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Three Typical Mistakes in Thinking About the Future

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When I was six years old, I was crossing the little bridge on Center street when I realized I was doomed. I don’t know why it only occurred to me then, but once it did I couldn’t deny it.

I was in Grade 1, and I liked my current teacher, but I was afraid of the Grade 3 teacher (let’s call her Mrs X.) I’d heard stories about how mean she was from older kids, and I’d seen her barking in her shrill voice at the students who were unfortunate enough to be in her class.

Because I was in Grade 1, it never seemed like it was my problem, until it occurred to me that I had no means to prevent myself from aging naturally and eventually becoming a Grade 3 student. She was the only Grade 3 teacher in my small-town school, and I would eventually end up in her class. Fate was marching me right into certain misery.

I scoured my mind for a possible ways out of this. Dropping out didn’t seem to be an option. I didn’t feel self-sufficient enough to run away. No matter how I used my time, the next two years of my life would be spent being funneled towards something I could not accept.

I was so depressed.

All this sudden despair was my doing, but I didn’t know it. I had doomed myself with three common errors in thinking:

1) Letting your thinking snowball.

One of the most liberating discoveries I ever had was that thinking has an insidious snowball effect. Thoughts trigger other thoughts, and if your initial thought carries even a hint of insecurity or worry, subsequent thoughts can explore it and magnify it until you’re profoundly agitated. You can end up pulling your hair out and dreading the rest of your life, just from idle thinking.

Negative trains of thought have an uncanny tendency to grow in scope and intensity as they go on. The thoughts become less and less realistic, but the swirling emotions that come with them keep rationality from gaining a foothold.

Thinking about it now I’m pretty sure I only had one actual encounter with Mrs X. One day as I walked by her class, through the window I saw her scowling at her class before turning to scrawl something on the blackboard with enough fury to chip off the end off the chalk. I also remember some kids (in hindsight maybe it was only one) telling me “Oh, Mrs X is so mean.” Those two brief moments probably comprised all of the evidence I had as to what my Grade 3 experience might be like, yet in my mind I was already suffering a daily regimen of hair-trigger tongue-lashings and after school detentions.

When I left the house that morning, I was trotting happily to the corner store. Each step was bringing me closer to gummy worms and Bazooka Joe. But by the time I crossed the bridge, each step was bringing me closer to a miserable ten-month sentence in class. And so it would be for every step I took, no matter the direction, for the next year and a half — ever marching to the gallows.

2) Assuming you can reasonably predict the future.

My logic seemed impeccable to me. I would eventually be in Grade 3, no question. There was only one Grade 3 teacher. She was known to be mean, and I would dread class every one of the school year’s two hundred days. There were no other possibilities.

In reality there were so many variables I couldn’t possibly see. Fear so often seems to give one’s future a dreadful clarity it would never have otherwise — as if we know what’s going to happen just because we fear it. That’s one good reason to take your fears with a huge grain of salt: if the dismal scenario in your head was actually going to come true, it would mean you can predict the future. And if you can, you should buy a Powerball ticket instead of worrying so much.

As a 6-year old, I couldn’t know who I would be by age 8. Experiences change us, as days and years pass. Our worries change, our hopes change. The thought that consumes you today might not cross your mind at all tomorrow. The kid walking across the bridge would never make it to grade three. He would be someone else by then, and a cranky teacher might be no big deal to him.

I also could have been completely wrong about her.

My family moved to the city before Grade 2 started. I never had Mrs X.

The third mistake I made though, was the one that guaranteed those feelings of dread and powerlessness, and it’s very common.

3) Attempting to contend with the future.

Trying to solve future problems, or even come to terms with them, is a recipe for disaster.

The future often appears in our minds as a host of real problems which require immediate attention. We’re powerless against the future, because our influence can never extend beyond the present moment. We can wish, hope, rehearse excuses and confrontations, resolve to do X or Y, but no matter what thoughts you have about the problem, it can only loom unsolved until it actually happens.

Though it often feels like absolutely have to, you can’t ever deal with the future, because it doesn’t exist except as a thought in the present moment. In fact, “present moment” is a redundant term, but our human way of thinking about time is skewed so stubbornly, we can’t really drop it yet. Of course it’s the present one. There aren’t any others.

There really is no future. That’s not just a cheeky way of thinking about it, it’s the acknowledgment of a real error in the way we tend to conceptualize time.

We can only deal with one moment at a time. That should suit us fine, because that’s the rate at which life deals them out. Yet our thoughts make it seem like the future is already there, just ahead of us in line, taunting us while we can do nothing about it.

None of your talents and advantages — including your body and all your skills — can be brought to bear anywhere but on the scene that’s unfolding in front of your face. And that’s the only place you’re going to need them.

Your problems aren’t real till they’re right there in the room with you

It’s easy to become convinced that you have problems lying there in the future, even if it’s just this afternoon or tomorrow.

In New Zealand, I spent two months working in kiwi orchards. It’s widely known to be grueling, messy work. The night before my first day, I must have heard a dozen horror stories from other backpackers, about how my arms would burn, how I’d get poked in the face with twigs all day, how the auditors would scream at me for being too fast or too slow, and how the sheer monotony of it would scrape away at my sanity as the days went on.

Many of the new recruits were thoroughly traumatized before they even set foot in an orchard. Ordinarily I probably would have joined in their collective dread. But I was feeling supremely centered those first weeks in Te Puke, and I didn’t play the game. I refused to suffer from all this talk. If tough moments were on their way, I’d wait till they were in front of my face before I greeted them.

Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes. ~ William Prescott

Whatever difficulties you think you have, they aren’t real till they’re in the room with you, and you won’t know what form they’ll take until they are. The job interview that’s making you nervous, or the difficult conversation you need to have with your boss — any expectations of trouble brewing — don’t let yourself suffer them till they come over the horizon, through the real world, into your physical presence. They may never arrive at all, and if they do, they can’t possibly be quite what you pictured if you aren’t a bona fide psychic.

My arms did burn, the auditors did give me a hard time, I did get leaf bits in my eyes and scrapes all over my forearms. But not until I was really there, with a bag on my back and my hands in the vines. I thought the worst thing was the odd pocket of sitting rainwater dripping down the side of my face. It sucked, but not in the way I thought.

Near Te Puke, NZ

The work was plenty unpleasant, but I wasn’t going to let that suffering spill out onto the rest of my day. On our morning commute through the countryside, even when my workmates were fretting about the grueling workday to come, I refused to indulge any thoughts I had about it being something to dread. Rural New Zealand is stunning. It was almost always sunny. I smiled inside the whole way. I miss those drives.

All the suffering is in the thoughts

About ten days into my orchard career, I discovered the secret to dealing with the mental torment of endless physical work:

I didn’t bother with thinking.

My body needed to be active, but not my mind. Any time I noticed I was thinking — about the end of the day, my paycheck, my next meal, telling off the auditors — I shushed my mind like a rude movie-goer. I just stared at my hands as they plucked the kiwis, and they simply carried on with the work, as if they belonged to someone else.

Picking four kiwis (two in each hand) was always pretty easy no matter how tired my body was, and I never had to do any more than that. By the end of each day I’d have picked thousands, but I never needed to do anything more difficult than raise my arms and put them down again. At no time did I raise them a thousand times — only ever once, because I didn’t let my poor mind do the work.

Thought allows us to stack problems into completely unmanageable loads. In only a few minutes you can think of fifty things you have to do tomorrow, and in those dosages thoughts can overwhelm you. You can’t sort out that mess any better than you can catch fifty baseballs at once.

When tomorrow actually comes around the corner, it will present itself in a different format than your thoughts did. Instead of an avalanche of freely-associated images and emotions, it will greet you as a slower (and markedly calmer) continuous reel of unfolding events. In each scene, you’ll do whatever you can with what actually happens.

All the suffering is in the thoughts. When you think about a problem at any time you can’t actually act on it, you suffer. So if it’s in the future, don’t treat it like a problem. Problems only happen in front of your face, in real time. Court possibilities, but don’t mark them as problems, as items worthy of fear.

You Can’t Get There From Here

I woke up this morning with a feeling of dread. I was thinking of a challenging task I had to do today, and five or six of its possible outcomes, and how I would respond to each, and what repercussions they might create in my life, and what I should have done differently in the past to avoid having to do this task, and which of my habits are destroying me, and how I can possibly deal with them, and what I would say to somebody who asked me how I felt about all this, and how I’ll never let this happen to my children, and…

At some point I noticed my lips were actually moving, in response to an imagined person in an imagined conversation that might, through some paranoid, convoluted sequence of events, actually happen if certain fears were to come true. I was trying to solve a problem that was about seventeen steps down the road, all because I mistook my thoughts for genuine problems that were waiting for me out there somewhere.

The people of Maine, I’m told, are fond of saying “Oh, you can’t get there from here” when asked for directions. It’s a peculiar answer, but it’s not a dumb one.

I was trying to get there from here. I was trying to solve my whole life while I was still lying in bed, staring at the ceiling fan.

There is certainly a “there,” but it isn’t anything until it becomes a here. Don’t deal with “there” until it gets here. Not that there’s any way you could.


Photos by David Cain

Tony July 13, 2010 at 1:41 am

Great blog as always David! People talk all the time about “living in the moment” without thinking of the ramifications of that and how it really DOES affect your happiness. Much like your blog about how moments of our past are just pictures, and not even pictures we can pick up and look at again, the future is just a stack of undeveloped polaroids. Even if you think you know what that picture is going to be, until that white piece of paper in your hand starts to develop into an actual image you can’t be completely sure of what the picture is. Once it develops you’ll see things you didn’t know were there, and not see things you were sure WERE there. This world has enough for us to process right now.. No sense in fretting over anything in the past OR the future

David July 13, 2010 at 9:10 am

Thanks Tony. Undeveloped Polaroids, that’s right. So whenever we see an image of the future, we know it’s a fake.

Ck July 13, 2010 at 2:42 am

I really needed to read this. Over and over again.

Ria July 13, 2010 at 5:07 am

Me too, I need to read this over and over and over again.

Lisis July 13, 2010 at 7:20 am

Fantastique! My favorite post yet… and that’s saying quite a lot, ’cause I love them all. :)

David July 13, 2010 at 9:15 am

Merci mon amie!

Izzen July 13, 2010 at 9:45 am

As usual you’re right on target.

“At no time did I raise them a thousand times — only ever once”

To me this is the essence of the meditative mind frame, and a really effective way to look at to-do lists and complex problems (once they crop up, of course).

Nice job, but I do have a writing critique; around the 1, 2, 3 bullet points I started to lose interest in the message. Maybe it’s because I’m tired, but the explanations, with examples, just seemed a little long-winded. Very good points, though!

Thanks for saving us from walking into the mirrors of future and past thinking…

Meg July 13, 2010 at 10:49 am

Very glad to have come across your blog, and particularly this post. I come from a long line of future-worriers and duck-liner-uppers. It’s only now, in late middle age, do I realize it was pretty much all to no avail. The elders were wrong.

David July 13, 2010 at 1:50 pm

Hi Meg. I’m a recovering duck-liner-upper of the worst kind. Sometimes I’m not so sure I’m recovering ;)

Tom K July 13, 2010 at 11:50 am

You can’t get there from here…but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it! :o)

Tim July 13, 2010 at 1:08 pm

At work it’s quite the worst. I just know I could be doing something better with my life than working my soul away at my job.

But then I realize I can still do all of the things I want to do while being employed. In no sense do I not want to work for myself in the future, but thinking I need to get there in an extremely quick manner isn’t helping either.

Brenda (betaphi) July 13, 2010 at 1:12 pm

“I didn’t bother with thinking.”

Not thinking will indeed get us through many a kiwi patch, metaphorical and otherwise. But here’s the rub for me: The more I practice mindlessness/thoughtlessness, the less I have to say. Contentment with the moment robs me of the need to express myself in a meaningful conversation or a blog post.

What mechanism do you use to keep pushing these great blog posts out while at the same time maintaining equilibrium with the moment?

David July 13, 2010 at 2:00 pm

Ah, great question Brenda.

Not thinking works wonderfully for kiwi picking, because the mind doesn’t have many constructive things to do in that job. But I need to think to write, so I’m always playing with fire.

The trade-off you describe is familiar to me. If I was completely content, maybe this blog wouldn’t exist. But I’m not, and I don’t know anyone who is. That’s just where humanity is at right now. My quest to get closer is what keeps me thinking and learning, and sharing with other people.

There have been times when I’ve been feeling perfectly peaceful, and a pang of worry hits me: if I’m completely happy, does that mean I’ll have no use for X and Y and other cherished parts of my life, because they’re behaviors born of dissatisfaction? Maybe there’s a lot that suddenly wouldn’t need to be said, but I don’t think true contentment would actually silence us.

Anna July 14, 2010 at 12:29 am

I definitely needed to read this… I have a very overactive mind. I will stay up late at night, trying to go to sleep, but my mind just keeps whirring, thinking and worrying about the next day, or being excited about what’s to come. I have this awful knack of thinking of the worst possible scenario I can get into- like how many ways I could die tubing on the lake the next day, when nothing ever happens. Or how I could get up from my desk and trip over that curb going to class, fall, and break my nose. Or sometimes, it’s about past things- I could’ve so easily fallen off of that boat when I leaned out to take a picture. I also followed your link to your moments article. One thing I was thinking about and kind of disagreeing with what you said was about how you said we didn’t have to figure out the future or whatever. But how am I supposed to prepare for that interview? Or what about deciding what classes I need to take? Sometimes you HAVE to think about the future in order to not create a mess for yourself.
I only discovered this blog a couple weeks ago, but already I think about the words on it everyday and try to gain more outlook on life.

David July 14, 2010 at 11:56 am

Of course we have to think about the future in order to plan or prepare. But often future-based thinking is compulsive and makes us react mentally as if we are actually destined to experience our fears. We have to be aware of the mind’s tendency to present the future as a real thing or else we lose perspective in the present. The parts of the future we fear are almost always memories of pain or fear we’ve experienced in the past. Our thoughts present the future as a real thing, but it’s really just a frankenstein of thoughts about the past, happening in the present. So we can’t really think about the future at all anyway, because it hasn’t happened yet. We can only anticipate possibilities. There are purposeful, deliberate ways to do that, and reactive, stressful ways to do that. Understanding the future’s true nature (as a present-moment projection of our own expectations and memories) can help a person keep perspective when emotions start getting involved.

Faith July 14, 2010 at 3:51 am

I absolutely love this. I think I need to print parts of this and post them prominently. =) The only time I’ve ever found actual good in conversations with people who weren’t there was in finding that closure of *saying* the things I wanted to tell my father but couldn’t, because he died when I was nine. All else has been spending the present to address a future that will never happen the way we think it will.

I truly appreciate your blog. I love the meta-ness of thinking about thinking. Thank you for sharing your journey with us.

David July 14, 2010 at 12:29 pm

Thank you Faith. I have also found some value in rehearsing or imagining future (or even past) conversations. And like alluded to, sometimes you need to find the right words so that you know what you really wanted to say. But it can get out of control quickly.

Brad July 14, 2010 at 10:00 am

Great post man. I didn’t know the kiwi industry was so grueling. That sure took a lot of commitment to actually follow through with it.

Your post made a lot of sense, but sometimes I am so drained, like after the kind of work you described, that I can’t be bothered to shush my mind or focus on the present. I feel like a robot running on its last ounce of battery fluid. I just drift, and I hardly care what runs through my mind. Do you know the feeling? Luckily it is not a very frequent one. Well, maybe a few minutes each morning.

David July 14, 2010 at 12:03 pm

I know what you mean. When a person is really tired or worn down, they have less patience and less perspective. If the body is screaming for rest (or relief of some kind) the emotional attachments really dig in and a person is at their most reactive. I’m constantly trying to create a lifestyle where I spent as little of my day as possible being that drained and needy.

But I did find that the long days would have much less of a drain on me if I had not spent them thinking while I worked. Constant thinking and worrying has a tremendous drain on the body physically too. If I was starting to wear down at the end of the day, that’s when I’d put on my iPod.

Yu July 14, 2010 at 10:49 pm

Awesome post man. I just recently came across your website through stumbleupon. I was reading the Nietzsche article you put up and It was immensely interesting. Some of the things he says seem to hit ground zero with our insecurities and our humanness. Here too I feel like you’ve made a bunch of great points. I definitely make the same three mistakes that you’ve made, although not as much since I started to really invest in my spiritual development. To me all that you’ve written here carries on a profound meaning because I believe that time is a concept engrained in people, and that it doesn’t really exist. Like you said, its all in our heads. I’m really glad I found out about this blog, just in that I can relate to so many of the things that you write. I really like how your topics are inspired by self-examination.

David July 15, 2010 at 2:03 pm

Hey Yu, Thanks.

I forget who said it but I’ve heard time described as “a very persistent illusion.” That sounds exactly right to me.

Joy July 15, 2010 at 6:22 am

I think when you are completely peace filled you will then probably write about peace filled..or maybe you won’t share with words, just beauty filled photos..
As for staying in this moment..your mind can take you all sorts of places..your heart keeps you right “here” exactly where you are..so I choose to live from a heart centered place..
When I am not worried, people think perhaps I do not care..the opposite is true..I care *so very much* that I have chosen not to squander precious Energy on worry…life doesn’t have to be as complicated as we tend to allow it to be…then there is tons more time for laughter and play:)

Yu July 22, 2010 at 11:28 pm

I totally agree with Joy! Its not that we don’t care, its just that we choose to expend our energy in something other than worrying about little things that go wrong. Its usually later, when you look back in retrospect that you realize what you were fussing about is not a big deal at all.
When you’re trapped in emotions like jealousy, anger, worry and envy, they consume you to the point where you can’t even take your mind off them. They come from your brain, and sometimes, even if your heart and spirit wants to do the opposite, your brain doesn’t let you do so. I feel like getting to a place where you can live by your heart is important :DD

Suzanne July 25, 2010 at 7:18 am

This post ties in very well with a saying I once read:
Never borrow from the future.
(If you worry about what may happen tomorrow and it doesn’t happen, you have worried in vain. Even if it does happen, you have to worry twice.)

Referenced on my blog here:
Yes to a New Year’s Theme and Gifts, Not Resolutions

Terry Fan August 1, 2010 at 2:39 am

Great post, some real nuggets of wisdom and as usual your writing is wonderful, so concise and engaging.

Anyway, I’m totally guilty of over-thinking the future and have become a master at worrying about things I have absolutely no control over. I’ll try to keep in mind what you wrote next time I can’t fall asleep or have a knot of dread in my stomach about something.

Joanna January 18, 2011 at 1:55 pm

Thank you so much! This, the one on the Art of Showing Up and Make Your Bed and Fight Crime, have been amazing for me. As a fellow writer, I am in awe of your flow and expression, and it manages to make depressing situations funny and manageable. My hat is off to you, thank you again!

Lynn January 18, 2011 at 8:16 pm

A friend once described this tendency as “the mind eating itself.” I find that reminding myself when I don’t have imagined crisis as a blessing — in that moment. Yesterday, for the first time in a long time, found that I had the freedom to really think and explore and slow down. Finding that time is important and helped me. So, I read posts on this blog for a few hours .. because like minded attracts like minded .. the result is the first draft of my life list and instead of worrying today, i thought about other things that i have added to the life list. Now, that train of thought has found a natural rhythm and has replaced worrying about the day to day … at least today.

Our thoughts generate our feelings. Society teaches masochism. Those who have a tendency to become addicted to masochistic thoughts can live in drama induced episodes that become cyclical and a way of life. Perhaps the institutionalization of acceptance of this way of life has given rise to “Jersey Shore” and other reality tv travesties.

Dybbuk August 22, 2011 at 10:33 am

This actually epitomizes what I dislike most about Buddhist thought. To me, the presence of joy is far more important to my happiness than the absence of suffering. Most of my happiest moments have contained some suffering, they have just been suffused by joy that overwhelmed it. In fact, some amount of suffering can add a meaning and intensity to joy that lends itself more strongly to overall happiness. For example, right now, my muscles are sore from a good workout. That soreness feels good to me because it reminds me of the pleasures of the work and the goals toward which I’m working. If my goal was absence of suffering, I would never do most of the things that give me the most joy.

David August 22, 2011 at 4:50 pm

I wouldn’t describe delayed-onset muscle soreness as suffering. Pain and suffering are not the same thing. I like muscle soreness too, just as I like the burn of hot sauce. You could call both pain but they are not suffering. Suffering is by definition a spoiler of joy in any given moment. There is no simultaneous joy and suffering. Joy and pain, perhaps.

And the goal does not need to be the absence of suffering, only an understanding of suffering and a refinement of the skill of acceptance, so that suffering does not run your life.

Sheraya December 18, 2012 at 7:06 pm

Hey, I just wanted to say I have HUGE problem with doing this, (stressing about my future). This really really REALLY helped me I printed it off and highlighted parts and read them over ever time I start to stress. So far it has been the only thing I found that actually helps me, so Thanks a million!

Raya =)

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