“The mind is mainly drawn to the future.” So write Martin Seligman and John Tierney in “We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment” in the New York Times on May 21, 2017. The article is based on the book Homo Prospectus of which Seligman is an author.
Well, is this a new idea about the mind? We know that when we are feeling anxious or overloaded, our mind is scrambling to avoid a danger or find a way out. I know that even in calm hours, my head streams possible conversations in which I come out ahead, drafts blog posts, and edits memories so they’ll look a little better the next time I replay them.
In the Buddhist tradition, in contrast, such future-fussing is mainly about cultivating the illusion of the self. We tangle ourselves up in the false realities of ego, time, words. Better to explore the moment, leave the worries aside. Meditation cultivates a sharper awareness of the present and of our shining mind. The future may seem to be out there, but it is the mindful moment that is real.
Seligman and Tierney don’t criticize such Buddhist values directly, though the focus on the future-oriented brain contrasts sharply with them. Instead, they take exception to the emphasis in psychology on studying the brain in terms mostly of the past (memory, repetitive learning) and the present (perception). They assert that “Looking into the future, consciously and unconsciously, is a central function of our large brain….” We plan for tomorrow, we rehearse conversations, “We learn not by storing static records but by continually retouching memories and imagining future possibilities.” “Therapists are exploring new ways to treat depression now that they see it as primarily not because of past traumas and present stresses but because of skewed visions of what lies ahead.” And “Our brain sees the world not by processing every pixel in a scene but by focusing on the unexpected,” because what is unexpected might be a clue to what happens next.
This idea that we often understate the brain’s complex preparations for our future makes sense to me. No matter what other qualities of our mind we cherish, the brain’s critical function of scanning for danger and for biological necessities proceeds 24/7. As Darwin spelled it out, we, like all organisms, are first about reproducing and surviving, and those are certainly future-oriented activities.
Thinking about the perpetually restless brain reminds me of taking our family’s young retriever Ginger for walks, years ago. My wife and I envisioned strolling around the neighborhood with Ginger calmly strolling with us. But what we got instead for the first year or three was a beast straining nonstop to charge ahead and away and pulling our arms practically out of the sockets. Eventually training and maturity sunk in a little and she walked more or less at our pace. But walking itself is a going into the future and Ginger was, like our ancient mind, never far from leaping into it.