Neuroscientists divide our individual conception of self into two categories: ‘I’, which refers to our present awareness of self in the moment, and ‘me’, which refers to our conception as a past and future self.
Most of us are lost in our heads, thinking about the past–past hurts, for example; or, we’re thinking about our future self–our future goals, desires, and a heavy dose of fears. We rarely spend time in the present moment, aware of NOW, mindful of self as ‘I’.
Paradoxically, however, we do tend to make decisions based in the present, for our immediate desires. Rarely do we make decisions NOW that will impact our future in accordance to our long term goals.
There is a reason for this. In the wild, animals exist in what is called an immediate-return environment. That is, most of your needs can be met with immediate decisions: eat food if you’re hungry; run and hide if you’re scared; mate if you’re… …well, you get it.
The point is that the natural world mostly takes place in the present moment. Once the smell of the wolf is gone, the deer comes out to eat again. Animals don’t have long term goals that they’re conscious of; they act on impulse and “let today take care of today” as the character Jesus says in The New Testament somewhere. Very hippie. Very Zen, man.
In contrast, our modern world can be described mostly as a delayed-return environment. I work hard NOW and am rewarded with a promotion down the road. I invest my time with another person, and it results into a sexual relationship in the future.
The problem is that our brains are designed to live in an immediate-return environment. We are hunter gatherers. The stability that allowed for the civilized world we live in is the result of the agricultural revolution. We plant, cultivate, and harvest.
Make that a mantra: plant, cultivate, harvest. You plant the seed of tomorrow starting today, and you continue to cultivate it. Our biology is not in sync with our civilization, and our tendency is to do what is easiest and feels good in the now. But civilization is agricultural; it follows the patterns of a harvest: you work now, you plan now, and you toil now. The harvest comes afterwards.
The part of our brain that allows for long term planning is the same part of our brain responsible for our willpower. In fact, scientists divide willpower into three different powers: “I want,” which is geared towards immediate desires; “I will,” which controls our long term planning for the future; and “I won’t,” which is a repressive mechanism meant to counterbalance the other two powers.
When I wake up, I want to sleep in for two more hours. But my long term goals involve getting projects done and making myself fit. That means I must sacrifice the present desire–sleeping in–for a temporary pain–going to the gym and working out. It’s a struggle we all know: do I cave in to my present desire, or sacrifice present pleasure for future gain?
One of the biggest factors here is the discrepancy between ‘I’ and ‘me.’ Research has shown that we tend to view our future self somewhat like a stranger. Think about it. It’s morning you that has a problem with partying all night, not nighttime you. Let morning you deal with the hangover!
Of course this isn’t rational. But studies show conclusively that if we can begin relating to our future self with love and empathy–in fact, as yourself, you will tend to make better decisions for your future.
Successful people know how to sacrifice current happiness for future happiness; they have more willpower, and tend to have better self-esteem.
Luckily, there are practical measures you can take to increase your sense of self-love to your future self. Subscribe to Apotheosis through email, and I’ll soon be sending out a free chapter from my future book, Rescuing Your Future, as well as other bonus materials that I will send from time to time. It will include practical exercises for you that can help increase your ability to act with the future in mind. And, of course, you’ll be updated anytime a new article appears through the blog.
Namaste, and thanks for reading!