The Mindset of the Present

Author Eckhart Tolle has great insight into the problem of fixating on the past or future; he once said,

“All negativity is caused by an accumulation of psychological time and denial of the present.
Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry—all forms of fear—are caused by too much future and not enough presence.
Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of non-forgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence.”

To let go of the past is to forgive, excuse, and allow for errors.
We can learn from the past, and we don’t have to experience things in vain.
To stop fixating on the future is to accept uncertainty and a certain amount of randomness.
We cannot control very much in our lives, and all we can control is our actions and reactions.

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The Mindset of the Present

John is only sixteen years old, but he feels the weight of the world on his shoulders.
His parents, teachers, and guidance counselor are pushing him to plan one of the most important decisions of his life, his career, right now.
He doesn’t know what job will make him happy.
He doesn’t know how much money he needs to earn.
He’s never even managed a budget! He spends hours ruminating and poring over advice columns and college websites, but nothing seems to help.
He’s positive that he needs to go to college, but for what? Should he take a risk on a more interesting but lower- paying career, or should he choose a path with better pay and more job security? Would he be happy if he chose the latter option? What if he chose the former option, and the lower pay left him desperate? What if a good school wouldn’t even accept him; would that mar his chances for life? He’s worried—very worried—and not much is helping his anxiety.
He spends so much time worrying about his future, trying to figure out the rest of his life, that he starts losing his grasp on what’s happening around him.
He’s stopped talking to most of his friends, and he rarely accepts invitations anymore.
Instead, he spends his time reading and worrying, worrying and reading.
Soon his anxiety would interfere with his sleep and distract him while studying, lowering his grades and genuinely limiting his chances of attaining his own best future.
Because John can’t stop fretting about the future, he’s losing his friends, his sanity, and his future.

His mother, Julia, has the opposite problem.
When she looks at her current life, she sees little of interest.
Feeling empty, she retreats into her mind, relishing the hope and excitement of her high school days.
Sure, the work was hard, but overcoming academic challenges was a fulfilling struggle that afforded her the opportunity to triumph.
She still wishes she’d spent more time on her studies.
Back then, her main priority was maintaining her friendships.
She’d stay out late, gossiping and laughing for hours with her friends.
She can’t remember the last time she went out with friends.
It had to have been years ago.
As a stay-at-home mom, her family has become the sum total of her life.
Often, she thinks about how different her life could’ve been if she’d finished her college degree instead of dropping out to get married and become a mother.
At the time, it had seemed like a good idea.
She was deeply in love and eager to have kids.
Her husband and children still make her happy, but it isn’t enough.
She wishes she hadn’t thrown away all those opportunities.
She could have been self-reliant and respected.
She could have made a real difference in the world.
But now she’s a middle-aged parent with a decades’ wide gap in her resume.
What could she do now? Career-wise, she was finished.
She’s made her choices; there’s nothing she can do.
Julia is so preoccupied with her past decisions and the life she used to live that she hardly notices the joy abounding in her current life.
Her nostalgia even prevents her from seeing the opportunities she currently has to improve herself and her life.
Being stuck in the past is making her miserable in the present.

Both mother and son have great intentions; it’s good to plan our futures, and it’s equally good to reflect upon our past.
That’s how we learn and choose what to do with ourselves.
But both went wrong by being so focused on their thoughts that they lost track of the circumstances, responsibilities, and opportunities right in front of them.
Focusing on that would let them make the most of their lives.

Author Eckhart Tolle has great insight into the problem of fixating on the past or future; he once said,

All negativity is caused by an accumulation of psychological time and denial of the present. Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry—all forms of fear—are caused by too much future and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of non-forgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence.

Tolle claims that focusing on the future causes fear that manifests as unease, anxiety, tension, stress, and worry.
In other words, fears about what could happen stress us out.
Thinking about the future to solve problems turns bad when fear becomes stronger than hope.
Fear becomes a problem when, for whatever reason, we can’t easily find a satisfying conclusion.
In an ideal world, we would admit that we can’t predict or control things and wait to see what happens.
But instead, we worry.
And worrying produces stress, which releases cortisone and adrenaline into our bodies, leading to higher levels of baseline anxiety and the tight, stiff muscles that come with it.
The real pickle is that when we feel bad mentally and physically, like we do when we’re stressed, it becomes even harder to solve our problems.
This amplifies our stress and our worries, leading to a vicious, self-destructive cycle that keeps us firmly fixated on the future and the horrible outcomes we fear.
Conversely, when we fixate on our failures, whether it’s insulting a kid in second grade, failing our driver’s test, or a real mistake, like committing a felony, we are failing to forgive ourselves.
We are focusing on what we did in the past, on the people we used to be, rather than on who and what we are now.

People learn from their mistakes.

Improving over time is a good thing, and we can’t do that unless we mess up first.
But too often, we identify with our guilt and shame; we think our worst decisions define our character.
The past, along with everything we’ve done, is gone.
It can’t be changed; it can only be accepted.
We cannot allow it to linger, dominating our lives and moods with negativity.
Forgiving ourselves, others, and the world is essential, but Tolle mentions another ingredient for avoiding the negative emotions that erupt when we’re immersed in the wrong time: presence.
Forgiveness allows us to focus on the present more easily, but what other steps can we take to be more present? Moving Beyond the Past Contemplating our mishaps has a certain allure.
Unlike present actions, the outcomes of which we can’t yet know, the past is resolved.
We know the outcome of each action; we’ve lived through it.
We know the emotions and consequences that erupted from our decisions, and we can no longer do anything to fix those mistakes.
This powerlessness can feel liberating because it frees us of the responsibility to act.
We’ve already made our choice, it’s said and done, and relief comes with that sense of finality.
If nothing else, it’s a stark and comforting contrast to the uncertainty of the future.
In a way, it’s safer to ponder mistakes and wonder what could have happened if we’d acted differently than to make a decision and act in the present, when more failure may lurk around the bend.
But lingering on the past is a massive waste of time and energy because the present is all we have.
We don’t live in the past or the future, but in the now.
We can’t take paths we missed in the past, and we can’t know what our current choices will bring until our futures become our present.
We can only try our best and make the smartest decisions we can.
Anything else is impossible, and holding anyone to impossible standards only invites regret, anger, bitterness, resentment, and hatred—of yourself, other people, and the hand of fate alike.
The first step toward breaking this destructive habit is asking yourself why you’re stuck in the past.
What emotion is making you return to the past? Do you feel guilty about something you did? Do you regret something you didn’t do? Are you resentful about old wounds? Are you bitter that opportunities were taken from you? Pinpoint your grievance, accept that it can’t be changed, and forgive everyone—including yourself—for being imperfect.

People make mistakes.

While mistakes are frustrating, their existence is inevitable.
Often, they’re even helpful.
Think about it: do you remember the right answers you had on the tests you took in school? Odds are, you don’t.
You were told you knew what you were doing, so you didn’t linger on it.
But mistakes stand out.
We see that red ink, and we’re bothered that we did poorly.
This distress encourages us to review the material we missed, and the added weight of having been wrong solidifies the message in our minds.
Because we made mistakes, we remember the true answers, the better actions, and the more compassionate approaches more readily.
So being wrong is good.
If we’re willing to learn our lessons, it helps us become better, more successful people.
But what about when people choose to hurt us? We learn from that, too.
We can learn to identify and avoid hurtful people and situations from poor experiences in the past.
A woman is unlikely to walk back into a particular bar after being pawed like a cat toy by men in that locale, for example.
That’s a lesson learned.
Most of the times that we’re wronged can supply us with similar lessons, making us stronger and wiser as we collect life experience.
Bad things happen to everyone, but focusing on being a victim gives all your agency to the past.
By contrast, seeing yourself as a fighter or a survivor roots you in the present.
Fighters actively confront their pain, learn from it, resolve lingering emotions, and work toward forgiveness and acceptance.
Survivors have finished that work and put their experiences behind them.
They know they went through hard times, but they emerged on the other side.
They understand that they’re stronger, wiser, and more experienced than people who haven’t seen those aspects of our world.
Neither fighters nor survivors stand down and accept their past defining their present.
Instead, they leave it behind and focus on the change they’re creating right now.
What’s happening right now, for you, in the present moment? You’re reading, but where are you? Is it comfortable? Are you hungry or thirsty, and do you have the means to fix it? Are you tired or ill and able to rest soon? What else is going on around you right this second? No matter where you are, it’s probably nothing terrible.
Most of us live calm, peaceful lives that contain innumerable reasons to be happy.
As humans, we’re prone to lingering on the few bad moments in every day and getting stuck on errors and disappointments we experienced, but the present moment? That’s usually pretty good.
We all need to notice that, to appreciate that, more often.