With regards to our time, I have often said that I think there seems to be 3 kinds of people, those who live in the past, those who live in the future and those who live in the present. Of these 3, I have a tendency to be one who thinks about the future, but I know a lot of people quite intimately who do a lot of obsessing about what happened to them in the past.
let go of the past
I understand why people can be inclined to worry about the past. It can be comforting to to re-hash events over and over again and wish we could re-make a decision that may have had a path-altering change in our circumstances. I call this “if only” thinking. It sounds a bit like this, “If only I hadn’t studied underwater basket weaving in college. I only did it because my mother is an underwater basket weaver and she wanted me to take over her business, but what I really want to be is a social worker.”
This kind of thinking is often coupled with the “blame game”. You blame your parents or some other person in your life for their influence over your past decisions. There is a very effective reason why we naturally gravitate toward this reaction. Anger at someone else often feels better than being angry with ourselves. It can be very useful to be angry with someone else and allow it to catapult us to a more proactive solution.
don’t get stuck
The problem comes when we get stuck on blame and continue replaying scenarios from our pasts over and over again rather than taking responsibility for decisions we made at that time. Though it can often be painful to admit that we had a choice, even if at the time it seemed like a very limited choice, we always have a choice. It can be very empowering to acknowledge our role in a mistake we made in the past, and recognition is often the first step in ensuring that we don’t repeat past mistakes.
In reality, the past cannot be changed. Whatever happened back there can’t be undone. We’ve all made mistakes, and letting go of them can be really difficult. It’s hard to let go of the anxiety about past failures, false beliefs and toxic relationships. We live in a culture where there is a high level of shame around failure and mistakes. But we really need to let go of what happened in the past in order to to get to the better life many of us crave. If you’re stuck in the past, it can be incredibly difficult to create a solid foundation for a prosperous future.
return to the present
When I find myself obsessing about some event from the past, to a degree where it is making me feel bad rather than insightful, it can be useful to remember to return to the very present moment. This is what I usually do to re-shift my attention back to the present:
- Stop and breathe, focusing on the breath as it enters and exits your nose.
- Look around and see what it literally happening right in front of you. Are you at home? What sounds do you hear at this minute. Are the birds singing? Is there noise outside? Is it actually completely silent? Sit for a moment and simply observe what is happening in this present moment. This is the epitome of mindfulness.
- Have a cup of herbal tea and really enjoy the ritual of making and drinking the tea right now. Notice the steam rising from the cup, inhale the fragrant aroma. After it has cooled down a bit, take a sip and really allow your taste buds to distinguish it’s flavors. Is there a hint of sweetness from cinnamon? Or a bit of a tang from citrus? Allow the warmth to soothe you as you truly sit in the moment.
Try not to let what happened in the past rob you of your present life. If you’re still carrying the burden of your past mistakes on your shoulders, you’ll be less likely to seize this present moment for the creation of a better future. Remember that while you’re unable to change anything at all from the past, you can still make good use of every single experience by learning from it. Everything that’s ever happened has carried with it an important lesson. Ask those experiences what they could teach you and use those lessons to propel yourself to build a much brighter future.
When you pack away the baggage of the past, it can help you to better identify the possibilities of the present and allow you to embrace the future. Every single idea you’ve ever had and pursued, every person you’ve loved or lost and every experience you’ve ever tried, whether you succeeded or failed, have all led you to where are today. You haven’t wasted your time. You have gained valuable knowledge about what works or doesn’t work for you. If you need to forgive yourself, then please do it and then move on to crafting a content life. Think of how all of the events in your life have combined to create you as a unique person and use that experience as a foundation for the tower of joy you were meant to build.