How the Past and the Future Can Rob You of the Present


“Remember then: there is only one time that is important and it is now! The present moment is the only time when we have any power.” ~Tolstoy

Stop for a second and tell me: What were you thinking about just now? Chances are very good that you were thinking about something either in the past or in the future.

Of course, some of that thinking is necessary. For instance, we think about what we need to get at the store to make dinner tonight, or what we saw on the news yesterday to consider where we stand and what to do about it.

Sometimes, thinking about the past or future is also a pleasure: remembering happy times or anticipating something exciting in the near future. But often—usually—we end up dwelling instead on things we can do nothing about, because the past and the future exist only in our heads.

We allow our present moments to be filled with negative emotions caused by something that is not even happening right now—and may never happen!

Caught in a mental sand trap of our own making, we miss out on real life—what is happening in front of us in this very moment.

These are the thoughts that rob you of the present. They call up very distinctive emotions: usually regret, anger, and sadness (the past), or fear and dissatisfaction/longing (the future). Although we all indulge in both past and future thinking, I think most of us have a tendency to concentrate on one or the other.

My tendency has usually been to focus on the future. I used to worry a lot, which is a technique many people use to try to control what is essentially uncontrollable—the future—by imagining all possible outcomes and how they might respond in each case.

The extreme version of this future-based thinking is a crippling anxiety that robs the here and now of any possibility for joy. You can’t live your current life when all of your energy is spent worrying about what might happen in the future!

We future-thinkers also tend to be obsessive planners and goal-setters. Rarely pausing to enjoy what we’ve achieved, we’re already focused on the next step in the plan. That (often unconscious) feeling of dissatisfaction with the present and the longing for something different can also take the form of daydreaming about the future.

What we have right now is never enough—there’s always something “out there” in the future that’s missing, the magic ingredient that will finally make us really and truly happy.

Unfortunately, that mythical something we’re chasing is a perpetually moving target that keeps us from experiencing and enjoying our actual lives as we live them.

This came home to me once when I was living in a sweet little rental just blocks from the beach in Hawaii. Obsessed at the time with buying a house (which I couldn’t afford in Hawaii), I moved back to the mainland, only to later regret squandering that wonderful opportunity in favor of the next thing on my list.

Focusing on the past, on the other hand, often keeps people stuck in a pattern of victimhood. We become prisoners of what has already happened to us, carrying our stories and experiences with us like a burden we can’t (or won’t) set down.

Yes, they are a part of us. Yes, we can learn from them, use them, and legitimately own their impact on us. No, we don’t have to continually relive them in the present moment.

This is a hard one. In the case of past physical and emotional trauma, the body actually carries a sensory imprint of the original event that, when triggered, can send a cascade of emotions from your past into the present moment. When that happens, you have no choice but to deal with those very real emotions in real time—but even then, you don’t have to get sucked back into the story. Try this instead:

Acknowledge the emotions that were triggered, let them move through your body, and stay present. What is happening right now, in front of you? Can you feel your feet on the floor, or your back against a chair? Can you take a deep breath and tune in to any sounds or scents around you? Let your physical surroundings gently bring your body and mind back to the present. That’s the only moment when we have any power, remember?

Most of the time, it’s not trauma reactions that keep us mired in the past. Usually, it’s just our stories. Stories about bad decisions we made. Stories about people who didn’t treat us well. Stories about things that happened to us. These are the thoughts that rob us of both the power and joy that can only be experienced in this moment.

You can always recognize when you’re stuck in an unhelpful story by the emotions it stirs up—usually anger, sadness and/or regret.

Most of our stories are very well rehearsed, because we’ve thought and spoken of them many, many times. Their familiarity gives us a sense of identity, and even a strange comfort.

I think of how many times I told the story of my divorce, both to myself and to others, but I wasn’t able to finally heal and move on with my life until I stopped telling the story. I stopped letting it define who I was.

The past and the future exist only in our minds. Focusing on them is a poor stand-in for really living, but for many of us it’s such a pervasive habit that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. This, right now, is the moment when life is actually happening to us, and if we don’t pay attention, it too will disappear into the unreality of the past.


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