We all know them. You might be one of them. A lot of people are. People who have either experienced difficulty most of their lives, or they faced one big event that included very high levels of betrayal or pain or fear. I’m talking about the people who aren’t happy today because of something in their past, be it as sharp as a violent parent, or as diffused as a marriage lost to “drifting apart.”
The good news is that we are under no obligation to re-live those painful, scary or sad events. We call them big and therefore we claim to ourselves that they are somehow especially compelling; that you have to think them.
When I say stop you’ll say I can’t help it. But that’s hilarious because you don’t need to help it as though it takes some kind of effort. You need to take effort away by stopping yourself from assembling the narratives in the first place. You can’t make a narrative go away by replacing it with a second narrative that tries to justify the first. Remember, you put work into these narratives. I’m saying be peaceful instead. It’s much easier.
The only reason you believe you have to think certain things is because you do think those things a lot, and your brain gets good at anything you ask it to do a lot. So it’s like like the biggest valley in your head, caused by the largest amount of flowing water. That’s the route most of your thinking travels. If your attention is skipping across your brain it’s more likely to settle in the widest, deepest valley, which is created by the greatest amount of thought. But that doesn’t make it inevitable. Hardly. They’re still your thoughts. Who else would be thinking them?
This isn’t like you being chased through your own consciousness by some past event. It’s more like you going into your consciousness, way down into the basement where you keep all the painful stuff, and then you dig through years and layers of different thoughts—any of which you could choose to think—and instead you grab these same sheets of paper you often do, and you re-read them again, all the time complaining about how bad the story is that’s written on them.
I remind you that life remains filled with other filing cabinets also filled with other thoughts and, even more importantly, our actions in this moment are creating brand new pages in the story of our lives. If you’re choosing to think back and select a painful event, how is that the fault of the world or the people who were involved in the thought? Why does something that happened ten years ago need to be thought of today?
Time exists only in your head. You are always alive now. You are never alive any other time other than the moment you are in. But you can take that current moment and you can think about when you lived. You can take your aliveness and you can invest it in remembering and therefore in re-living past events, but why would you do that when those events are painful? You only do it because you think you must head to those deep valleys in your brain. But your brain changes as you use it. The less time and energy you spend on recreating the past in your imagination, the more time and energy you have to move your life forward today.
Stop worrying about days gone by. The real question is: if you had just been someone else, and you just died and got reincarnated into your who you are right now, you wouldn’t care what your body had done 10 years ago. You would assess its capabilities in the now and you would use those to move yourself forward.
There’s no reason you can’t do that yourself right now. Just do not invest energy going to collect and replay old memories of unpleasant events. That is not the fault of the people in those stories nor is it proof that there’s anything wrong with you. But the pain you’re feeling today is 100% your responsibility because no one chooses what you think about other than you. That’s why the thoughts are painful. They’re telling you not to think them.
Forget about worrying about the future or regretting the past. Be alive today. Because it’s what you choose to do today that will create where you get to start from tomorrow. Your past is over. It’s your future that’s open to change. Start living like you know that’s true.
Have yourself an awesome day.
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organisations locally and around the world.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.