- Life can only be fully lived in the current moment, but there is much to be gained from the past and future.
- Learn from the past.
- Use aspirations for the future to guide you.
To live in the present moment is a miracle. The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.
–Thich Nhat Hanh, Touching Peace: Practicing the Art of Mindful Living
Life unfolds in the current moment, and so there is much wisdom in remaining focused on the present. Though this advice is sage, there is more to living life to the fullest. The truth is that we would be foolish to ignore the past and future. There are lessons to be learned from the past and a guiding light offered by the future. So, it is best not to take the advice to live in the moment too literally.
With this in mind, you can strategically use thoughts about the past and future to create greater happiness right now.
The past offers a treasure trove of lessons…if you know how to find them. When reflecting on experiences in your life, ask yourself, What did I learn from that? Then use what you discover to inform the decisions of today and tomorrow. For instance, memories of the car accident you had last year because of texting while driving can be a powerful reminder to keep your phone out of sight now while driving.
But it is important to avoid falling into the trap of endlessly replaying the past, perhaps unable to let go of regrets or mired in longing for a wonderful experience that cannot be replicated. It can leave you incapacitated by self-criticism and depression. In these situations, redirect yourself to the present. Of course, this can sometimes feel like a monumental task. You may need to work on developing compassionate self-awareness to let go of the past. To learn more about this, watch my brief video, Letting Go of the Past.
The future is yet to unfold, and so your thoughts about it are based in your imagination. Any hope or dream can act as your North Star, guiding your current decisions and motivating your actions. However, it’s best to steer clear of trying too hard to predict the future or “make it happen.” You know you are “trying too hard” when you fail to appreciate the present as you become highly anxious about what “could be.”
You will benefit most from the past, present, and future when you can move adeptly between them. For example, while in a bad mood because of making some mistakes at work (present), you might remember other times when you felt similarly and how spending time with friends helped you feel better (past). Realizing that you would prefer to be happy (future), you call some friends and make plans (present). As you move through the day, at first you feel like you are being weighted down, but then as you spend time with friends, you feel lighter and freer to enjoy the time together.
Though you can look to the past for lessons and the future for inspiration, you can truly only live in the present. The pleasure of spending time with friends, maybe savoring your favorite meal with them, occurs in the moments of living those experiences. Reflecting back on them later can be enjoyable and even a motivation to repeat them in the future. But only the present offers you in-the-moment, full-bodied experiences. And this, as wisely noted by renowned Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, is a miracle you can create in your life.