The Mindful Middle of Past and Future

By February 25, 2016Inspiration

past and future

People do amazing things. We are capable to do amazing things. If people are doing things and have the potential to do more, why do many of us feel like we are stuck? Not everyone may feel this way right now, but my guess is most have felt this way at one or more times in their life.

At Wisdom 2.0, we hear how people connect within to do great things externally. In our spirit dance, we also feel the uncertainty, fear, hesitation, and emotional churn in getting to the point of doing what we are called to do. A conversation between Jon Kabat-Zinn and Byron Katie burst out a realization that we skip being present. Instead, we spend too much time in the past, which can lead to feeling depressed. On the other end, we think about our future and develop a fear of stepping toward it.

In the middle of the past and future, we have a choice. We can get stuck in the tug of war between the past and future. Or, we can be present in the moment. My visual of this conversation is below.

being present

A wrestle begins.

In the Middle: A Mindful Option

Where are we? Are we:

  • Focused on what was or could have been?
  • Focused on what can be or should be?
  • Muddled in the middle?

Being present in the moment sounds like a lot mindfulness messiness. What does being present really mean? Being present sounds like something a new age person does, right?

I wrestle with this.

In conversations, a thought struck me.

For me, the model described in the Jon Kabat-Zinn and Byron Katie conversation did not fit perfectly. A new one began to develop in my thoughts.

The past is not being depressed. The past contains many experiences and influences. Learning from each is vital, as is knowing what influences are important to drop and which ones are important to carry forward. Most of all, the past is time spent. The more past we have, the less future we have.

The other end of the spectrum is our future. The future does not contain fear. The future contains anticipation. A certain longing to have a bigger impact.

In the middle of past and future is our presence. Presence is important. What presence means is to:

  • Be patient in conversations and experiences
  • Listening to supportive and challenging voices
  • Participating actively in our selected communities
  • Adjusting as we learn
  • Doing the necessary work
  • Building momentum of connecting people and pathways forward

Presence is more than these undertakings. Being present requires us to be entangled in purpose and character.

presence in purpose

Presence without having a purpose seems hollow. Hollowness can be dangerous if we fill this space with ulterior motives in our conversations or work. We may not always have clarity in our purpose and, at times, that is okay. Having just a purpose inkling may keep us alive in the moment.

Presence without character is dangerous, too. Without character, we prey. We look for self-centered opportunities. Character keeps our presence filled with integrity-filled empathy. What character delivers is a focus on how we can help and what we can do together when our purposes align. If our purposes do not align, we are honest about it and still lend an ear and hand as appropriate.

“Being present” is not ignoring our past. Our past influences us.

“Being present” is not avoiding the future. Our future builds anticipation in us.

In both the past and future, we are present in our individual work and collaborative efforts, wrapped in an understanding of what positive impact we are striving toward.

Mindful Pitfalls: Past and Future

Understanding our past and future is important.

Our past has certain experiences and influences. Not all of them will be positive. We will have a mix. Depending on our life circumstances, we may have more negative than positive or more positive than negative. With our purpose defined, we may not have the right experiences and influences to propel us as quickly into our new future as we would like. The result is impatience and looking for shortcuts.

No shortcuts enable a sustainable, positive future, so we need to do the work to create the experiences that will help us the most today and find the best influencers to guide us along the way.

Our future may be clear, at least in what we would like to do and be. We can feel it, and the possibility energizes us. However, we cannot be anxious. A wide-awake approach will keep us focused on the daily work and the sustainable relationships. We show up fully in our purpose and character in each – in our work and our relationships. Being fully present is a way to describe this path forward in a more personal way.

Mindfulness: Our Life

Being fully present in character and purpose leverages our past experiences in a growth-oriented way. Being fully present in character and purpose keeps us centered in our pursuit of our bigger future impact.

We need healthy practices to avoid our pitfalls and stay true to our vision. Being present is active and proactive while feeling planted in our foundation of what we want to create.

Mindfulness keeps us centered while listening well within and all around, discerning what matters and taking thoughtful action forward.

How does mindfulness impact your life and work?



Jon Mertz
Jon Mertz is one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business and highlighted as one of the Leaders to Watch in 2015 by the American Management Association. He also is the author of Activate Leadership: Aspen Truths to Empower Millennial Leaders. Jon serves as vice president of marketing at Corepoint Health. Outside of his professional life, Jon brings together a community to inspire Millennial leaders and close the gap between two generations of leaders.
Jon Mertz
Jon Mertz

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Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • Julian says:

    Good post, and nice illustration.

    Having been depressed myself, I can vouch that my depression has been down to what I term, ‘Bad Nostalgia’. That is, looking at the past like it was the best, without being grateful with what I have now. And one has said that one of the best ways to come to terms with fear is to call your fears, ‘adventures’. When I have managed to get this to work (a minority of the time, to be honest), I get an excited feeling, which almost, ‘heals’ the fear.

    Mindfulness, thought, helps not only possibilities, but also compassion…the best of both worlds;-)

    Thanks for posting

    • Jon Mertz says:


      Grateful for your experiences and insights. Framing some of our past as “Bad Nostalgia” is accurate. For me, digging into those bad nostalgia influences helps to define where we want to to next and what we want to stop. Both are challenging. Compassion, as you mention, is essential, both within and with our community. Getting excited about our future is a great healer. We need to focus here while doing this work in the present. A tough life challenge, but one that makes all the mindful difference.

      Thank you!


  • Alli Polin says:


    I’m so happy I set aside the time to read this piece from you. The conversation that you originally mentioned, with depression and fear was not resonating with me. However, I smiled when I saw your alternative. I do not know what the future holds but absolutely look forward with anticipation. It’s that anticipation while embracing the unknown that keeps me in the mindful middle, fully aware that I need to build on today to uncover and discover what’s coming. Without fully connecting in this moment, I take away my own power as I lead forward. I gloss over this moment and miss creating a past that will propel me and miss creating a future that encompasses meaningful experiences that shape who I am, what I think and how I act.

    Still reflecting and feeling grateful.

    Thanks, Jon!

    • Jon Mertz says:

      Thank you, Alli. The first part did not resonate with me either. I love your point about not glossing over our moment. We need to string together our moments to, as you say, propel us forward. We cannot get stuck in the past, present, or future. Understanding what influences us and where we want to go keeps us focused in doing the right things in the right moments.

      Grateful for your perspective and voice here, Alli!


  • Jon, thanks for a great post. It challenges my thinking. Often, I think of my time as driving a car. There’s a time to plan, generally before I get in it. Once I’m driving, my speed determines how focused I am on the road and how far down the road I’m traveling. Sometimes I see a red light and stop. I’m focused then on the light or the bumper in front of me. Other times, I have to look both ways before going. Even when I get close, I have to pay attention to things more present than those farther off. But the whole time, I must be present. If I stop to look at a text message or spend too much time focusing on something other than my next action, I may end up hurting someone.

    Thanks for making me think. I appreciate you and this blog. Much appreciated.

    • Jon Mertz says:


      I love your analogy! It matches how we need to be present and look ahead. We need to find the right dance between both. Also, when I am driving, my wanders to the past and I discern what is relevant, returning to what is ahead.

      Thanks so much for your thoughts and perspective!


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