-5:00pm. IEP meeting. The parent was intense. She had lots of concerns and complaints (not about me, but still…). I did a lot of querying, explaining, appeasing, defending, assuring. It was a relief when it was over.
5:15-5:45pm. Bike ride home. On goes the 80s playlist. Back on goes my smile. “Say you, say me,” sings Lionel Richie. “I had a dream, I had an awesome dream…”
5:45-6:30pm. The husband made pasta for dinner. We ate and talked with the daughter. The son was at work. We talked about whether or not the youngest and I should go on a trip to Hawaii. What activities would she want to do? Where would we stay? We happily imagine the sun, surf, snorkeling. The pasta didn’t disappoint.
How able was I to stay in the present? It was pretty mixed. Riding my bike and listening to music was the pinnacle of my feeling in the moment. Working with students was a close second. Teaching requires focus, vigilance, adaptability, theatrics. There’s no time for zoning out. I also felt present while eating. No surprise. Food is delicious and food is life. Paperwork made me focus, but I didn’t feel much while doing it. Other times, I mind wandered uncontrollably.
It was a battle for me to stop drifting and fantasizing. But, to be fair, our society makes it very hard to live a satisfactory life based on the present tense alone. How do we balance mindfulness and appreciation for the present with our lifestyles that are manufactured to make us plan ahead? Is there gas in the tank? Is there money in the bank? What should I make for dinner? Is this lottery ticket a winner? How can we possibly live in the here and now and still have a decent life?
The Take Home Lesson
A reminder to myself and everyone else is that satisfaction and joy can only be felt in the present. Satisfaction is doing a good job at work. Satisfaction is checking off duties from checklists. But joy makes you feel alive. Joy is pedaling to work singing along to Journey. Joy is on a baby’s face when you coo at her. Joy is in a toddler’s gallop at the park. Joy is the dog chasing a stick and bringing it back all slobbery. Joy is not planning for or fretting and dreaming about the future. Planning is essentially joy deferred.
The next time you catch yourself counting down the days to an exciting event, a better life, a hypothetical point in time, remind yourself about the counterpoint. Fantasies are fun but rarely fulfilled. Optimism, positive expectations, and plans for achieving goals are all fine and well. But life is not lived later. It is lived right here, right now.
So enjoy thinking about the airplane trip you will take later, but balance it with the trip you are taking to the post office right now. Fantasize about how calm and clean the house will be when the teens leave, but laugh with them today. Shop for the lasagna you will make for dinner, but don’t you dare forget to savor each bite of the creamy, cheesy, garlicky goodness that hits your taste buds. And don’t forget the wine. In moderation, wine is joy too.
Post script: We ended up buying tickets to go to Hawaii! To justify this, I’m sure my next article will be all about carpe diem and the virtues of living spontaneously. Before the trip, I vow to live fully every day. I am here…experiencing now…and noticing this drizzly, gray landscape with ungodly chilly temperatures.
Coolidge, F. L., & Wynn, T. (2001). Executive functions of the frontal lobes and the evolutionary ascendancy of Homo sapiens. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 11, 255-260.
Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T., (2010). A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind. Science, 330, 932. https://wjh-www.harvard.edu/~dtg/KILLINGSWORTH%20&%20GILBERT%20(2010).pdf
Suttie, J. (2018, October 4). Five Ways Mindfulness Meditation is Good for Your Health. Greater Good Magazine. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/five_ways_mindfulness_meditation_is_good_for_your_health