Back to the now

Illustration by Joost Stokhof

How mindfulness influences time
and mental suffering

By Marcelino Lopez 

Put two random people next to each other on a park bench, and they will probably experience time in completely different ways. One of them will be reading a good book and will have lost all sense of time; the other, waiting for a blind date, is conscious of every fleeting second. In a certain sense, waiting is suffering from time. 

If you are enjoying yourself, you have probably forgotten about time. You are absorbed in the moment. If you are waiting for something, you are dealing with the future. That slows time down. And the more uncertain that future feels, the slower time seems to go by. Stress, anxiety, and concern about the future make time longer.

In this article we will delve a bit deeper into the question as to how time perception, happiness, and suffering relate to each other and you can learn how to spend less time suffering and more time enjoying yourself.

Anticipation stress: waiting in uncertainty is suffering
A simple study by De Berker et al. (2016) shows how waiting in uncertainty increases suffering. In the study, 45 test subjects were each presented with a pile of stones on their computer screen. They had to guess whether there was a snake hiding underneath. If there was, the test subjects could expect to receive an electric shock. The research tested how much stress they experienced. Participants were divided into two groups: half of them knew beforehand that they would receive a shock, while the other half did not.
The unequivocal conclusion: participants experienced much more stress when they didn’t know whether they would receive a shock. Being certain, even if the outcome is negative, is less stressful than living in uncertainty.

For this reason, waiting for the outcome of a medical test is often more stressful than actually getting the diagnosis. If the outcome has been determined, that calms your brain, even if that outcome is negative. You know what you’re dealing with. Tension comes about in the uncertainty of not knowing. Research also shows that test subjects who receive a false diagnosis or a false explanation for their pain experience less pain than patients who received no diagnosis or explanation at all.

The value of stress
It is thanks to this sort of research that people are, by nature, relatively bad at managing uncertainty and ‘the stress of waiting’. There is also a paradox: optimists whose positive outlook allows them to experience less stress while waiting actually react more strongly to bad news and less enthusiastically to good news. In contrast, ‘stressed waiters’ get a boost from good news and get less upset over bad news. So, anticipation stress is not merely bad.

Why are we so bad at dealing with uncertainty? Your brain has evolved to help you survive and, even if you’re not conscious of it, is constantly ‘telling’ your body what it needs to do. In an unclear situation it can’t do that, but since doing nothing can potentially be fatal or detrimental, your body produces stress hormones to prepare itself for imminent danger. This is why you feel more alert and tense than normal if you walk around an unfamiliar neighbourhood at night. Even if you know that in all likelihood nothing is wrong, the fact that the place is unfamiliar makes you keep your guard up more than usual.

So, we could also call stress the ‘urge to do something’. The hormones that provoke this feeling of urgency are cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. Produced in the adrenal cortex, these substances immediately make you alert, focused, and ready for action. They accomplish that by doing things like raising your blood pressure and activating your nervous system. Stress is quite a healthy reaction, but it becomes problematic if it goes on for too long and does not alternate with periods of rest and relaxation.

Illustration by Joost Stokhof  

When stress becomes chronic
Humans are the only animal capable of thinking about the past and the future. This talent for looking ahead and planning gives us more power and control over our fate than other species, but the price we pay for this time perception is that we can also be chronically worried and unhappy. If we don’t learn how to rein in our creative mind, our thoughts very quickly start playing tricks on us.

Even if we’re sitting on the sofa with a warm blanket and our favourite beverage, we can become totally upset merely due to our thoughts. With a little bit of effort, you can think up an endless number of horrific scenarios for things that could go wrong tomorrow. Maybe the milk has dangerous bacteria in it. The neighbour’s house might catch fire. You might get sacked from your job tomorrow.

And to make things worse, you can’t just switch off your stream of thoughts as you would your TV set. You actually have little control over that. Just like the sounds you hear and the things you see, your thoughts aren’t something you choose. They come and go the whole day long, interrupted only by sleep. A worrier will recognise this situation.

With some people, worrying can intensify so much that it leads to chronic stress, symptoms of exhaustion, and panic attacks. Psychologists refer to this as generalised anxiety disorder. The problem is usually not the environment but a brain gone wild and running in circles because there is no quick and ready solution. Many of life’s problems have no quick and ready solution. Will I still have a job tomorrow? Does my partner still love me? Do I still love my partner? Will I still be healthy tomorrow?

You can go on worrying about these sorts of issues eternally, but you’ll never get a satisfying answer to them. Our brain needs certainty, but life itself is one big pile of uncertainty. No one knows what tomorrow will bring.

The key question is: Can you learn to relax and enjoy yourself while being conscious of the fact that the future is uncertain and that life can hit you hard at times? Is there a technique for dealing with uncertainty better?

To make unpleasant and boring moments pass by more quickly, most people seek out distraction. They kill their boredom by playing a game on their smartphone or exercising. Distraction works fine for ‘light’ suffering, such as boredom or an aching back, but with major uncertainty or serious pain it doesn’t work so well. The pain demands your attention and doesn’t just let you chase it out of your consciousness. With acute physical pain, you can resort to any number of painkillers, but the drug therapy route is more controversial when applied to psychological pain. You can take tranquillisers or numb yourself with alcohol and drugs, but in the long run, the fleeting, addictive, and uncertain character of these substances creates more problems than they solve. Is there some way to approach psychological (and physical) pain without medications?

Illustration by Joost Stokhof

Meditation: the power of rediscovering the here and now
You might call mindfulness meditation spiritual, religious, or airy-fairy, but we can also approach meditation from a scientific perspective, detached from its Buddhist origins and mystical connotations. Those aspects are not actually necessary to demonstrate its value. From a scientific perspective the verdict is clear: meditation is good for almost everything, just like sleeping, eating healthy, and walking. People who have unprejudiced awareness of the here and now – that’s what mindfulness meditation is – are doing themselves a lot of good. More than thirty years of research shows that it makes normal people like you and me much less neurotic, stressed, and anxious. And thus, happier. The advance are both mental and physical and can improve quality of life in different areas—work, relationships, love, creativity, and health. It increases concentration, improves one’s memory, and eases chronic pain. For an ‘activity’ that many people would probably dismiss as useless and utterly boring, its effect is simply amazing.

How can it have such a great effect? It’s less mysterious than it might seem. It’s a matter of silencing that worried voice in your head.

Research shows that the average person spends about half of their waking hours mulling over things, daydreaming, and worrying. You recognise it from that voice in your head that is constantly talking to you. That inner monologue in which we spend our lives is also called the brain’s backup network: the brain’s default state when it isn’t busy with something specific, but is daydreaming, making comparisons, worrying, and fretting.

Research shows that it is precisely that uncontrolled, inner monologue that makes people unsatisfied, stressed, and unhappy and keeps them in that state. The more our brain is busy digging up the past or trying to control the future, the more our attention shifts to things that aren’t going well in our life (because they need attention).

By training your attention with mindfulness meditation you create a different relationship with your inner monologue. Meditation is not about forcing yourself to stop thinking; that doesn’t work. In a certain sense, meditation teaches you to detach yourself from thoughts (and from lines running parallel to them). Not by viewing your thoughts and feelings as intruders, but rather by seeing through their fleeting and unreal nature. Over time, recognising that distinction makes a world of difference.

Skilled practitioners of meditation can testify to this. Just as with any other skill or sport, perseverance is required before meditation becomes a habit and feels good. You can train your brain in the same way that you can train your muscles. Meditating regularly changes the structure of your brain. The effects become noticeable after just a couple of days of practice, but for a truly lasting effect, meditation needs to become a habit. Using brain scans, brain researchers can detect the effects of meditation. When the surface noise in your brain calms down, your brain becomes very active in other respects. During meditation, the brain synchronises its activity and individual parts work together better. Overactivity in certain parts of the brain, such as the anxiety and stress centre (the amygdala) and the frontal cerebral cortex (the seat of the worrying voice) dies down, but other areas of the brain associated with sympathy, empathy, happiness, and creativity increase.

Here’s how to meditate
Do you want to give it a try, here and now, in the waiting room? In theory, it’s quite simple:

With your back straight, sit in the most comfortable position possible.

Use the stopwatch on your smartphone and set it to 3 minutes.

Close your eyes, take a couple of deep breaths, and calmly enter the here and now. Listen to the noises around you and feel the sensations in your body. (Do you find it difficult to close your eyes? Then leave them open. Let your gaze rest on a spot in front of you.)

And now for the very core of meditation: without forcing yourself, try to focus your attention on your inhalation and exhalation. Every time you notice your thoughts wandering, turn your attention again to your breathing. And again. And again. Until the stopwatch goes off.

Let your breathing go on as naturally as possible. Feel how your breath automatically enters through your nostrils and how your stomach moves up and down. All you need to do is to pay attention to this.

As you focus your attention on your breathing, you will notice how noises, thoughts, sensations, feelings, and images come and go in your consciousness.

However pointless this exercise may seem, what you have done is nothing less than going through the emergency exit out of your mental misery. That is more than just wishy-washy mumbo-jumbo. Being attentive to your direct sensory perception also means breaking through the inner monologue – that inner voice that sometimes makes you happy, but just as often makes you suffer. Just realising that this back door exists allows you to stop being a slave to that voice.

If you want to do yourself a favour, it is useful to try practising meditation for some time. While not a panacea, it can provide an oasis of calm in this hectic, chaotic world over which we have little control. Research shows that just 12 minutes a day can have a very positive effect.

Being conscious of the now
Strictly speaking, you are always living in the now, even if you worry about the future or have a flashback from the past. A projection of the future or an old memory always occurs now. But your immediate consciousness of the now is also a manufactured experience, one slowed down by your brain. The present you are now experiencing occurs a few milliseconds later than when it really occurred and, according to psychologists, consists of at least of 150 milliseconds. It has the duration of a single thought: ‘I am now seeing a bird fly by.’ At that moment you realise what you are now experiencing. According to research, this ‘now’ experience can last as long as 20 seconds, but people feel the most comfortable with a ‘chunk of now’ of about three seconds.