“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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