Are thoughts in the past or future?

Thoughts are always here and now, like anything else. Nothing of who and what I am can not be here and now.

The content of thoughts can certainly be about the past or future and inevitably is. (Really, all thoughts seem to be about the past. Thoughts about the present are about what just passed. Thoughts about the future are usually thoughts about the past projected into an imagined future.)

When attention is caught up in thoughts, it can seem as if I am in the past or future. I may be lost in ideas about the past or future. I may find myself caught up in and apparently inside of that fantasy.

And when I notice that these are thoughts, attention is not lost in them anymore. They are recognized as thoughts that are here and now, just likely everything of who and what I am is here and now.

Image by me and Midjourney. A woman has several mental images, and notices they are mental images.

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Byron Katie: Now isn’t


Now isn’t. (Have you noticed?)

– Byron Katie

I don’t know how Katie sees this, but here is what comes up for me.

When I try to find “now”, I cannot find it outside my idea of now. I can find what appears in my senses – sights, sounds, smell, taste, sensations and so on – but I cannot find “now”.

Now is an idea with associations. It’s a mental representation, not what it points to.

Also, what we in our thoughts call “now” has already passed. Our thoughts are always one step behind.

In either case, “now” doesn’t exist as we imagine it.

Present with being on autopilot

When we notice what’s here, what do we notice?

Mostly, we notice sensory experiences and this human self doing, feeling, thinking, and so on.

We may notice it’s all happening within and as awareness.

And we may also notice a range of other things. One of these is that this human self is on autopilot in two different ways.

He is on autopilot in that he is doing things on his own. He operates on his own. The more mind has released identification as being this human self, the more he is seen as operating on his own. He is on autopilot. This can be a disconcerning discovery, but as we get used to it it’s a relief.

He is also on autopilot in a more conventional sense. A lot of daily tasks are automated. They don’t require a lot of scrutiny. This is evolution’s way to help us free up resources to the occasional tasks that do require more intention and effort.

We are present with this human self. And this human self is operating on his own. And a lot of daily tasks are automated. So in both of these ways, he is – in the best possible way – on autopilot.

In this context, being on autopilot does not mean being distracted or absent minded. It means being present with this human self while he is on autopilot in these two ways.

Note: How do we discover that this human self is operating on his or her own? How is identification released? It can happen in different ways. Sometimes, glimpses of all as the One helps soften and release identifications. Sometimes, it comes through active investigation and exploration – for instance inquiry, healing work, and energy work.

And a personal note: For me, it was disconcerning to discover that this human self operates on his own. There was a bit of fear coming up. If “nobody is there” to take care of business, how can he function? But he does. He knows very well how to function. Life lives his life. The One lives his life.

It’s always that way, for all of us. Life or the One lives our lives. And the initial noticing may bring up slight worry.

The second form of autopilot is a no-brainer. We need to automate a wide range of tasks in daily life to even be able to function. It’s evolution’s gifts to us.

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Avoid, present with, or resolve

How do we relate to uncomfortable thoughts and sensations?

We can avoid them. Be present with them. Or invite them to resolve.

Each one has its place.

Avoiding can be useful in the short run. But nothing is resolved, the discomfort tends to return, and avoidance in itself can create problems in life.

Being present with the images, words, and sensations can be helpful. It tends to help the mind calm down. We may notice what’s there, some of the dynamics of the mind, and perhaps have some insights. But in itself, this too won’t neccesarily resolve anything.

So how do we resolve it? It can be resolved through the consciousness side or the energy side, and really through both. I’ll just mention the few approaches I am familiar with, out of the innumerable ones available.

We can identify and examine the stressful beliefs, and find what’s more true to us (The Work). We can notice and rest with the mental images, words, and sensations creating the stressful experience, allowing the mental connection between the thoughts and sensations to dissolve (Living Inquiries). We can dissolve it from the energy side while inviting in insights to support the new patterns (Vortex Healing). We can change our relationship to it through heart centered practices (tonglen, ho’o, metta).

In general, we can meet it with presence, patience, respect, kindness, and curiosity. And that curiosity is a kind of inquiry supported by certain pointers, guidelines, and perhaps practices aimed at helping us see what’s already there. The truth is kind, and it will set us free.

Another meta-skill is important for something to resolve and that’s intention. Intention for it to resolve and clear. Intention for us and the process to keep moving, to find and explore associated and underlying beliefs and identifications.

It also helps to notice that all of it – any movements and any content of experience, including the stressful beliefs and how we relate to and explore it – happens within and as presence. That’s the context for it all. And it helps us notice identfications with wanting something to change, and then notice that too as happening within and as presence. It gives it all more space and freedom to be.

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Misunderstanding “living in the moment”

There are several valid criticisms of mindfulness:

  • It’s a very broad term and it’s used in many different ways. That means that, in itself, it doesn’t mean much.
  • It’s only one element of any serious self-exploration. It needs to be combined with a range of other forms of exploration. For instance different forms of inquiry, heart-centered practices, body inclusive practices, attention to how we live our life, psychological healing, relationship work including our relationship to ourselves, others, society, our planet, and life, and a study of other people’s experiences.
  • It can open up a pandora’s box of unprocessed materials and disorienting transpersonal experiences, and not all mindfulness teachers are experienced enough to guide their students through whatever terrain is opened up.

One argument against mindfulness that I sometimes encounter, and most recently this morning, is a straw man argument and not valid. It’s when people say: “We can’t just live in the present. We need to plan ahead and learn from the past. That’s our strength as human beings.”

That’s all true. And mindfulness allows us to use that ability with more skill and avoid some of its inherent pitfalls.

Mindfulness helps us change our relationship to thoughts. It helps us see that our thoughts – including thoughts about the future, past, and present – happen here and now. They, in themselves, are not the future, past, or present. And mindfulness combined with a simple form of inquiry helps us see that thoughts are made up of imaginations (words, images) and sensations. They are not what they appear to represent.

And that, in turn, creates room for us to relate to these thoughts more intentionally. It helps us recognize thoughts as thoughts. It helps us be less caught up in them. It helps us avoid taking them as anything more than thoughts. It helps us hold them more lightly and recognize then for what they are….. questions about the world.

We not only are able to “live in the present” while using thoughts as tools. We do so all of the time. The only difference is whether we are caught up in our thoughts and take them as real and infallible assumptions about the world, or recognize them as thoughts and questions about the world.

In either case, thoughts help us learn from the past, explore possibilities about the future, and form working assumptions about the present. Without mindfulness, it’s easy for us to take thoughts to be more than they are. And with, we can use them more skillfully as very helpful and essential tools.

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Living in the moment

For a healthy person, it’s impossible to live in the moment. It’s a nice thing to say in terms of seizing the day and enjoying life, but our inner lives and experiences are much richer than that.”
– from Why Living in the Moment Is Impossible: Decision-Making Memories Stored in Mysterious Brain Area Known to Be Involved With Vision.

This reflects an interesting and slightly amusing misconception. It seems that the researcher assumes that living in the moment refers to having no memories of the past or scenarios of the future, which is clearly not the case.

Living in the moment can simply mean noticing it’s all happening here now, in immediacy, including any memories of the past or scenarios of the future. It doesn’t mean excluding anything, just noticing. (At least in my experience.)

If I took living in the moment to mean avoiding memories or the past or scenarios about the future, it would be stressful, futile, and not very functional or practical.

If I take it as bringing attention out of thoughts – perhaps when I notice churning thoughts about the past or future – and to sensations, then it makes a little more sense. It’s a practical way of shifting out of churning thoughts, and noticing it’s all happening here and now. It can be a relief, and offer perspective.

And if I take it as an invitation to notice it’s all already happening in immediacy – including memories of the past, scenarios of the future, and images of the present – then it makes even more sense.

So if living in the moment means consistently avoiding or being free of memories and scenarios, it’s clearly impossible – and meaningless as a pursuit. If it means noticing it’s all happening in immediacy, it’s quite possible, and it can even be interesting, a relief, and bring a sense of coming home. And if it refers to what’s already happening, then it’s unavoidable. It’s all happening in immediacy, including any images we have of time, of the three times, and what happened, happens and may happen in time.

Gathering up past, future, and present

Before falling asleep in the evening, and after waking up in the morning, I like to take some time to explore the sense fields. And as I often write about here, one of the things I explore is the three times. How does the past, future, and present appear in the sense fields?

I may begin with bringing attention to each sense field – sensations, sight, sound, smell, taste, and thoughts/images – one at a time, and notice what is there.

Then, I close my eyes if they are not already closed, and notice how I have an image of my body laying there in the bed, in a room, in a building, at the outskirts of a small town, next to a forest, in a country, on the Earth. All of that happens in my own world of images. It is the movie I play for myself about the world. I recognize it all as images.

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Living in the present

The present moment is highly overrated. From an evolutionary perspective, the past and the future are where it’s at. Any aardvark, antelope, cat, or cockroach can effortlessly reside in the present moment. Only human beings can engage deeply with the past and consciously co-create the future. By doing so, by looking outward with aims of bettering our world, big or small, we also walk a path that leads to inner fulfillment.
– from by Evolutionary Spirituality: Coming Home to Reality by Michael Dowd

I agree completely. And yet, there is a common misunderstanding here.

The “present” doesn’t exclude past and future. It is just a reminder to notice thought as thought.

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Although eating honey is a very good thing to do


“Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best,” and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.
~A.A. Milne

Even a simple Pooh quote is a question and invitation for investigation.

When anticipating eating honey, it is easy to see that the joy of sweet anticipation is all in the mind. If we like honey, that is.

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Being present

What does it mean to be present? Or more accurately, to notice that you are present? When is it a useful pointer, and when not?

It is a pointer to bring attention to what is here now. To what happens in any sense field, including the mental field when it is noticed as happening here now.

And it is helpful in just that way. It is an invitation to notice that it is all happening here now, including mental field creations of past and future. It is an invitation to notice what happens when I get lost in ideas of past and future and take them as real and substantial (stress), and what happens when I notice them as ideas only (recognized as memories and scenarios, and as tools only).

As any pointer, it may be helpful and functional in some situations – in this case when someone is in the habit of getting lost in mental field creations without noticing what is happening.

But the pointer can also have drawbacks.

The witness/observer gestalt tends to come up, and it may easily be taken as what we are. I recognize that I am not most of what is happening in the sense fields, and the gestalts that come from a mental field overlay. Instead, I take the witness gestalt as what I am, and don’t recognize that one as a gestalt as well.

The idea of present also implies past and future, the three come in one package. So if the idea of present is taken as substantial and real, the idea of past and future tend to be taken as substantial and real as well.

A practical approach here is to use notice you are present as a pointer to bring attention to what is happening in the sense fields, and notice them as content of experience.

Then notice the idea of “present” overlaid on the sense fields, how it implies past and future, and how all of those ideas happen here now in the mental field.

And also investigate the sense of witness or observer created, see how it appears in the sense fields, and notice that too as a gestalt and content of experience.

Am I content of experience? Am I any of the gestalts? Content of experience comes and goes, what is it that does not come and go?

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No present, in two ways

There is of course a present in a conventional sense. There is something here – this human self and the wider world – and it is here now, not in the past or the future. 

At the same time, it is possible to discover – in immediate awareness – that there is no present in two ways. 

First, when I take “present” to be real and substantial, I have to take past and future as real and substantial as well. The three come in the same package. And when I recognize all three as mental field creations only, then “present” is left as a very useful pointer to what is happening in the sense fields. 

Then, when I notice that past and future are thoughts only, and as ephemeral and insubstantial as a thought, a question comes up: Is the present different? Is what “present” points to, what is happening in the sense fields, any more real and substantial than what a thought is? 

I can notice “present” as a pointer only, as a convenient mental field creation and insubstantial as any other thought. And I can notice what “present” points to – whatever is happening in the sense fields – also as insubstantial as a thought. 

All of this can be explored through the sense fields. And as I become more familiar with it, what happens? 

Do I notice past, future and present as mental field overlays, as they happen? Do I use “present” as a pointer only, to what is happening in the sense fields? Do I notice the sense fields to be no more substantial than a thought? 

What happens to a sense of me here? What happens to a sense of I? Are these also recognized as mental field overlays only? 

What is left? 

How does this human self function differently in the world when these are noticed? Does it need to look very different? Is there still a sense of drama? Does the drama tend to fall away? 

Also, is it true that I didn’t already notice this? 

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Flavors of present

Some flavors of present…

Whenever there is a strong belief in the stories of past, future and present, they seem quite substantial and real. The present appears on the razor’s edge between past and future, and it is a difficult balancing act to “stay present”. It is easy to get absorbed into stories about the past and future and experience them as real and substantial.

“Being present” here may be taken as focusing on stories about the (apparent) present, and push aside stories about the past and future. (And then discover that it is not very functional.) Or there may be a temporary shift out of stories and an experience of the timeless now, but a switch back into experiencing the stories of the three times as real as soon as they come back.

As the identification with the stories of past, future and present is released somewhat, we have a more immediate recognition of them as stories only. As mental field creations with a practical function, a tool for our human self to function in the world. It is possible to engage with these stories while recognizing them as just stories.

Early on, it may be easier to recognize the past and future as mental field creations, as (often very helpful) imaginations.

As this clarifies, there is also a recognition of the present as a story, a mental field creation overlaid on the other sense fields. Imaginations interpreting what is happening in the sense fields, in addition to an overlay of the story of present.

The gestalts of past, future and present are still there, and recognized as gestalts as they happen.

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History is what somebody wants us to think happened

I have enjoyed watching Terry Jones‘ (yes, the Monty Python guy) documentaries about the Crusades, Medieval Lives, and the Barbarians. They are all very well done, and give a different perspective than the traditional historical view, for instance pointing out that the way we see barbarians today is largely Roman propaganda, still effective 1500 years later.

(Watch the Crusades, Medieval Lives and the Barbarians online.)

Another excellent documentary is When the Moors Ruled in Europe, showing how the Renaissance – and what we know as modern European culture – was born out of the Islamic Golden Age. (Watch it here.) Islam and Islamic culture has traditionally been seen as an enemy in Europe, and this is a good antidote to Islamophobia and a way to nuance the picture somewhat.

We all know that history is “often what people want us to think happened” as Terry Jones says. History is constructed by those in power, often to protect their own interest.

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