The “Now” is a key concept in mindfulness with the objective of staying present in the “now.” As will be mentioned later in this post, the objective is good, but it is misnamed. Our information processing limitations are such that we can never be present in the “now.” It takes about 0.1 seconds to read data out of our sensory stores. Further processing is then required before the data becomes information that we can understand. So all we know is history, although an extremely small portion of it is very recent history. We use our memories to predict and cope with the future. One of the most remarkable athletic feats is hitting a ball with a bat. The ball is arriving quickly, sometimes extremely fast. The projection of where that ball will be and how we are going to meet it with a bat requires literally a split second decision based on past information that has just recently arrived. Very few people seem to be aware of these delays that preclude us from being precisely in the “now.” This is of particular concern to me as there does not seem to be an awareness among many of the drivers how long it will take them to react should they need to take action. Even if one is devoting full attention to responding to a signal, that decision cannot be immediate. When one is scanning the highway and thinking the car will have traveled considerable distance before one can react. This time is further increased when one is on a cell phone.
We use this historical information stored in our memories to cope with the external world. We build models of the world to project ourselves into the future and try to predict it. I once knew a physicist who was disturbed that light could be both a wave (having frequencies) and a particle (photons). As a psychologist this never bothered me. There are models in our minds. Different models can be better suited for understanding different phenomena. This is the case with light. I don’t believe that we, as corporal beings, can ever experience the external world directly, but only via the models we develop in our minds,
In mindfulness what is really meant by being in the “now” is being in control of our attention. Our brains remain active 24 hours a day, and I doubt absent any pathology that there is any time that our minds our not filled with something. The exercises one performs to be “mindful” involve controlling one’s attention. There are a wide variety of meditation techniques to do this. At one extreme is the focusing and maintaining attention on a single action, breath, word, or phrase. It is very important to be able to focus attention processing at certain times. At the other extreme, meditation involves letting thoughts flow through our minds unedited. The goal here is to bypass filters or information processing biases that cause us to reject certain thoughts or ideas. Insight and creativity are critically dependent on both these types of attention (See the healthymemory blog post, “Creativity: Turn Your Prefrontal Cortex Down, Then Up”).
Although I am a strong proponent of mindfulness and many of its practices, I am a bit put off by some of the terms that are used.
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