Dwelling on the past can lead to regret and guilt that drive away our ability to enjoy the moment.
This morning while I was walking, I ran into a woman I hadn’t seen in three years. We’d met when she and her husband were house-hunting in our neighborhood.
Now, three years later, she spotted me and hurried over to tell me her sad news. They had bought a house, worked 18 months to fix it up, and then her husband died suddenly of a heart attack.
“We hardly had time to enjoy living at the lake because we were in a hurry to finish all the work on the house,” she said.
Her sister and brother-in-law hadn’t seen the house until they came for the funeral. She had wanted everything to be perfect before entertaining company.
Hearing her story made me realize how important it is to live in the moment and stop waiting until everything is perfect before we do the things we’ve been meaning to do.
My neighbor and her husband didn’t get to enjoy their lake house because they spent all their time trying to get it perfect. They couldn’t have known they would have such a short time to live there together.
If we wait until the house is ready before we entertain, the words are perfect before we write, our weight is ideal before we wear a swimsuit, we might never invite friends over or swim in the lake or write a story. When we put life on hold until things get better, we could end up in a permanent holding pattern.
There was nothing wrong with remodeling their house and planning for the future. The problem was, they were putting their current life on “hold.” “I wish we’d taken time to enjoy ourselves more in the past 18 months,” she said.
Worry, Dread and Peace of Mind
Not only can focusing on the future keep us from fully experiencing the present. Focusing exclusively on the future can steal our peace of mind. The future exists only in our imagination, which is a fertile arena for worry, fear and dread.
How many times have you worried, fretted, feared or dreaded things that never happened? Even if your worst fears came true, the energy you expended on worry didn’t help you avoid the future. It only robbed you of the present.
In some cases, worry, fear and dread make us more susceptible to the things we fear. Attitudes and positive thinking have a direct impact on physical health. Worrying incessantly can literally make us sick, leading to high blood pressure, anxiety, depression and more. Dr. Claire Weeks, author of Hope and Help for Your Nerves, says the fear of having a panic attack can cause us to have one.
Five hundred years ago, Montaigne said, “My life has been filled with terrible misfortune; most of which never happened.”
In a study published in Psychology Today, participants were asked to write down their greatest worries in the past and then determine which imagined calamities didn’t happen. It turned out that 85 percent of the things people worried about never happened!
When I was going through some medical tests, I was so anxious about what the results might show that I figured I wouldn’t be able to enjoy anything until I found out. I was allowing uncertainty and dread of an unknown future to rob me of the joys that were available to me that day.
None of us knows what the future might bring. It’s always uncertain. The only certainty we have is the current moment. Focusing too much on future fears leads to anxiety and depression over what might or might not be instead of allowing us to enjoy what is.
Buddhists say we have “monkey minds,” meaning our thoughts jump from thought to thought like monkeys swinging from tree to tree. When we get “monkey-minded” about our future, we need to reel in those fruitless, swinging thoughts and bring ourselves back to the present.
The Past Can Steal Our Present Joy
It’s not just the future that steals our present. It’s also our past. Dwelling on the past can lead to regret and guilt that drive away our ability to enjoy the moment.
We all regret things we’ve done, things that have happened to us, time wasted, or opportunities squandered. That’s only human. But what if instead of remembering our past with regret, we viewed it as a source of strength?
All our experiences are a training ground for the person we’ve become. We can regret the past or we can learn from it. We can weave a beautiful tapestry from threads of disappointment and failure, knowing that every loose strand carries a lesson, or we can let disappointment and failure define us. It’s our choice.
We wouldn’t be the person we are today if it weren’t for our past. What if the mistake I made ten years ago kept me from making other mistakes that would have been far worse? The key is to learn from our mistakes and move on.
Regret and guilt go hand in hand, so we need to forgive both ourselves and others for anything in the past that burdens our present.
Nelson Mandela said after being released from long years in prison, “When I was walking out of the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew that if I didn’t leave behind my bitterness and hatred, I’d still be in prison.”
In some ways, it’s easier to forgive other people than it is to forgive ourselves. We can forgive them and move on, but we’re always carrying ourselves and our baggage around with us. We only lose that baggage if we let go of the past and live in the present.
Your mistakes from the past don’t define you. Keep them where they belong; in the past. They might be preventing you from making bigger mistakes now. You’ve gained wisdom and insight, and it’s time to put the past behind.
Living in the Present Takes Practice
Once we let go of past regrets and quit worrying about the future, we might need to practice living in the moment. It took me a while. I used to worry about everything; health, money, job, relationships or any other thoughts that sprang, monkey-like, into my mind. But with practice, I taught myself to live in the present.
“It’s being here now that’s important. There’s no past and there’s no future. Time is a very misleading thing. All there ever is, is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can’ relive it; and we can hope for the future, but we don’t know if there is one.” George Harrison
One way to live in the moment is to become less distracted and more aware of our surroundings. The other day I went to a ballgame and sat behind a father and son. The son, instead of watching the game and enjoying this moment with his dad, spent the entire time looking at his cell phone.
Our world grows narrower if we lose our ability to observe and engage in life as it unfolds around us. If we’re always somewhere else in our minds, we rob ourselves of precious moments that can never be retrieved.
When I find myself becoming distracted by my thoughts or obsessing over phone messages, I make a conscious decision to slow down, take a deep breath, and savor the moment.
The other day when I was hiking, I spotted a row of turtles on a log. They were perfectly still, basking in the sun. I stood still too, because any movement on my part would have sent them scurrying into the water.
A soft breeze caressed my face, the sky yawned wide and blue overhead, and white Mountain Laurel blooms perfumed the air. I felt suddenly exuberant, with a joy that bubbled up without regrets over the past or worries over the future. Completely immersed in the moment, I could relate to those turtles, that were simply being. It reminded me of the verse, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10).
When we are mindful of the moment, we engage all our sense. We savor the aroma and flavor of coffee, hear birds heralding the arrival of spring and notice how sunlight filters through summer leaves.
By living in the moment, we don’t let the past or the future rob us of our present because we realize the present is all we have.