“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” – Seneca
Have you ever wondered why the world is not ruled by the giraffes? After all, they are the tallest.
Why not the cheetahs? They’re the fastest
Or what about the sharks? Well… I guess we are all terrified of the ocean, so they kind of do rule that domain.
But seriously, why are we the only ones making iPhones and memory foam mattresses?
Many experts would claim that it has a lot to do with the high functioning capacity of our brains. Compared to most other mammals our brains operate on the level of a Sunway TaihuLight Supercomputer, meanwhile the average beaver is packing something closer to a Texas Instruments TI-30X-IIS Scientific Calculator.
Beyond just having faster brains with more processing power, we also have some additional parts. One of which is the Prefrontal Cortex. Which among many other things, is responsible for your brain’s ability to plan ahead and see into the future.
Having this part of our brain gives us the chance to do great things, invent new stuff, build new worlds, and create entire societies. Unfortunately, for many of us, it has also been our undoing. It is this part of the brain that causes you to stress about an upcoming exam, to worry about who will die next in Game of Thrones, or cause you to get anxious when the game rests on your next move.
With this little lump of squishy stuff near your forehead, you are able to create entire realities that don’t even exist yet. Fake realities that are so tangible and vivid that they cause you actual mental anguish, misery and even depression.
We dread certain moments for days, months and sometimes even years. Wondering how they will turn out and wishing they would just go away.
But then what happens? They arrive.
And what do we soon discover? They weren’t actually so bad…
…they really do suck.
But here’s the stupid part. Even if they do suck a lot, you’ve now just endured extra pain for more time than was necessary. You get the pain from worrying, plus the pain when it arrives.
Instead of simply experiencing the pain when it arrived, you set yourself up for an entire month of pre-emptive pain – all of which could have been entirely avoided.
As an athlete, I encountered this problem a lot. In the middle of a game I would start thinking about how shitty it would feel if I missed my serve to lose the game. As a result, when my time came to serve, I would freeze up, hold back and often give our opponents an easy point or miss my serve all together.
Thanks to my stupid prefrontal cortex, I was so caught in planning for my future, that I didn’t even get to enjoy the present.
Dealing With Your Stupid Smart Brain
So since you can’t get rid of your prefrontal cortex, nor should you want to, what should you do to stay more present focused and combat the fear of the unknown future?
If you’ve never trained yourself to focus on the present, how can you expect to be able to do it when it matters most? In every step of our lives we are pushed to think about the future. What do you want to be when you grow up? How many kids will you have? Where do you want to go to school? It’s no wonder many of us suck at staying present in the moment.
A meditation practice can help train this skill. There are a number of different techniques, but for me, the practice I’ve found most beneficial is simply focusing on the breath. When I get distracted and lose my train of thought, I come back to the breath and refocus. It’s just like training any muscle on your body and it requires repetition.
Check out the resource below to get you started:
Meditation App: Headspace (10 Free trial)
Short Article: Patience and Meditation
Great Book: Mindful Athlete – George Mumford
2) Set short term goals
I cannot emphasize enough the benefits of short term goals. Often times we get caught up in long term life achievements and can’t wait until they arrive. But if that’s all we ever think about, there’s a good chance we are unsatisfied when those achievements arrive, or we never get to them because they we don’t focus on the necessary steps to get there.
Whether it’s daily goals, weekly goals, or even goals for your next practice – it’s important that you emphasize the greatness of the tasks right in front of you. If you want to become less focused on the unknown future, you have to distract your brain with the more essential tasks that are right in front of it.
3) Fear Setting
Use your brains ability to plan ahead and practice something called “fear setting”. Tim Ferriss does a great job of explaining this concept in his TED Talk. Check it out below:
In the end it’s literally impossible to shut off your brain’s ability to plan ahead and look into the future. The best shot you have of taming your wild brain is train it so it can imagine a more positive future world. If you are going to spend so much time in a world that doesn’t exist yet, why not imagine one that gets you excited and where you spend the majority of your waking hours actually enjoying the moments right in front of you.
You can always pick up the pieces after everything blows to smithereens. There’s no point in extending your suffering when it’s not necessary.