I’m Bridget Owens and you're listening to the Waxing Soul podcast where we're adventuring into the world of mindful modern magic and authentic spiritual practice. It's April 14, 2022, and today's topic is whether our spiritual practices suffer from too much focus on the future. Are you ready to grow your soul?
Happy Thursday, witchy friends!
I got to thinking this week about time and the future. One of the things that separates humans from the rest of life on the planet is that we perceive and track the flow of time. Or, well, let’s say it’s the way we perceive time. We don’t just experience it, we’re aware that we experience it. We have done a lot of mental work to extrapolate the meaning of the flow of time and its implications for the species. We don’t just think about an hour from now or tomorrow or next year or when we’re old or after we’re dead, as a species we are really really preoccupied with the distant future and the distant past.
And we’re really concerned with our place in that flow of time. Which is something that I find really fascinating as it relates to the flow of time and humanity’s understanding of our place in the flow of time. Like, that had to develop, right? We had to transition from a species which had the experiential understanding of time as far as, you know, recognizing things like yesterday and tomorrow and aging and memory and all of that. The way it appears that most of even our pretty intelligent animal companions do. There’s an instinctual experience of time, like our pets behaving according to circadian rhythms and getting into daily routines and such. But as far as I know, other animal species don’t have a cognitive understanding of concepts like history or future generations.
And this is, I mean, it’s obvious, right, that this is kind of a prerequisite for stuff like religion or spirituality to even develop as an idea. As much as I talk about authenticity being about the present moment, about being connected to the present, and about the importance of focusing on your present experience… and I stand by that, definitely… without an understanding of time as we experience it and the fact that there’s something of an infinite stretch of that experience into the past and future and we’re living in one spot along that continuum, without that, the ideas that make up our religions and spiritual traditions just wouldn’t have ever come to be.
And part of that, if you think about how important storytelling has been to humanity, how much of what we have of the early stories and myths are about ancestors and key figures in stories of the past, something of a living history which would have, for a long time, been the only way to kind of track events going backwards in history, which probably would have just occurred over time as the teachings of the important skills and stuff were passed from one generation to the next and eventually some of the key figures in that stuff would have been long dead generations ago and…
Anyway, it’s kind of easy to see how this understanding of time has been really connected to things like natural patterns and the lives of our ancestors, which are, of course, things that then found their way into our spiritual and religious traditions.
Of course, then, somewhere along the way the future, concerns for the future and future generations finds its way into the awareness as well. We tell stories about the past and those who came before, and so we eventually start telling stories about the future and those who will come after us.
The thing is I’ve started wondering, started thinking and noticing lately that we, and by that I mean the spiritual community in general, I’ve started wondering whether we’ve gotten to a point of putting far too much emphasis on the future, on not just our own future on earth or after, depending on what you believe, but on the future of humanity. Does some higher power have a plan for humans? Do we go on to a next life? What is the path forward for our children and grandchildren and beyond? Almost to the point of that becoming the entire, like, focus of spirituality, like the point of it is some future thing, future reward, future incarnation, etc. Even me, devoid of any… like, I don’t believe in an afterlife, I’m unconvinced on a personal level on reincarnation, but I’ve found myself often kind of preoccupied with the idea of leaving some kind of legacy behind, living on in the minds and memories of others.
And it’s not like that’s all necessarily a bad thing. Understanding that there’s a future that comes after us, that our actions have repercussions into the future, knowing that is true because we can see the way our forebears took actions and made decisions that are having repercussions for us now, understanding that is not a bad thing. Acting on that isn’t a bad thing.
But something made me think recently about whether that’s a healthy place to put so much focus, especially when it comes to our spiritual practices. Do we maybe do ourselves and the future a disservice by centering our spirituality on the future?
So what I want to do first today is break down some of the ways that maybe this isn’t such a great thing, and then in the last portion of the episode I want to look at how it can be good for us.
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Now back to the episode!
So one of the things that got me thinking about this whole thing of time and our over-emphasis on the future was kind of a carry over from an ongoing conflict I have with society in general when it comes to money.
And bear with me on this, I’m not trying to tell anyone else what to do financially, but some of this thinking does carry into the topical conversation for the episode.
Anyway, I’ve… I know I’ve mentioned many times how I left my job several years ago to follow my own passions. And when I did that, I cashed out my 401k to live off of while I figured out what to do next in my life. Which, I mean, I’m assuming some of you listening are having the same reaction lots of people around me did. Like, what the hell was I thinking? What about my retirement? Not to mention the, you know, why was I giving up a job, quitting without notice, burning a bridge, especially when I didn’t have a definite plan for what came next.
And I found myself explaining over and over again that, like, even if the money I had in my 401k would have ever been enough to fund my retirement, I needed it in the moment. For me, the idea that if I kept investing in this unknown future, I’d make it definitely, for sure more secure in some way and that that security was more important than whatever need I had in the present… All of that just didn’t add up to me and never has made a ton of sense.
One of the things that, especially as I’ve gotten older, one of the things that has jumped out at me as especially questionable about that way of thinking – and here’s where we get back to the spirituality part – is that the more investment we make in a future assuming that it’s going to be a certain way, the more we need that future to be real and to be exactly as envisioned. And the more distressing and traumatic it becomes if it starts to look like that promised vision of the future isn’t going to be a reality. If it’s threatened by something else. If things maybe aren’t going to turn out the way we assumed, meaning that all the investment we made under that assumption might be lost, it starts to become imperative that we do whatever it takes to not just keep investing in that particular promised outcome, but to protect it and do what we can to ensure its existence. It means we start making decisions that often sacrifice our ability to thrive in the present.
And that’s true spiritually as well. The more invested we are in a future, the less invested and connected we are to the present. Not just that, but the more invested we are in a particular future, the less resilient and adaptable we are as we go forward in life because anything that looks different from the path forward that we’re investing in looks bad. Dangerous. Like failure. It’s… It’s like…
Honestly, if you look at the way some flavors of Christianity get to a point of actually being excited about things like war and upheaval because they hope it’s a sign of the end times and therefore see things that are actually good for people and good for the planet as bad things? That’s what happens when we get too invested in a particular vision of what the future holds. All the eggs in that basket, and if it looks like the expected future isn’t coming, then it starts to look like a good idea to do whatever it takes to make it come, no matter what that means.
But that’s not the only detriment here. It’s not just making bad decisions in the present and getting disconnected from present reality. We also have a tendency not to just put our focus on a circumstantial future, but to be always focused on a future version of ourselves. That’s one way that we try to foster what we think is growth, right? But it’s also a way that we deal with not liking ourselves. Not trusting or respecting ourselves. And while it’s absolutely true that we are never, like, the same version of ourselves that we’ll be down the line, a lot of times we end up pinning our sense of self on that future version. It can be a moving target, even, not just a static concept of who we want to become.
But if the better you, the one you think you’ll be happier to be, the one that will be better at whatever you feel you need to work on, if that you is always down the line, then it kind of gives us an excuse to not focus on who we are now, in reality, in the present moment. It’s a way to avoid our shadow work, our evolution work. Not that we necessarily do it intentionally, but the thought that we’re always improving, we’re always moving towards some potential amazing version of us just a few steps into the future can feel really comforting, really affirming, and why dig into ourselves now, the versions of ourselves that we don’t necessarily like all that much, when we could just keep chasing this future us that’s going to be everything we always wanted to be?
Only we never get there, right? Especially if what we’re really chasing is that persistent reassurance. It feels like positivity and optimism and belief in ourselves, even if it’s really avoidance, and it only feels positive and optimistic if we don’t ever actually reach the end point. Not to mention that if we keep chasing some future amazing version of ourselves, it’s going to be unattainable. There’s not much potential for satisfaction in that kind of mindset about who we are. Even if we’re focused on the great person we think we’re becoming, that means we’re not really a great person in the here and now, and that makes this whole future focus thing a particularly insidious form of self-criticism and self… Well, I don’t want to say hatred, but it’s not a recipe for self-love, right?
So if our spiritual practice is focused on some future existence that we’re invested in seeing become reality and some future form of ourselves that we’re always in the process of becoming, then are we really focused on our spirituality or are we really losing ourselves in fantasy? Does any of that leave room for a connection to current reality?
Now, none of this is to say that there’s no point in or no benefit from being future minded, so next I want to talk about how it can be a spiritually healthy thing.
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I heard someone in a video talking about different ways that different cultures talk about time, and while they didn’t quote sources and I didn’t check it out, they said something really interesting to consider. They talked about how we tend to think of the past as being behind us and the future ahead of us, like, if we were spatially standing on a physical representation of a timeline, then we are facing towards the future. We think of time as a journey going forward.
But there are some cultures that think of it the opposite way, that we face the past and have our backs to the future because it’s not about the journey, it’s about what we can see. We see the past, we’ve experienced our past, but the future essentially doesn’t exist in our experience yet, we can’t see it. It’s our of our range of sight.
And with as much as we do focus on the future, not just in the ways we imagine the future might be but in how we’re kind of obsessed with things like divination and prophecy and that kind of thing, I think it’s actually important to consider the ways in which we actually might get this whole flow of time thing backwards. Not that the flow of time is backwards. But you know… you know what I mean.
As we stand where we are on our individual and collective timelines, we can either try really hard to see what hasn’t yet come to be, which, I mean, in terms of ability to foresee it, we’re not good at it. Even those who are skilled at divination and have foresight, I mean, it’s pretty tunnel view. It’s not the kind of foresight that can really give us all we need to know in the present and frankly I don’t think we know what we need to know about the future to even make that kind of, to even know what to do with the information we can get if we can get any at all. But we can do that, or we can look harder at what we can see, what we’ve already experienced and what our ancestors already experienced and learn from that in the hopes of building the future we want to build.
That’s the thing I think is most spiritually relevant and valuable if we’re talking about future focus. It hasn’t happened yet and unless you believe that everything is predetermined and our actions don’t matter, in which case I feel like spirituality itself becomes entirely irrelevant, otherwise it’s the choices we make now, the actions we take now, which determine what the future is like. And the biggest lessons there are really found more in the past.
If we look at the people who left the most positive legacy for us, we learn lessons about the best way to leave our own positive legacy for the future. And what we find in that is that it’s not a matter of predetermining what the future SHOULD be like for the the next generations. People make the most impact by focusing on how to help and build in the present or at most for the very immediate future. That gives the next generation something to build off of in relation to however their reality turns out.
In fact, if you look at what happens when people focus a lot on the future, especially one vision for what the future should be or how they think it will be, the outcome of that isn’t great on average. Essentially, if we focus on the future, we do so in the most helpful, healthy way by considering our place in the progression of generations. Not by trying to figure out what kind of future we want on our own terms, but by putting our lives in the context of what came before and how we can be a positive link in that spiritual chain.
And when it comes to our own personal future, thinking of the future on a personal level, I think there’s a similar approach that is spiritually healthy and meaningful and supportive of growth. We are, our own histories are a series of versions of ourselves that aren’t actually all moving towards some pre-destined ideal self. I’ve talked about this before when I talk about evolution. Evolution doesn’t have an end goal. It’s just constant adaptation. So as we age, as we move through our life’s timeline, we do change and go through different iterations, all of which are responses to whatever is going on around us at the time. And we can always learn from the ways in which we’ve not so successfully adapted in the past, from the lessons we’ve learned along the way, and use that to become not a better version of ourselves or an ideal image that we decide we want to be, but to become better at adapting. Better at finding our way to a state of thriving in whatever reality we’re in.
There’s a different spiritual beauty in a life and practice that recognizes the potential of the future and our role in it as part of ongoing history than you’ll find in a life that casts us as the central figure in a story whose ending has already been laid out for us.
Thank you so much for listening. New episodes of the Waxing Soul drop every Thursday. All materials and resources except the music are copyright Bridget Owens. Many thanks to my readers, listeners, friends, mentors, inspirations, and my framily for riding with me into season two. Until next week, blessed be and be good to yourself.