One of the most persistent themes in psychotherapy for the last 50 years has been a focus on the present moment. Starting with Fritz Perls and Gestalt Therapy in the ‘60’s we seem to have been working on trying to help our clients to articulate what was going on emotionally and physically in the moment using all sort of techniques or modalities for therapy. There is real power in the moment, as pointed out by Eckhart Tolle. In the opening chapter of THE POWER OF NOW, Tolle states, “The present moment holds the key to liberation. But you cannot find the present moment as long as you are your mind.”
Being present in the moment frees us from the weight of the past and mistaking past injuries or fears, beliefs and perceptions for being repeated in the present and; thereby, limiting our response and perspective to situations that are happening now, in front of us. Being present in the moment also releases us from unwarranted anxiety related to anticipating the future, conjuring up thoughts of what might happen and mistaking them for the truth as if these unknown phantoms were guaranteed to happen. Future thinking can freeze us into inaction and disengagement through deeply experienced anxiety in the present as we worry about the future. Being present in the moment, able to observe and accept without judgment, opens up greater psychological flexibility and; thereby, opens more options for action coming from a well centered, clear experience.
With all this in mind, we want to take into consideration some basic functions of the human brain. We have memories of the past, some so deeply ingrained that they exist mostly as memories of emotions, such as fear or trauma, that can trigger the fight or flight response and help us to be cautious in dangerous situations or respond to threats quickly. Some memories are warm and nurturing or reassuring, while some trigger feelings of self-doubt or anger. They are all part of our human experience and are accumulated over the course of our lives. If we refer to them intelligently, within the context of memory, they can serve us well as long as we do not confuse them with what is actually happening in the moment.
As for future thinking, we can anticipate what we want to do or where we want to go or what we want to create. The anticipation can generate excitement, creativity, exploration or problem solving. These thoughts of anticipation of the future are usually influenced by experience in the past preserved by our memories. They are just thoughts, projections, that if recognized as such can serve to move us forward into new territory or paralyze us with anxiety with misperceptions about the length, size, difficulty or danger we interpret from the projection.
With the appropriate acknowledgement and acceptance of these thoughts from the past or projections of the future we can step back to get some perspective and a more complete appreciation of what is going on in the moment. If we reject or avoid these thoughts we can get ourselves into some serious trouble; at the same time, if we confuse them with what is actually happening in the moment they can raise emotions that will prevent us from taking appropriate action or color the experience in a way the interferes with understanding what is actually being said or meant in the moment. We must be aware that the context in the moment is different from the past and is only a projection into the future. The awareness of the context of the present allows for flexibility and more effective, clear decisions as we choose a path forward for our lives.