Time Perspective

I have long struggled with my duality. One part of me craves instant gratification in the present moment and the other hungers for productive pursuits that will serve me in the future. It's almost like a borderline bipolar personality disorder. A fragmented mind that is constantly bickering with each other. When I'm having fun in the present moment, there's a nagging thought about the future and when I'm engaged in a productive habit, then the present moment rings my doorbell and wants me to come out and play. Opposing thoughts clashing like a married couple constantly fighting over the custody of my attention. The struggle is real, "But why??" and "will I ever be able to unite these two sides of me?", are questions I've always asked myself. These questions have spurred my obsession about the inner workings of the mind and body. It also fuels my fascination about those who are somehow able to find the beautiful harmony between present and future, pleasure and pain.

Psychologist Phil Zimbardo has done a lot research work on this topic and his results are somewhat obvious yet profound. By studying numerous people across different cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds, he's found that people generally fall into three time orientations: past, present, and future. We all fall somewhere uniquely within this spectrum. Zimbardo's studies have found that those who are more present oriented tend to be more creative, spontaneous, open-minded, high-energy risk takers who play sports, have hobbies, make friends easily, and find lovers often. Their lives are fun-filled and fast-paced. Yet this comes at the cost of being more impulsive and higher incidences of mental health problems, juvenile delinquency, crime, and addictions. Meanwhile the future oriented folks, those who resisted the marshmallow in the marshmallow test, tend to get better grades and more education, are healthier and more optimistic, make more money, solve problems more consistently, are more mindful of morality, and can make the best of failure. Zimbardo writes:

While presents avoid work…futures consider work a source of special pleasure. For them, tomorrow’s anticipated gains and losses fuel today’s decisions and actions. Gratification delayed for greater reward is always a better bet for futures, who will trade a bird in the hand for a flock in the future. Unlike their present-hedonistic peers who live in their bodies, the futures live in their minds, envisioning other selves, scenarios, rewards and successes. The success of Western civilization in the past centuries can be traced to the prevalence of the future orientation of many populations.

Yet the price of this is that futures burn out. They become stressed-out workaholics. Blood pressure goes up, bowels get irritable, heart attacks increase, sex lives disintegrate, marriages fail, children become burdens, friends become memories, and the whole house of cards comes crashing down. After three decades of research, Zimbardo found that the healthiest, happiest, highest performers blend the best of both worlds. The optimal time perspective combines the energy, joy, and openness of Presents, with the strength, fortitude, and long-term vision of the Futures. Zimbardo himself delightfully tells us the power of time perspectives:

I grew up as a poor kid in the South Bronx ghetto, a Sicilian family — everyone lived in the past and present. I'm here as a future-oriented person who went over the top, who did all these sacrifices because teachers intervened, and made me future oriented. Told me don't eat that marshmallow, because if you wait you're going to get two of them, until I learned to balance out. I've added present-hedonism, I've added a focus on the past-positive, so, at 76 years old, I am more energetic than ever, more productive, and I'm happier than I have ever been.

Zimbardo associates a positive and negative element within each orientation, for example: past positive vs past negative or present hedonist vs present fatalism. He started contemplating this concept early in his life after he was hospitalized with a life threatening illness. He recounted this experience as a positive one and began wondering why and what is it that makes people appreciative versus burdened by the past. “From this experience,” he later wrote, “I…learned that the past can be psychologically remodelled to make heaven of hell. Other people learn the opposite lesson, storing and recalling only the worst of times.… The horrors and sheer ugliness of the past they have experienced become a permanent filter through which they view all their current experiences.”

Looking back at my past, I begin to see that I'm definitely have a more present oriented perspective. Throughout my travels, I've only met a handful of people who have an incredible mixture of past, present, and future, and they will always continue to fascinate me. Imagine being able to adopt a wider angle lens, to zoom out, and witness where our time perspectives really lie. To judge our actions and habits honestly, to identify areas which could use more development in order to reach a balanced perspective. It would be like walking into a Walmart and simply being able to add a little more present hedonism into your shopping cart. Or perhaps you've stocked up a bit too much on future perspective, just walk up to customer service and return a portion of it and immediately feel your burnout subside. Is such an expansive state even possible? Perhaps the mere belief of its relative existence is an answer in and of itself. Perhaps it exists within us already, in every moment, simply waiting to be unearthed, hidden within plain sight. Behind the noisy chatter of our minds. Right next to the universal silence all around us.

Reading, writing, and listening are all important tools but to get to the root of it, one must be willing to dig deep into the body. For in the body is where the root of our experience lies. The study of trauma provides the perfect example of this. The Body Keeps the Score combines disparate domains of knowledge, such as neuroscience, developmental psychopathology, and interpersonal neurobiology to give us a wide fish eye lens on the power of our subconscious. It's a fascinating journey of the author’s own courageous efforts to understand and treat trauma over the past forty years, the results of which have broken new ground and challenged the status quo of psychiatry and psychotherapy. We learn that as our minds desperately try to move forwards, away from trauma, our bodies can keep us trapped in the past with wordless emotions and feelings. We've all encountered some degree of trauma in our past, or at least an incidence of feeling helpless beyond words. Our thoughts influence the body, and the body influences our thoughts. To begin detaching from our current perspective, there must be a channel of communication with our own bodies, a form which transcends words. As Wim Hof says, "feeling is understanding".

Present oriented. Future oriented. Heart centered. Mind centered. Rational. Irrational. Known. Unknown. These are all pieces of the puzzle, that when assembled in the proper manner, give rise to nirvana, to flow. Steven Kotler in The Rise of Superman on time perspective:

Time perspective is possibly genetic, probably cultural, and definitely hard to shake. It is shaped by geography, religion, socioeconomic status, education, and a host of other powerful forces. It operates unconsciously and ubiquitously. But if optimal results require blending a present orientation and a future orientation, getting into flow is one of the most efficient mixing mechanisms at our disposal. Flow reorients Presents toward the future and Futures toward the present and both to considerable result. Presents are sensation-seeking pleasure junkies. Flow releases a bevy of enormously potent feel-good neurochemicals at once, arguably the most powerful cocktail the brain can produce. It’s the very sensation sensation seekers seek most.

Psychologists describe flow as “autotelic,” from the Greek auto (self) and telos (goal). When something is autotelic—i.e., produces the flow high—it is its own reward. No one has to drag a surfer out of bed for overhead tubes. No one has to motivate a snowboarder on a powder day. These activities are intrinsically motivating, autotelic experiences done for their own sake. The high to end all highs.

Flow brings about balance, and is a product of balance. True learning is gained from experience. The things we wish to learn before doing are learned through doing. For me, snowboarding, longboarding, drugs, and dancing were the brief periods where the experience of life became hyper surreal. Everything melded together, all the cells working in beautiful synchronicity to produce an orchestrated set of thoughts and movements. Past, present, and future became one. What if this wildly raw state of being can be transplanted into every other area of my life? That is the question.