Home » Training » ACT in Depth

Present Moment Timeline

How often do we catch ourselves having spent several moments – or more – thinking about things completely divorced from what we’re doing and who we’re with? We might be driving, but thinking about all the things we have to do today, or standing at our children’s sport, thinking about whether we’ll have time to pick up the dry cleaning.

Scenario 1:

Roberto gets up for his day as usual and is thinking over the day ahead. Roberto thinks of the challenges he will face with running his mechanic shop and mulls over some mistakes his apprentice made yesterday. Roberto feels angry about the mistakes and is so caught in thinking about this he completely misses his daughter’s smile. Roberto also declines her request to give her a hug before he goes advising her gruffly ‘I don’t have time for all that’. As Roberto starts his car he feels guilty at how he brushed off his daughter and worries about how little time he has to spend with her.

Scenario 2:

Roberto gets up and begins to think about his day. Roberto sets an intention to notice the routine of getting ready. He notices his thoughts and the actual sensory experience of having his shower, getting dressed and eating his breakfast. Roberto becomes aware that as he notices these experiences he finds richness in everyday activities that he has not connected with for some time. Roberto notices his daughter’s smile and notices the feelings of love that arise from her happiness. Roberto accepts her offer of a hug and notices the warmth and joy in this experience. 

Being in the ‘present moment’ enables us to appreciate and embrace the beauty, emotions, company and environments that are before and around us at a point in time. When we act in the present moment, we can find ourselves expanding into a nice place to sit in, to hold, to have, and to be in. There can be a sense of security, stability, space and perhaps peace.

There are a number of perspectives from which we can look at the present moment. If we consider it from a timeline perspective, the present moment sits between the past and the future – between what we have done, and what we are yet to do. Theoretically, though, we can’t be anywhere but in the present moment – we are where we are, and cannot physically be anywhere else. But from a cognitive perspective, we often move ahead in time or reflect on the past, so while we are physically in the moment, psychologically we are in the past or the future. This reflection is done from the here and now.

In therapy we often find our clients struggling with the future or the past.

When considering the future our clients may find it anxiety provoking, or provoke feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness. Generally, though, the future has anxiety attached to it. 

When considering the past, clients often experience regret or guilt. They may find this quite depressing. 

On the other hand, the present moment doesn’t hold any anxiety about behaviour or experience. It is about noting what is happening right here, right now. There are no regrets about the past, or opinions about the future. From a therapeutic context we are trying to come into the present moment and act from there, instead of fusing with the future or the past. 

Liam awoke suddenly in the early hours of the morning, and could hear that there were people in his house. He rushed into the living room to see what was happening and in doing so found himself face to face with three intruders. The intruders assaulted him physically, overpowering him, throwing him to the floor before escaping through the back door. Moments later his family members found him and helped him up.

Liam and his family were clearly traumatised. In the following 12 months (before seeking help), Liam became very hyper-vigilant and caught up with thoughts about the past and the future. He would dwell on the past, re-traumatise each time, and also worry about the possibility of a repeat event. He was anxious and depressed.  

It is clear that Liam no longer lives in the moment. We worked to bring Liam to the point where he could focus on the here and now.

Four steps to engage a client in the ‘here and now’:

  1. Demonstrate the timeline and identify where the client sits on the timeline. Liam was initially in the future, then more in the past.

  2. Validate that position in terms of it being a natural response (for example, Liam’s reaction to trauma). 

  3. Ask for permission to raise the client’s awareness when there is movement from the present moment to the past or future. Liam was willing to do this, and began to notice himself when it occurred. 

  4. Very gently bring the client back to the present moment.

This process needs to be worked through gently and with compassion. Please take your time.


Connect with Nesh on: