The Paradox of Mindfulness and Futures Thinking

Foresight requires imagination about what might happen in the future. Mindfulness requires focusing on the present.Incompatible, right?

Not only are they compatible, but in fact mindfulness is increasingly becoming a requirement for futures thinking. That’s because mindfulness helps us distinguish between the present and the noise; and between constructive thinking about the future and worry.

Noisy present, noisy future

The present is very noisy. The blurring of “work” and “life,” being always on, the endless demands from your mobilephone for attention make it a challenge to focus on anything. Marketers are using neuroscience and behaviouralpsychology to drag you back to your smartphones and keep you there as part of what is now known as the AttentionEconomy. It is now difficult to spend a moment to ourselves – whether we are trying to work or relax –withoutconsidering what might be happening on our phones.

The future is also noisy. It is filled with uncertainty and appears to be becoming increasingly complex. It is also coming atus much more quickly than before, and we experience change less as a series of steps and more as a turbulent river. As thefuture hits us, it creates yet more noise.

Mindfulness = attention -> awareness

How can mindfulness help? If we focus on the present, doesn’t it just amplify the noise? Let’s look again at the essentialcore of mindfulness, and I offer a layman’s definition: Strengthening our ability to pay attention, thereby increasingawareness. If we unpack this a little, strengthening our ability to pay attention means more deftly identifying what wewant to focus on. Attention is really all we’ve got – your life is your experience of it, and you can only experience whatyou pay attention to. When you want to focus on something, you can.

But while mindfulness practice is indeed based on strengthening attention to the present experience, that is not an end initself. In fact, the point is more to recognise that your thoughts are separate from you, and you can more easily be awareof what you’re thinking, and what you want to do with those thoughts.

Mindful vs mindless thinking

And that’s the real value. Because if you’re mindlessly replaying an unpleasant driving experience from yesterday whensomebody cut you off, or worrying about whether you’ll be able to pull of next week’s presentation, it’s unlikely to beproductive thinking. This is the awareness side of the equation. But if you replay a past event mindfully (ie. learn from it),or consider a future event mindfully (ie. plan for it), then great.

By choosing what you pay attention to, you raise your awareness not just of your current experience without the noise, butalso your options. And considering options is what you need to do when you consider the future, and make betterdecisions.

Hence, to properly consider the future, which is not usually as complicated as we fear, we first need to be able to calm ourminds. Otherwise, you’ll just stay lost in the distractions of the noisy present.

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