This post is the first in a series of meditations I plan to publish, with the intention of sharing practices that have helped me gain more presence and equanimity on my own journey. I have found meditation to be a key strategy to connect myself to the timeless wisdom within, to ground myself in a much-needed foundation of inner peace, and to train myself to respond more skillfully in challenging situations. I share it here so others may benefit.
In the chaos of modern living, meditative practices are not “extras.” They’re essentials — for the activist, the seeker, and the everyday human just trying to stay sane on the ‘hamster wheel’ of daily life. May this practice help you stay strong, and keep your bearings in the storm.
Past and Future Meditation
~ in guided audio with text version below ~
“Past and Future Meditation” addresses tendency our mind has to be somewhere else — anywhere else. It teaches us to recognize and let go of thoughts that lure us into another time, entangling us in past memories or future fantasies.
Past and future thoughts distract us, and keep us from accomplishing the work we want to do in the world. Living outside the present moment is an energetic waste, keeping us from using our lifeforce for what is needed from us in the moment. Past and future ruminations also generate negative thoughts, such as regret and worry, which inflict unnecessary suffering upon us.
By re-centering ourselves in the present moment, we regain our power of attention, and find that we are free, flexible, and capable to achieve what we set out to do. Unencumbered by past and future mind clutter, we can stay focused on our intended path and, ultimately, create our most conscious life. In addition, by avoiding the suffering of past and future mind states, we generate fewer negative thoughts, thus increasing our balance of well-being, with positive effect on ourselves and others.
Past and Future Meditation: guided practice audio
~ Text Version: Introduction ~
When we sit to meditate, it is common for our mind to drift from the focus of our meditation. In our attempt to quiet the mind, we are continually carried away by memories, fantasies, anxieties, plans for the future, and general mental chatter.
If we observe the contents of this drifting mind, we’ll likely see that in general, the distractions that arise are one of two types: thoughts of the past, or thoughts of the future.
When we are pulled from the present moment of our meditation in this way, our psyche is in movement. Our attention is pulled in one direction or the other: past or future. Alternatively, when we are in the present moment, practicing awareness and observing what’s there, we see that we are no longer moving; we are still.
This past and future meditation can help us recognize the phenomenon of being swept back and forth by the opposite polarities of time, to observe any helpful patterns in that movement, and to practice returning to the timeless present moment, again and again.
In this process of repeatedly connecting with the present-moment self, we come into closer contact with our true nature.
For our true self is not the self we used to be or wish we were. It’s not the self we hope to be or fear we might become. Rather, the true self is simply who and what we really are. It is alive and accessible, always, in the present moment. It is a self worth sitting still for.
~ Instruction ~
Sit in a comfortable position, with your spine straight, and the top of your head pointing upward to the sky. Relax the body using your chosen method.
Close your eyes, and focus on the breath entering and leaving your body for a few moments. Feel your chest rise and fall, moment to moment, with your breath. When you feel your breath even out and calm, bring your awareness to the present moment.
Feel yourself here. Take in the sounds around you. Smell the air. Feel the warmth, or coolness, or humidity, or dryness of the air on your skin. Take some time to simply receive.
Resting in your senses, now bring your focus to your conscious mind. Notice what it feels like to be here at this moment, mind feeling, hearing, body breathing, the mind a clear mirror of your sensory experience. No thought of past or future. You are only here, witnessing.
Focus on this moment, the present here and now. No other moment matters.
As you continue to breathe, be aware of what this moment feels like. Settle into it and just be. There is nowhere to be at this moment, nothing to do, except to practice receiving with the senses. This is what you came here for.
Set aside the items on your to-do list, any worries or responsibilities you’re carrying right now. Remind yourself that all those things will still be there, waiting for you, when the meditation is done.
Sit quietly for a few minutes, just being in this moment, with no care for what has happened in the past, or what may happen in the future. Notice what it feels like to simply be here, in this moment, now.
If at some point you notice that the mind has carried you away into a thought, stop to notice: what are you thinking about?
Take some time to look at the thought. See if you can pinpoint the thought in time. Is this thought about the past? Is it about the future? No need to look any further into it. No need to ask questions. Just notice: does the thought concern the past, or the future?
Sit quietly again, until another thought arises. Then look at the contents of the thought, and notice its place within the unfolding tapestry of time.
It may be helpful to name the thought, to orient it in time.
Is it a memory? That is the past.
Is it a plan for tomorrow? That is the future.
Something you wish you had said? That is past.
A hope for things to change? That is future.
And so on.
Each time a thought presents itself, simply notice which direction the mind has taken you. There is no need to follow the thought, or dig into it further.
If you like, you can make a mental note, saying to yourself, “past” or “future,” according to where you have found yourself in time.
For instance, if you find yourself feeling anxious about something that might happen tomorrow, or next week, or next year, you can mentally label that thought “future.”
Then without any problem solving or judgment, let that train of thought go and return to the present moment.
At some point, you may notice a thought that doesn’t seem to be either past or future. It could be a thought about the chair you’re sitting on. It could be a sound outside the window that calls to mind an image — a bird, or a car. It may be a thought about the person sitting next to you: “I wonder what they’re thinking about…”
In that case, notice that you’re simply responding to the moment. Thought can arise in the present moment, too.
If something has come to mind that you feel is important, make note of it. Once again, remind yourself that it will still be available to you when this practice is over.
Then come back to your breath. Check in with your senses. Feel the place your body connects with the floor, or the chair, or the earth. Breathe. Sit quietly.
If after a time, you notice again that the mind has moved away from the present moment and into a thought, observe it. What is the thought about? Is it about something that has already happened? Or something yet to come?
Notice which direction that thought has taken you, make a mental note of it if you like, and then gently bring your attention back to this moment. There is no past, no future here. There is just you and your mind, present together in this room.
It is always now.
Continue this practice for a time that feels comfortable, perhaps five minutes, perhaps twenty. Take the time that is beneficial for you. The intent is not to fight the mind, or tire yourself out, but to practice long enough to observe the direction your mind wants to take you in today. Tomorrow, it may be different.
Shortly we’ll bring this meditation to an end. Before we do, take a moment to observe any patterns your mind may have followed during this practice.
Notice, when your mind drifted away, did it tend to carry you into the past? Did it repeatedly pull you toward the future?
Did you sometimes drift to the past, and other times to the future? Was it sometimes hard to tell the difference?
You may also ask yourself, is there a certain direction, past or future, that feels more comfortable to you? Is there a direction that feels more common to you usual way of thinking?
Does one direction feel more emotional than the other? Does one direction feel more peaceful, or more interesting?
With childlike curiosity, make note of where the mind has taken you today. Marvel at the power of the mind to carry you through time. Marvel at the power of your mind to bring you back into awareness, back into the present moment.
Finally, notice that you are not the thinking mind. The thinking mind is only one part of you.
You have been sitting still during this time of meditation. Your body has been here. Your consciousness has been here. But the mind has been moving.
The mind is not who we are, but a tool our consciousness can use for perception, sensation, and awareness. It is also a tool for remembering the past, and imagining the future.
Each time we return to awareness, we train ourselves to use the tool of our mind. With practice, we can point our mind backward when needed, to learn from the past, or forward to prepare for the future, and become present again when we choose. We learn to drive the mind, rather than be driven.
In past and future meditation, we learn about our mind. And we learn about our true self beyond the mind. It is a gift.
Returning to the room, take a deep breath, feeling the breath enter your body, and breathe out slowly and consciously, feeling the breath gently leave you. Repeat the breath, breathing in, breathing out.
Continuing to breathe deeply, gently move your fingers and your toes, and feel the sensation of being here, connected to your physical body, in this moment. If you like, you can thank your mind for teaching you today.
Also if you like, you can ask your mind, body, and senses to stay present with you as you step into your day.
When you’re ready, slowly open your eyes and come back to the room.
Thank yourself for taking the time to come to this practice. May you receive benefit from this time in presence, and carry, with it new insight, into your life.