The following saying is attributed to Laozi, a philosopher and poet of ancient China:
“If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace you are living in the present.”
Readers of our newsletter may remember that I kicked off a series about mindfulness in last month’s edition. Here is a brief recap:
Mindfulness is an effective method to manage emotions and stress. It is a willful, specific way of paying attention in the present moment, without judging anything. There are many proven health benefits to mindfulness, such as reducing stress and anxiety, improving attention and concentration, and treating chronic pain, amongst other benefits.
As I said last month, mindfulness is an activity that costs nothing, can be repeated as many times a day as one likes, and it anchors us in the middle of the stream of the most wonderful of all things, being alive.
Today, I am going to focus on how to free oneself from feelings about the past when they dislodge us from living the present. In next month’s post, I will do the same for feelings about the future. This is sometimes necessary to do when one judges those feelings as more important and significant than other experiences of the present, and when it becomes hard, if not impossible, just letting them be.
Feelings about the past that can distract from experiencing the mindfulness stream are ones such as anger, guilt, and grief. One can be angry thinking about the injustices and wrongs that have experienced. One can feel guilty about the same kind of bad things carried out on others. One can be hurt deeply about the loss of a loved one, or a loved possession.
If one cannot help but be focused on any one of these feelings and this steals from the ability to be mindful, there are several cognitive tricks to help.
Regarding anger, the first is to learn to have a deep realization and conviction that the injustices of the past did not happen to you because you are you, but happened to you because you were there when the injustice happened. In that same regard, whoever would have been there at the time of the wrongdoing, would have been the recipient of it. Making the abuse more impersonal, helps greatly to move along and not focus on getting back at the wrongdoer. If that does not completely help, then do an “empty chair” technique. Put an empty chair in front of you, making sure that when you start talking, you are private enough that others may not find it strange that you seem to be yelling and shouting to yourself! Now imagine that you force the person who hurt you into that chair and then you let them have it. Yell. Scream if you need to. Make sure they get to hear what they did. Do NOT stop till the feeling of anger feels washed out. Do not just think it, say (or shout) it. It can be very exhausting to do this, but will always help diminish that feeling of anger.
Regarding guilt, it is crucial to change this feeling. I call guilt “auto-cannibalism” (the act of eating yourself), as the more one “bites” into oneself with guilt, the more pain one experiences and more reason for feeding the guilt. Once started, it is almost always a vicious cycle. Guilt cannot be easily assuaged, and one has to change it into something else. Next time feelings of guilt about something you did in the past steals the joy of your present moment, try this technique: feel remorseful instead. What is the difference between that and guilt? Remorse is a feeling of regret about what you did wrong, but has within it a resolve to learn from your mistake so that you are much less likely to do it again and a desire to do restitution to your victim if you can. If we have learned from our mistake and if we could somehow make up for some (or hopefully all) of it, we can look back and see the good that came out of it. This will help us move on.
Grief is the hardest to manage of the three feelings from the past that can steal from your present. This is because grief is always justified. It also has no personal expiration date (in other words, nobody can tell you to move along and get over it). Remember, counselors, psychologists or psychiatrists are happy to assist you if you need help with this journey. If that seems too daunting or does not fit your budget, put a day aside to grieve. On this day stay with the feeling of your pain. Be present to that. Let it be the focus of everything you feel. Please weep if you must. Have a loved one standby to hold you if you need that. Watch for feelings of becoming overwhelmed and let them be, but seek professional help if it prolongs.
For those of you who suffer from any of these feelings, I sincerely wish you the ability to speedily transform and lessen them, so that you can fully live through what the ever changing, wonderful present brings us continuously.