The Past, The Present, and The Future

by Stephen Mills on May 10, 2009


I talk about goals frequently, but today I would like to temper that with a different view.  I used to tell myself things like this: Things will all be better six months from now.  Things will be easier six months from now.  The pain I am suffering now is for my future.  Guess what?  Nothing ever changed.  No matter what happened in six months there was always another six month future that lay ahead.  This never ends.  Are you doing something similar?  If so, take it from someone who has made that mistake many times over; STOP IT NOW.

Whatever I achieved, there was always something more. As soon as it was done, and sometimes even before, there was another project or goal waiting next in line.  After I accomplished something I would be happy and relax for about one day and then I would dive into something else.  I told myself this was what living was all about.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  I was killing myself physically and mentally.  I didn’t realize that there was no such thing as the future.  I couldn’t live in the future.  Are you trying to live in the future?

Are you waiting to start living?  How much of your life do you spend waiting for the next holiday, a better life, your child to grow up, success, to make money, be important, and become enlightened?

Waiting is a state of mind.  Basically it means you want the future.  You do not want the present.  There is an inner conflict between your here and now, where you don’t want to be, and your projected future, where you want to be.

The key is to break the pattern of present moment denial and present moment resistance.  We must learn to withdraw our attention from the past and future whenever they are not needed.  Should a situation arise that you need to deal with now, your actions will be clear and decisive if they arise out of present moment awareness.  Your response will not be a reaction coming from past conditioning of your mind, but from an intuitive present moment awareness of the situation.

–Dr. Robert Anthony – Beyond Positive Thinking

My happiness went way up when I finally accepted a basic fact of human existence:  The past and the future do not exist.  The only thing that exists is the present.  Dr. Robert Anthony explains it very well so I will let him speak:

Nothing exists outside of the NOW.

Nothing ever happened in the past – it happened in the NOW.

Noting will ever happen in the future – it will happen in the NOW.

When you think of the past, it is stored in your mind as a former NOW, and when you think of the past when do you do it? – You do it NOW.

When the future comes, it comes in the NOW, and when you think of the future, when do you do it?  You do it in the NOW.

The past and the future have no realities of their own.  Their realities are borrowed from the NOW.

–Dr. Robert Anthony – Beyond Positive Thinking

If you really understand and internalize all this, it will make a huge difference in your life.  This does not mean that you should never think about those past or future nows, because you should do so occasionally.  You must visualize your future and you must relive your pleasant past.  However, the key to happiness is to really live and experience the present.

The pain in our lives is a result of thinking about a past now or worrying about what might happen in a future now.  This means that all unhappiness is simply a denial of the present.  I can relate to this very personally.  I spent much of my life being mad or upset about what I or someone else had done in the past and worrying about what might happen in the future.  OMG, when I think about it now I can hardly believe it.  This is a stupid way to live.  If you are doing the same thing, then stop it right NOW.

When we get mad or unhappy, most of the time we are dwelling on the past.  It might be the immediate past, but it is nevertheless the past.  It is gone and done with and any negative emotion or reaction to it simply makes us unhappy and ineffective in the present.  Something bad happens or someone does something we don’t like and we live it over and over again.  Our brains fire the same neurons they fired when it happened the first time.  This is a recipe for failure.

It is not what happened in the past that keeps us from being happy and successful in the present.  It is only the thoughts you have right now that have power.  When you are hanging on to something that happened in the past, you are taking yourself outside the present and are thus preventing yourself from acting in the now.  If you are constantly thinking about the past to figure out how you go to where you are now, you are simply reinforcing the thoughts that got you to where you are now.  Doing that will get you nothing but the same thing in the future.  Is that what you really want?

It is not possible to be fully present and have a problem.  If you are fully present you are acting and living in the present.  You are not contemplating what might happen in the future and you are not reliving what happened in the past.  If you are fully present you are dealing with the now and your world will change in ways that you can barely imagine.

Life is not the future.  Life is the present.  If the future takes up so much of your time and mental energy that it becomes more important than what is happening now, you are missing out on what it means to actually live.  You are missing the journey.  You are missing your life!

When you finally get to your destination you will feel nothing.  Constantly sacrificing the now for a better future is a bad habit.  You will continue to do it until the day you die.  When you reach one goal, you will not be satisfied and will start looking towards the next goal and sacrificing the now for yet another future.

Your destination cannot give you lasting pleasure and happiness.  It will give you at best a very temporary satisfaction because nothing in life is permanent.  The key to lasting happiness is to live in the present and enjoy the journey.  You are playing the game of life and you better learn to enjoy the game because the winner’s circle does not exist.  It’s a target to shoot for; but one that you will never reach.  You do not become happy and successful in the future. You are happy and successful in the now.

My imagined future is now very different than what I imagined one year ago.  Why?  Because I took time to live in the present and I grew.  I discovered things about myself that changed what I wanted to do.  I discovered that life was not planned, it was lived.

Live in the now and make brief visits to the past and the future when it is appropriate.  It’s important to visualize and expect a bright future.  In fact it is critical.  But if you dwell on the future too much, you will be unhappy and unfulfilled because you will never actually get there.  The future by definition does not exist.  It is the future.  It’s a moving target, always out of your reach.  It really doesn’t exist.

I spent many years killing myself for a better future.  The future never arrived.  It just moved.  Balanced awareness, heavily weighted to the now, is the real key to your true happiness.

Are you ready and willing to surrender yourself to the now?

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Vin | May 10, 2009 at 10:49 am

One of the great abilities we have as humans is to make premeditated choices. No matter how discontent we may be with the past or the future, we can choose to find meaning in it and be happy, we can choose to not obsess over it, and we can choose to make changes.

In my experience, one thing that always got in my way about the future is worrying about things that need to be done. As you said Stephen, once they’re done, the satisfaction is only temporary and something else needing to be done quickly comes to replace it. I think life will always be like that.

In contrast, focusing on the future for something to look forward to may help us get through each day, but once it passes, we often find ourselves depressed and needing something new to anticipate. Vacations are a great example and a good wake up call to assess your life and figure out why it’s not providing sufficient fulfillment.

I like to think of think of being in the present as being happy for no reason and simply enjoying my surroundings. Meditation, tai chi, qi gong, relaxing music and nature are all excellent ways to get into this relaxed and happy state of mind.


Roger | A Content Life May 10, 2009 at 11:52 am


I used to be EXACTLY as you described with never ending goals that will lead to a better tomorrow. Thankfully, I don’t do this anymore, but it took me 47 years to figure out what you described.

What you describe is very close to Buddhist thinking. Have you read any books on Buddhism?


Marc and Angel Hack Life May 10, 2009 at 12:56 pm

I’ve said it before…

Now is the only moment guaranteed to you.

Now if life.

Don’t miss it.



Alik Levin | May 10, 2009 at 2:46 pm

The time is now. That is why I like approach of thinking less and doing more. Do, revise, improve. Recently I was thinking what strength I have – I am not very smart guy (I am not stupid neither…) but I would not call myself brilliant. Many actually think i am. I am not. One of my biggest strengths is doing things and not spending time on countless thoughts about cons and pros. I just do stuff, fail, learn, improve – collect my life experiences. I LOVE **now**. 😉 . That is what get me results – I seize every moment to achieve something.


Christopher Thurmond May 10, 2009 at 3:32 pm

Yeh I really dig this post. Walking the balance between using the future and past when its necessary to learn and plan, and putting yourself back in the moment when its not is difficult sometimes. Alot of people think that being in the moment means shucking off responsibility or being careless about your future but its really just the opposite. When you spend all day worrying about a bill you can’t afford to pay, you may pass up several opportunities to make some extra money because you were too busy focusing on your future problem to notice the solution right in front of you. So its important to remind people that it works both ways. Another great post, I look forward to even more.

“Fear is nothing but imagined suffering”


Stephen Mills May 10, 2009 at 4:33 pm

@Vin, I love how you said “happy for no reason”. I like that and it’s the title of a book on my shelves that I have yet to read. I think it just moved up on my list! 🙂

@Roger, thanks for your comments. No, I haven’t read any Buddhist material, but so many keep mentioning it I think I am going to have to do so very soon.

@Marc, thanks. I agree. Let’s not miss life.

@Alik, thanks for your comments. This is great!

“One of my biggest strengths is doing things and not spending time on countless thoughts about cons and pros. I just do stuff, fail, learn, improve – collect my life experiences.”

I agree that we spend way too much timing trying to figure out the perfect action and in the meantime life just keeps running by us. We need to hop on the now train and ride it.

@Christopher, thanks for the comments and welcome! to the rat race trap. You totally nailed it:

“…you were too busy focusing on your future problem to notice the solution right in front of you.”

Exactly. Solutions and creativity only come in the present. When you are somewhere else you miss them.


Jonathan - Advanced Life Skills May 10, 2009 at 5:50 pm

Hi Stephen, I love this post.

It’s fruitless to look either forwards or backwards for happiness because happiness is a real time event. Past happiness is a good memory. Future happiness is a hope or projection. But the experience of happiness can only happen right now, in the moment. If we miss it, it’s gone. If we live it, it lives on in our memory. One of the most powerful concepts I have learned in my life is “be here now.”


Karl Staib - Work Happy Now May 10, 2009 at 9:41 pm

Much of my personal development is surrendering to the now, trying to find any sliver of positive. Once you can find a shard of joy in something that feeling will grow. Some days it takes work, especially when I’ve had a tough day of work, but if I keep looking for that joy in the now it always happens.


Mike King May 11, 2009 at 12:13 am

Excellent article. I feel the same as you and some who’ve commented on the fact that once you really “figure this out” for yourself, things change drastically for your outlook on life, planning and acceptance of things.


Laurie | Express Yourself to Success May 11, 2009 at 6:42 am

It’s taken me a while to figure this out too – and I’m always in need of reminders so thanks for the post!

For me, being in the present really gives me a sense of empowerment because anything that happens, happens now and I get to choose whatever that is. Having said that, I like to take some time at the end of the day and think about how I passed my time and then think about what I’ll do tomorrow. The sense of happiness from those thoughts is felt in the present so sometimes satisfaction is a healthy blend of the past, present and future.


Giovanna Garcia May 11, 2009 at 3:33 pm

Hi Stephen!
What a great post. I like how you stated that we should “Life is not the future. Life is the present”. This is something I believe in. We should take imperfect action, cause it’s better than No action.
I hope you have a wonderful week.
Giovanna Garcia
Imperfect Action is better than no Action


Angela May 11, 2009 at 6:35 pm

We cannot control the past or the future…but the present is truly a gift for us to accept.


Bud Hennekes May 11, 2009 at 8:12 pm

Tomorrow never comes 🙂

Be happy now.


Evelyn Lim May 13, 2009 at 6:15 am

I would like to share a quote that I just came across “Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow; it empties today of its strength.” Agreed! We need to start living today – right here, right now!


Derrick May 23, 2009 at 12:25 am

Excellant article on a topic that needs to be heard! Keep them coming!


Mokokoma Mokhonoana May 29, 2009 at 1:27 am

Great read!

I agree, the future does not exist. We’ve been living in the now (today) from the day we were born until the present moment.

The moment you reach the so called tomorrow, it changes to today. As today was tomorrow yesterday!

Mokokoma Mokhonoana´s last blog post..Student design work showcase from University College Falmouth


Dominique August 14, 2012 at 10:53 pm

3 years later and I still going to comment like a boss I just want to say Life is like writing a song or making any type of art if your just doing it to say yay I’m done or just to get to the end, it will end up being mediocre and you’ll never really have any true satisfaction


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