In Which Part of Life Do You Live: Past, Present, or Future?

How much is well-being or its absence – depression and anxiety – dependent on what you pay attention to? I mean the present moment, the past, or your future? Does one best way to focus your attention exist?

Let’s look at each of these three possible orientations to time. Today I’ll start where your body is, even if your mind isn’t:


Philosophers remind us that the present is all we really have. The past is gone and the future might not come.

At least three paths allow us to live within the fleeting instant:


Much effort is needed to develop and maintain this kind of “in the moment” way of being; daily meditation practice for the rest of your days. In doing so you can train the mind to stay in the present and refocus whenever attention begins to move toward a distraction, worry, preoccupation, memory, or anything else but your being within one second at a time. No before or after. No holding on to feelings. You observe the world rather than dwell on it. Thus, for example, pain is less fraught because you do not obsess about it. A benign sense of detachment comes to master meditators. They notice everything, but don’t pile meaning and intense emotion on everything, thus freighting the bad into something worse. Research suggests these are the most contented people on earth.


Unlike the meditation experts, those in this group lead intense lives. Their openness allows for much joy, as it does for sorrow. At their best they are unguarded and brave. I am not speaking here of people with ADHD, who risk being caught in a whirlwind of thoughtless and impulsive action, untroubled by the past or future. Rather, I refer to those who are free with themselves, not self-consciously governed by what others might say or see. They are quite natural, unaffected, and spontaneous. Their self (and self-consciousness) is lost.

Such lives are not full of rigid angles and rectangular shapes. They don’t always conform themselves to boundaries drawn on hard surfaces, as one must in formal sporting events, with perimeters decisively marked as fair or foul, in or out. Think ocean or sky, not ground, when you behold them: creatures who swim or fly. Theirs is a life of discovery and bright eyes. They wish to play, not keep score; celebrate while the sun still shines.

These gifted people (whether by nature or choice) don’t achieve the dispassionate serenity of meditation gurus, but they are more “alive.”

As William Blake wrote in Auguries of Innocence,  the talented few are able

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour.


This is a cousin of #2, but applies best to work, competitive play, and hobbies. Here the path is not so much social or relational, but the singular focus on a task. In the case of elite athletes, for example, their concentration is extraordinary: They have been known to so “tune out” the sound of the crowd, that overwhelming cheers (when they finally do break through) can startle them, bringing them back to the amphitheater from the smaller arena of man against man. They had lost awareness of a stadium full of 60,000 observers. The psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi tells us, “this is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by … great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill … during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored. The ego falls away. Time flies … and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

The mastery and experience within you is matched to the challenge at hand. You won’t get this often watching TV (only seven to eight percent of the time). Neither will relaxation transport you into “flow.” You must do something. Csíkszentmihályi would have us believe ecstacy is possible in the “flow.”

Some suggest, however, we be careful of too much “in the now” living as defined by the first two paths. Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher and social/political historian, thought the detachment achieved in a Buddhist type meditation (Category #1) could be a cheat of life experience, a kind of defense mechanism against injury; valuable, but missing the full essence of life.

Those taken by the moment (Category #2) also risk some of the avoidable misfortunes that those who spend more time looking ahead might dodge. Members of this group would push back, however, claiming the reward of emotional and behavioral vulnerability is worth the risk. Take opportunity on, they might say: this life is the performance and not the rehearsal.

Nor should we forget, people suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) are characterized as living in painful extremity too often. They can miss or discount the notion that nearly everything they are feeling at this instant is temporary, therefore potentially succumbing to passing emotional catastrophe. For them “the now” seems endlessly excruciating.

Want some homework? Ask yourself which “time zone” you usually occupy and which makes you happiest.

Stay tuned. One of my upcoming posts will deal with living in the past, which also has its ups and downs. An essay on future orientation will follow, along with some thoughts about the three types of time-focus and how to manage them.

The second image is Macaca fuscata in Jigokudani Monkey Park – Nagano, Japan, by Daisuke Tashiro. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

14 thoughts on “In Which Part of Life Do You Live: Past, Present, or Future?

  1. I quoted MC in my doctoral dissertation on leisure, but I’ve never seen him. Thanks for the TED talk. Flow is a fascinating idea.


  2. Usually much talk about being “in the now” flows somewhere between the sublime to the ridiculous but your presentation is a more balanced one. I categorize myself as definitely a #2 above. Question on time, would we be able to conceive of the passage of time if we had never learned basic math; the ability to add and subtract? Do we so seriously engage time as an artificial construct because we, unlike animals, are also artificial constructs? Is it “natural” to have a past, a present, a future or does such awareness put us outside the realm of earth nature?


    • drgeraldstein

      Thank you, Sha’Tara. I don’t know the research, but I can’t imagine even primitive souls not being able to tell the difference between one and two. The evolutionary advantage would have fallen to the math -inclined in building things, measuring, creating weapons, etc. Similarly, it would be hard to learn from the past (except instinctively) without the sense of time passing. Interesting questions.


  3. Thanks to you I have just discovered William Blake. 🙂
    When I craft I lose most sensation of what else is going on around me. It’s deeply therapeutic making things (whatever those things may be).


  4. Living with BPD is indeed tough, and excruciating. But it also has it’s good moments, intensifying the beauty and wonderful emotions. I also believe “everything in moderation”, so spending time in each of those three paths would be ideal. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • drgeraldstein

      Glad to hear an opinion on the relative worth of those three parts of our existence, Rayne. Your comment re: intensity reminds me of a client of many years ago, about whom I thought much the same thing: her life at the top of the borderline arc was something she also valued for the reasons you cite.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Love your post, Dr. Stein. Informative and thought-provoking. As a fiction writer with stories set in the past, I also spend many hours of my day re-examining and re-creating the past in my work in progress. With regard to “The Present,” I move freely in and out of the three paths that you describe, as the need arises.

    I practice mindfulness to stay grounded in the present, but believe that total detachment from the world would make me less caring of the needs of others around me.

    Most of my time is spent along the second path of emotional openness which connects me with others and the world in which I live.

    My time spent in the “flow” represents my greatest moments of creative output as a writer. As you describe it, it’s a period of total absorption where everything else falls away. I also experience moments like this when gardening (usually two to three hours on Saturdays). It’s just me and Nature. What joy!


  6. Hello Dr. Stein…I practice mindfulness in order to keep myself out of the future, but it is a daily battle for me not to experience anxiety. A great day for me is a peaceful one. Even while sitting for meditation practice, my anxious thoughts can interrupt my practice, but I keep trying, hoping for a glimmer or flicker of peace. Calmness equals joy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • drgeraldstein

      Sounds like you are on the road, Nancy. Most of the people I’ve talked to (and the writers I’ve read) say what you are experiencing in your meditation practice is very common, albeit discouraging. They suggest we look at the challenge as normal, and that with enough time and effort you will likely find the anxious thoughts less frequent and less fraught. Good for you.


  7. Thank you, Dr. Stein! I have been practicing for 1 1/2 years now. Thank you fo the encouragement!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I live in all of the above, depending on a number of factors. I live in the future when working on present goals, such as when I was in college as an undergrad. When the outlook on my future got shattered recently, however, I went back to the past and have been sort of stuck there, because the present retraumatizations reminded me of the past. Being in therapy also keeps me stuck in the past more so than in the present, no matter what grounding techniques or mindfulness practices I use. Therapy and school never mixed well for me, and I painfully learned that I cannot do both at the same time. I was only successful in college because I was a forward thinker, disciplined in the now for the purposes of the future I would win. When I am in the now, I am having fun with friends or learning something new. I enjoy being in the now only when it is pleasant. When it is not pleasant, the past revisits me and I revisit it, with dissociation. The now is my journey, and I enjoy the journey as much as the prize. However, when I have finally arrived at my future destination, such as when I graduated from college as an undergrad, or when I won multiple awards, I could not celebrate it for long without fearing that something bad will happen to me, since I had the faulty thinking from many traumatic incidents in the past that I was cursed, that anything good will be met with something equally bad, and that I was undeserving of any of my awards. My sister was jealous of me after I graduated, and her words echoed our father’s when she accused me of thinking I was better than her or when she put me down by saying that I was too crazy to pursue anything professional, esp. psychology. I had few others echo my sister’s words. My father wanted me to be a salesperson and a soldier. His words differed from my sister’s approach to sibling rivalry. I never ever intended to compete with my younger sister (we are two years apart), but it irks me how she does that every time we meet. So, my now is met with the past, and I hope for a brighter future to escape the past but live in a better now eventually. Then there are alternate mes who do their own thing.

    Liked by 1 person

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