Santino is a remarkable chimpanzee at a zoo in Sweden. He clearly is not a morning chimp, as he would get agitated at the early visitors to the zoo and start hurling stones at the spectators. Can’t an ape just get a li’l peace & quiet to start his day? But the extraordinary part of this story was that the zookeeper observed Santino’s behavior when the zoo closed every night, watching him collect rocks that would serve as future ammunition for the following morning when the zoo opened.
The operative word here is future, as forward planning is considered to be a uniquely human ability. Yes, a squirrel collects nuts for the upcoming winter, but that is by instinct, not a grand master plan; bees pollinate flowers because they are genetically programmed to do so and not due to a brilliant strategy to enjoy a colorful bloom in the Spring. Aside from just a few seconds or perhaps minutes (think of a dog who is anticipating his arch enemy around the next corner), animals only live in the present as each moment by moment unfolds.
Only we humans, and perhaps Santino, have the foresight to plan for the future. We call in dinner reservations for Saturday night, we deposit our paycheck into our 401(k) for retirement, we book a Euro vacation in the summer. To think prospectively allows us to contemplate, anticipate, strategize and prepare for the future. It’s in our DNA – how often do we drill a kid on what he/she wants to be when they grow up?
But this special gift can also be our downfall when we closely observe our conscious and unconscious mental processes. New studies have shown how we overly contemplate future-oriented events, with nonstop mental commentary about what lies ahead. Mindfulness (present moment awareness) is elusive to most of us and we certainly dwell in the past, but often in the context of how this past event may affect us moving forward. For example, you keep replaying a contentious conversation you had with your sister last week in your mind but only because you are anxious about seeing her tomorrow for lunch.
People suffering from depression and anxiety often have a very bleak view of the future, whether it’s a near term event or simply ones life’s trajectory. This, in fact, may be the chief cause of their negative mental state, far more so than past traumas or their present condition. A recent study focused on college graduates finishing school now and how they coped with facing daunting options and responsibilities as a young adult. They discovered many withdrew socially and became paralyzed with exaggerated self-doubt. The challenges and expectations of the unknown overwhelmed them, consuming their thought processes and sending them into a downward spiral, triggering massive anxiety attacks.
But it doesn’t have to be a milestone event like graduation as we all dwell in prospective thought regardless of stage in life. We are all challenged to deal with future implications, envision positive outcomes and see risks more realistically. We battle this day in and day out, from petty little choices to massive decisions, often unconsciously. It can range from where to take the family for dinner to a presentation at work to a reunion with the in-laws to how to pay next months rent. All things, big and small, get bundled up and intertwined as we contemplate future events and the collective gravity weighs heavily on our minds. So much so, the culmination of these concerns can overpower us and leave us numb, manifesting in aches and pains or, worse yet, unable to function properly or even get out of bed.
So, what to do? We can be like Santino and hurl proverbial stones at the world all day (hmm, that does sound appealing!), but a healthier strategy may be to look inward. Try to still your mind and then identify and investigate what is troubling you. Try to isolate each of the source(s) and then hold that in awareness. Recognize it, maybe even allow it by putting trust in how life unfolds. For example, a college grad can acknowledge he’s stressed out about his future, but by now taking time to purposely reflect on this, he can now observe his extreme reactions with a calmer mind. He can remind himself he got decent grades and this next chapter in life is part of the journey and it is okay to be anxious. This mindfulness activity softens the edges, dampens some of the angst we can all get wrapped up in because we are no longer immersed in it. This subtle shift allows him to step out of the situation just enough to view it from a more realistic (and less emotionally charged) vantage point. The irony is, with most things, this too shall pass. Even Santino finally calms down by lunch time and relaxes in the moment, allowing his day to unfold moment by moment.