Living in the Past, the Future? How to Get Back to Now
Tackling what may be getting in the way of your mindfulness.
Posted Jan 09, 2021
You’ve read the articles, the books—be mindful, be in the now, live in the present. Yes, it has psychological benefits, yes, it is a matter of training your brain to focus and respond differently. So, you do the right stuff—you are mindful when you are cooking and pay attention to the slicing of the onion; you download a meditation app and use it twice a day for a few weeks. Good for you for trying, but sometimes trying is not quite good enough.
You find that despite your focus on the present when you're cooking, the meditation, your past or future keeps creeping in. Some would say you need to just keep it, retrain and rewire your brain. Fair enough. But maybe there is a way to accelerate the process by also focusing on possible underlying problems that are sabotaging your focus:
Everyone has some anxiety, but there is rational anxiety and irrational anxiety. You're worried about your mother because she is about to have surgery—rational anxiety. Here you want to take action—calling your mother or father or the hospital to see how she is doing. But if your head is always running ahead into the future, too much, most of your day, if you are filled with what-do-I-need-to-do-next, a slew of what-if, worst-care scenarios about small things—whether your partner is upset with you because he didn't say good morning, whether you need a new engine because your car is making a noise, whether you're going to get fired because your supervisor didn't answer your email from this morning—anxiety is running your life. The underlying problem isn't the current worry-of-the-day/hour-garbage, but anxiety itself. This is what you want to focus on and rein in.
Here you want to have ways of lowering your anxiety—and yes, meditation will help, yes, being mindful when you slice the onion will help—but you want to make your overall anxiety its own problem to fix. Use your thinking about the future as an indicator, a red flag, that lets you know when your anxiety is taking over. Track how you emotionally feel during the day; learn to see the early signs of anxiety rising.
And when you notice your mind is drifting in that what-if direction, take active steps to lower that anxiety. Do that voice-over in your mind: OK, I'm starting to go down this irrational rabbit-hole; that means my anxiety is kicking up. Time to rein it in by having at-the-ready tools in your psychological toolbox: deep breathing, meditation, a walk around the block, yes slicing that onion—to get out of your anxious mind and back into your rational one. Your goal: Knock that anxiety down.
While the future is driven by anxiety, the past is often driven by depression. Five/six percent of us have genetic-driven depression—a long family history of depression, faulty brain chemistry. But for many more of us, depression is situational, feeling trapped—in a job you hate, a relationship. You feel you are living in a box, there is no way out and you give up. For others, it is about grief and closure—regrets and guilt about past actions, what-we-should-have-done thinking.
If you are stuck in the past, start by figuring out the source. If it is about genetics and brain chemistry look for therapy and/or medication. If it is about feeling trapped, you need to brainstorm ways of moving forward, taking action, despite your why-bother feelings. And if it is about regret and guilt, time to create closure.
Here you want to actually or mentally express those feelings of regret and guilt. Send an apologetic email to the person you feel you offended. And if you can’t or don’t want to send something, write out a letter saying all that you couldn’t or didn’t say just to get it out of your head. And then take it one step further and find the lesson you need to learn from your experience—to speak up, be more kind—so your future behaviors can change and heal your past wounds.
The ability to live in the present, to be more mindful is certainly a goal to strive for. But it is about creating a new path in your life, your perspective, your life. But new paths usually means clearing away the underbrush. Step back, see what emotional underbrush is blocking your way forward. Find it, actively work on it.