Planning for the future is an important and practical thing to do. This awareness may drive you to study hard for an upcoming exam or go to bed early in anticipation of a morning soccer game. A gaze at the future is useful in so far as it drives you to prepare and act accordingly.
But often we go beyond practicality and worry about events beyond our control. We become emotionally trapped by our fearful “what ifs” about the future, and when this happens, we need to recognize it and find a way to free ourselves from its vicious grasp.
There is a quote I like from Michel de Montaigne. He was a writer during the French renaissance in the 1500s:
“There were many terrible things in my life and most of them never happened.”
He was speaking about worry and it plagues us all. Our mind races on, imagining what will happen or what won’t happen. For example, at school, we worry if we will fit in. At work, we worry about whether we’ll get our next promotion. Or on a trip, we worry if our flight will land safely.
Our mind is always somewhere else, consumed in a whirlwind of thoughts. But consider for a moment that many of our thoughts relate to the past or the future. Worry is simply a thought about the future and regret is just a thought about the past. It’s important to note that these thoughts are not the actual events - they only exist in our minds. If you think about it, that means we’re spending a lot of energy and time on something that isn’t even real.
Recognizing that worry is just a thought makes it much easier to release its crushing grip. If you really absorb this idea that your thoughts, which generate your emotions, are your own creations then you will understand that you can also tame them. There is tremendous freedom in this knowledge of self-direction.
Ekhart Tolle, author of the bestselling Power of Now, summed it up nicely, “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it.”
When our thoughts are centered in the present moment, right here and right now, we’re not projecting into the future and worrying about things that haven’t even happened and may never occur. Whatever arises in the moment we can deal with. We’re not living in a state of anticipation and anxiety, disappointment or regret.
One popular way to experience this worry-free state is through meditation -- the practice of focusing your mind and observing your thoughts without judgement. If you have ever tried to meditate, you probably discovered very quickly how busy your mind is. It’s hard to just be in the present moment. In explaining this process, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer in the scientific research around meditation, has been known to describe it as "simple, but not easy."
The next time you find yourself worrying about the future, try this simple technique. Stop what you're doing, become aware of your breath and say this phrase to yourself: "I am breathing in, I am breathing out."
As you say the words, feel the breath at the tip of your nose, or in your belly, moving in and out. Keep doing this until your mind becomes calm. And you’ll soon notice, the thoughts of worry, anticipation and anxiety will just pass across your mind without pulling you into an emotional reaction. Let your thoughts float away, and return your attention to the now. Experience the calm and peace of a quiet mind.
Now, I want to emphasize that your worries of the future can certainly come true. Bad things happen every day. I am not offering a problem free life, nor would I want to. I am suggesting that wringing our hands in expectation of a possible future event is not productive or healthy. If you find yourself trapped in thoughts of worry, there is a path ahead just waiting for you and it begins with the breath.
No one can offer a life without challenges, but I certainly wish for you a life without worry.