Apparently, You’re Never Really Living in the Present — A Neuroscientist Explains

Image by Lukas Korynta / Stocksy

Live in the present moment. It’s a phrase you’ve likely heard once or twice before, perhaps if your mind is feeling frenzied or anxious. It makes total sense in theory: If you immerse yourself in the current moment (without the what ifsand remember whens), you can approach a situation with a more mindful perspective instead of replaying past patterns or worrying about future occurrences.

But according to communication pathologist and neuroscientist Caroline Leaf, Ph.D., BSc, it may not even be possible to livein the present. (Um, what?)As she recently told us on the mindbodygreen podcast, there may be a more effective way to think about your mental state.

Why you’re never really living in the present.

To be clear, present-moment mindfulness is an excellent practice and can offer profound benefits for your mental well-being. What Leaf emphasizes, here, are the ways in which we often misunderstand what it means to “live in the present.”

The main key we tend to miss? Context. “We spend between one-half and three-quarters of our day in our minds time-traveling between the past, present, and future,” Leaf explains. Think of your nonconscious mind as an endless forest, rich with thoughts and memories. Those memories are never rooted in the present: Once they occur, they’re immediately existing in the past. Then once a memory has been consolidated, it has the power to affect your future by informing you of what has and could happen.

It’s a constant process that’s constantly churning—and Leaf says your mind physically cannot stay in one place for very long. “It’ll just calm you down for a few seconds,” she notes. Then, once your mind starts shifting between the past, present, and future again (because, trust, it will), you might not be able to keep up. “[Living in the present] is only part of the process,” she adds.

So what should you do?

When it comes to mindfulness meditation, Leaf shares that our ability to remain in a state of presence has its limits: “The deliberate exercise, trying to stay in the now for a few moments, is a very good practice to develop the mind, but it’s not the solution to managing chaos.”

Rather, she suggests embracing the entire context of your past, present, and future—not avoiding it. She notes, “You have a narrative, you have a story, you are responding in this moment because of everything else about you.” Essentially, your current reality is rooted in the stories of your life—so don’t ignore them; make sense of them!

In terms of the how, she touts a five-step brain-building process (which includes gathering, reflecting, writing, reconceptualizing, and active reach—find a full tutorial here). “It takes time to get to the point where you train yourself to access that,” she notes, “but these five steps train you how to get to that ‘wisdom mind’ so you can put the present, past, and future in context.”

The takeaway.

When you choose to center yourself in the present moment, it’s important to acknowledge that your experience is being informed by your past (and ultimately shapes your future). That’s not to say that practicing mindfulness is not a useful skill—it certainly is! (And see here for some mindfulness practices to try out.)

In fact, it may help you understand your perception of the present moment, and how you choose to respond is connected to your memories. And according to Leaf, that contextualizes the perspectives you hold now.


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