Reality is what is occurring in the present moment.  When we think about or visualize the past or the future, we are in an imaginary space.  This imaginary space can be a source of inspiration and creativity, but when we believe that the things we are thinking about or visualizing are real, we are “lost in our imagination”. We are having a waking dream.  The only point in which we are conscious is in the present moment.  Imagining the past or future is like living in a dream and the more time we spend there, the less time we are consciously living.  When Buddha was asked if he was a god, he said no, he was awake.  He knew that most people spend much of their lives dreaming during the night and day, not really conscious of the world in which they are living.

The concept of mindfulness focuses on helping us to be present in the moment, not lost in our imagination. When we are mindful, we are aware that our thoughts or pictures about the past or future are just thoughts or pictures occurring in our mind and are not real.  For example, a person has a vision of his home being destroyed by a tornado.  If he is being mindful, he will realize that this vision is just his imagination at work.  On the other hand, if he gets “lost in his imagination”, he will start having emotional reactions to the imagined event as if it is really going to happen.  Since our emotional brain does not easily distinguish between past, present and future, it reacts to the imagined disaster as if it is imminent, thus creating the “fight, flight or freeze” pattern of body responses.

Anxiety, a common experience for many people, is based on being lost in our imagined future.  We are consciously or unconsciously imagining a negative event that will harm us, and as mentioned before, our emotional brain responds to our imagined “disaster” as if it is imminent or happening right now.  This fight, flight, or freeze response greatly disturbs our peace of mind and when it occurs over a long period of time, it can cause damage to our body, e.g., to our heart, digestive system, or musculature.

Depression involves being lost in the past, as we “remember” a significant number of negative events that have occurred to us, and often imagine that such negative events will certainly occur to us in the future as well.  The “remembered” past is called an imaginary space for two reasons. First, our memory is primarily constructed and is not simply a recording of what has happened to us, and second, because the remembered past event is not actually occurring in the present moment, and yet we are responding to it as if it is real. We often feel helpless in the face of our feelings of depression or anxiety.  One of the reasons for this is that since these emotional reactions are based on imagined events, of course we feel helpless.  How can we develop an effective plan to cope with events that are not actually occurring in the present moment?

Mindfulness can help in the treatment of both anxiety and depression.  When we are focused on the relatively benign present moment, the body does not exhibit the fight, flight or freeze response that it does when we are focused on imagined disasters in our future. When we are focused on the relatively benign present moment, the body does not exhibit the depressed response it does when focused on imagined disasters in our past.

In a past post, it was discussed how Acceptance is an essential practice for anyone who wants to experience peace of mind.  Practicing acceptance does not mean that you like what is happening to you, or what has happened to you.  Practicing acceptance involves simply acknowledging what is actually occurring in the present moment (whether we like it or not).

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