Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Challenge of Being Mindful About Thoughts of the Past and Future

This post feels very interesting to me and I've been thinking about this for a good while now. Lazily, day-dreamily, casually, I've been thinking about it. Mindfulness has become an increasingly important theme for me. The importance of paying attention has been reaffirmed for me by many disciplines. Buddhism, neuroplasticity, history, planning, living. All of it seems to revolve around this idea of mindfulness, of paying attention to the present moment and my experiences in the present moment. Paying attention paying attention paying attention. Being in the present moment with an awareness of yourself, your thoughts, your feelings, and your experiences.

This idea of being grounded in the present moment, however, seems to become a challenge when I think about time. How is it that I can be mindful and still study history? History requires me by its very nature to think of the past, to remove myself from the present moment, so how can I do both? How is it that I can plan for the future and still be mindful? Planning is inevitable, I have to plan for the future, I have to push myself to imagine the future, so how do I be mindful about that? How do I reconcile the idea of being grounded in the present with the fact that thinking about the past and the future is inevitable and necessary?

Interestingly, I think that simulation theory of mind actually provides an answer, or the inklings of an answer. The basic idea is that even though we are thinking about the past and the future, it is still something that is happening in the present moment, and therefore something that we can still be mindful about. In some ways I feel like I am picking up on my post of 4/6/10 called 'Planning and Remembering: Imagining the Self in Different Times and False Memories'. So I will be referring to these processes as planning and remembering. But right now my goal is to reconcile the need for planning and remembering with my interest in mindfulness. My hope is to reconcile mindfulness and planning/remembering by specifying that these processes of planning and remembering are simulative, and thus clarifying that they are defined by their place in the present moment, and are thus subject to mindfulness. So let me move on to their simulative nature in general.

Thoughts of Other Times as Contemporary Simulations
Well first I would like to talk about memory as a process of mental simulation of the past. My stance is very much influenced by R.G. Collingwood's philosophy of history. Since memory is essentially a sort of personal history that is accomplished only from experience, I think it resembles historical thinking enough to make Collingwood relevant.

So Collingwood believes that historical thinking is something that always happens in the present moment. Even though we are thinking of the past, trying to remember the past, it is still something that is happening in the present moment. This is what led Collingwood to conclude that all history is the reenactment of past thought in the mind of the historian. He discusses Croce and his claim that all history is 'contemporary history'. History, above all, is a way of thinking, and the crucial point is that it always happens in the present moment. When we think of the past we are simply attempting to recreate those thoughts now. So historical thinking is still an exercise in present thought, a contemporary mental exercise.

The parallel to memory is fairly obvious to me. If we are remembering something, if were are trying to relive an old moment or thought, we are not actually going to that time. We are simply rethinking those thoughts or experiences right now, in the contemporary. Steven Rose, a neuroscientist, claimed that memory was an active and simulative process. I believe Alvin Goldman says something similar? I forget. But in any case, Rose says that anytime we have a memory we actively recreate it. We do not just passively explore the past through memory, we actively build a narrative of the past. Every time we have a memory we change it, we make it different. This is because memory, just like historical thinking, is always a contemporary process. It is always happening right now, in the present. Just because it is thought of the past it is still thought that takes place in the present. Memory will always take place in the present, will always be colored by our present frame of mind, and is thus always happening right now.

Now I believe that this can also be extended to planning and thoughts of the future. Although our thoughts are of the future, we are trying to plan or anticipate the future, it is also a contemporary exercise. Our mind is still working in the present moment to try and anticipate the future. It is merely a hypothetical simulation of a possible future. So it is still, therefore, contemporary. It is still happening in the present moment.

By clarifying that both remembering and planning are simulative exercises that resemble Collingwood and Croce's ideas I can now reconcile them with mindfulness. In order to be mindful about thoughts of the past and future I simply need to recognize their contemporary nature. Even though my mind is in a sense 'extending itself into different times' it is in reality always located in the present. So it is quite alright that my mind naturally drifts towards the past and the future, it is fine that I think temporally like this. But I just have to remember that they are still happening right now. I can be mindful about these things, I can still pay attention to them, just so long as I recognize that they are right here in the present moment.

I am not quite sure how to articulate this conclusion more clearly. But for me this is enough for now. Remembering and planning will always be things that I do in the present moment. I simply need to recognize that they are simply contemporary simulations of an imagined past and an imagined future. Because they are contemporary they can therefore be observed mindfully. I can wonder why my present frame of mind is inclining me to remember or plan in these certain ways.

In conclusion, thinking of different times is indeed compatible with mindful observation of the present. I simply have to recognize that remembering and planning are contemporary exercises that are enacted as forms of simulation.

Original Notes of 6/20/10
Reflect on your post on planning and remembering. Thknk about how you have made decisions that involve flash imaginings of the past and future. Think about locking the door when ROb went out first. Think about parking closer to Rob so Efron could have a spot. Think about feeling the water bottle cap on your leg and imagining it falling based on a noise in the car. I had to make sense of the evidence (the sound), but the lid hand't fallen.

Think about Humphrey and the development of a cerebral feedback loop that accounts for time by projecting.

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