The Torment of the Past and Future

Our brains and the way we think about the world are basically our real world super power. We are able to predict what is going to happen five minutes from now, five hours from now, and five days from now. We can remember loads of information from our past and synthesize that information in new situations to draw new conclusions. We are able to intuitively recognize what other people are thinking and to deduce how they felt in past situations or how they will feel in future situations. Our brains do incredible work to help us move through the universe and our species would not be here today without our brains’ super powers.

 

But as great as these super powers are, they can also lead us astray and cause real problems in our lives. Ruminating on things we do not like from our past or on our fears for the  future can be life ruining. We can become embarrassed, scarred, and find ourselves in so much pain from our past that we cannot enjoy our present. Similarly, we can become paralyzed with fear, disillusioned with possibilities, and stuck thinking about negative things may happen in the future, causing us to forget our present moment. In Letters from a Stoic Seneca writes, “But the chief cause of both of these ills is that we do not adapt ourselves to the present, but send our thoughts a long way ahead. And so foresight, the noblest blessings of the human race, becomes perverted. Beasts avoid the dangers which they see, and when they have escaped them are free from care; but we men torment ourselves of that which is to come as well as over that which is past.”

 

To a much greater extent than many of us do, we should probably seek out psychological services to help us better order our thoughts. Stoicism has helped me with remembering the present and has given me tools to use to avoid ruminating on the future or past. Combining psychological services with a stoic toolkit can be very helpful in a world where happiness is presented in a way that doesn’t actually reflect the things that will make us happy. We want to plan ahead and strive for a healthy life where our needs are provided for, but if we become so focused on needing out life to have a particular type of car, or so focused on what might happen if we are not able to pay certain bills, then we can ruin our health and our current lives. And if we cannot let go of the past, if we cannot look at what has happened in our life and say, “that sucked, but here is what I can learn moving forward,” then we will constantly be haunted by ghosts. Learning to be present is not just about breathing exercises and comfortable pillows. Being present is about recognizing when our minds have jumped ahead or when our minds are stuck in the past and learning to refocus the mind on the current moment, the only time where we can take any action to improve things.

A Failure to Connect During Bad Times

Adam Smith lived from 1723 to 1790 and is best known for his economic principles and writing. A quote from him, on the nature of humanity, is included in Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy to open a chapter that immediately follows a page with some simple art and the words, “To whatever failure and challenges you will face, ego is the enemy…” The quote from Smith is, “It is because mankind are disposed to sympathize more entirely with our joy than with our sorrow, that we make parade of our riches, and conceal our poverty. Nothing is so mortifying as to be obliged to expose our distress to the view of the public, and to feel, that though our situation is open to the eyes of all mankind, no mortal conceives for us the half of what we suffer.”

 

A funny thing about humanity is that we seem to think that everyone else is happy all the time and doesn’t face the same challenges, obstacles, depression, anxiety, or general discomforts that we face. We try hard to present a happy and fun life to the outside world, but often we are dealing with our own challenges and fears that we hide away. We face the world on our own in times of stress but go out of our way to broadcast our achievements during times of joy. In his quote from over 200 years ago, Smith recognizes our urge to show off the positive and hide the negative in our lives, and he goes beyond that to show how we assume that other people could not even understand our suffering.

 

This aspect of humanity was with us over 200 years ago when Smith wrote his quote, and today with social media always at our fingertips, it has become dangerously supercharged. It is easier than ever to curate the perfect online life that we show to everyone we know, and this pushes us to become even more isolated when things don’t go right. The feeling that many of us have is that we can only be loved if we have the perfect job, the perfect work/life balance, root for the right sports team, drink the right coffee from the right place, put together the cutest planters, cook the most unique dinners, and brush our teeth with the right toothbrushes. Anything short of the perfectly curated life feels like it needs to be hidden from the rest of the world and deepens isolation.

 

We are afraid to open up to other people about the areas where we fall short of the perfect life. We receive so many likes for our “proud dad” social media brags, our new home photos, and for our tropical vacation pictures that it feels as though we can only connect with people if we have those things to share. Somewhere along the line we forget that other people also experience negatives and we fail to connect with them to discuss what we are challenged by and what we would like to do to change our situation. Because we don’t open up with others about our struggles we are all forced to go it alone, assuming that no one would understand our pain, and feeling worse about not being perfect. This was true during Adam Smith’s lifetime and it is heightened in our technologically connected world today.

 

Holiday would argue that we behave this way because our egos cannot let us be seen as vulnerable, scared, weak, or unsure about ourselves and the world. We feel pressured to always be on top of things and to always be ready to take the world on. We go out of our way to show how well we are doing to boost our ego, and that is what ultimately drives us into further isolation when we don’t feel good about our lives. This sense of being overwhelmed will only grow if we cannot open up about it and be honest about where we are with the people around us. What we will ultimately find if we do go against our natural ego urges is that more people face the challenges we face than we expect, and there is more love in opening up than in hiding away and only presenting the good moments of our lives. The ego wants us to take a path that furthers isolation whereas putting the ego aside will actually help us progress and improve our lives.

When You Live With Your Mind in the Future, You Will Miss the Future When it is Here

I can remember a time as an undergraduate student at the University of Nevada when I was becoming a bit depressed and frustrated by the fact that the excitement and magic of life seem to be disappearing as the reality (and banality) of work and earning a pay-check set in. I was working at a restaurant to make money, taking classes that were just ok, and worrying constantly about what my future would look like. I wanted to have fun and exciting things to live for, but it was becoming clear to me that my life would likely be quite boring in many ways. I was recognizing and understanding that I would not be a Marvel superhero and every day would not be an action packed adventure in the most interesting places on the planet.

I was not living in the present moment and enjoying the positive pieces of my life. I was stuck in a future mindset, worrying about realities that did not exist and unable to experience the present moment. I was exactly what Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to avoid becoming in his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness. Hanh writes, “Don’t chase after your thoughts as a shadow follows its object. Don’t run after your thoughts. Find joy and peace in this very moment.”

We can spend all our time thinking about the future, ruminating on the past, and interrogating our present self in a way that worries about the thoughts that we have. Or, we can work to become more aware of the present moment, of the smallest details of our current activity, and of the experiences we have at this very moment. Living in a different time (by spending all our mental energy in the past or future – or even by thinking about how dreary our lives are compared to the perfect lives lived by our friends on Facebook) is what drains the magic and the wonder out of life. When we cannot see the fortune of the present moment, then nothing is of value to us and we cannot actually live.

Hanh also writes, “If you cannot find joy in peace in these very moments of sitting, then the future itself will only flow by as a river flows by you, you will not be able to hold it back, you will be incapable of living the future when it has become the present.” This was the state I found myself in during my undergraduate degree. I would look ahead and be excited about a new movie, a basketball game, or the weekend, but because I had not trained my mind to live in the present, that moment would fly by me and I would be worried about the drought of exciting events that would follow the event, and I would fail to enjoy the actual thing and the actual moment that I had looked forward to. Rather than bring me joy and meaning, the present moment was merely a shadow while the future loomed as a tidal wave of fear and depression. Turning inward and becoming more self-aware allowed me to begin seeing the present moment, and seeing the present moment restored the joy and value of small things, such as reading, writing, a short walk, a good exercise, or even just a conversation with a friend. These experiences are the only real things in life (at least as they happen) and the magic is in fully experiencing and living these moments.

The Present Moment Is the Most Important Thing In Your Life

Throughout my life I have been very lucky to not suffer from severe anxiety or depression, but I have gone through bouts of despair and periods where I have felt unhappy and a bit anxious. One of things that has helped me during these times is focusing in on the present moment and trying to be fully aware of where I am at right now and what I am doing right now. Zeroing in on the present helps pull my mind out of the story it tells itself about who I am, what I am worth, how successful my past has been, and what I must do in the future to be a great person. In the present moment, the only thing that matters is what we are currently engaged in and what we are doing right now. Besides the immediate present moment, nothing else truly impacts our life.

 

In his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, author Thich Nhat Hanh describes the importance of mindfulness and the value the present moment brings to us when we actually focus on it. Working on our focus and paying attention to the present moment, whatever we are doing, is a form of meditation. I have always thought of meditation as sitting still and quiet,  focusing on my breath or expanding my awareness of all things around me, but Hanh describes a way for us to meditate in any action by focusing on the present moment and being fully immersed with a singular focus on the task, job, or thing in front of us. He writes,

 

“When you are washing the dishes, washing the dishes must be the most important thing in your life. Just as when you’re drinking tea, drinking tea must be the most important thing in your life. … Each act must be carried out in mindfulness. Each act is a rite, a ceremony.”

 

When we focus on the present moment and what is in front of us right now, everything else begins to recede because our mind only has space for one thing. This practice can help reduce our fears, worries, and the stories and pressures we put on our selves. I do not suggest that everyone who suffers from depression or anxiety can fix their problems  by meditation and mindfulness, but in my life, becoming absorbed in the present moment, recognizing that what I am doing right now is all that I truly have and all that truly matters has helped me overcome these challenges. I try my best to recognize that what has happened in the past is gone, and cannot be changed by what I am doing now, so I should focus on my current activity and be entirely present and immersed with what I am doing. Likewise, I cannot control what will happen in the future, but I can know that by doing my best with what I have now, I can prepare myself for what is to come. The present moment takes away the stories we tell about what our actions mean, because we can always fully experience the present and engage with the present, no matter what has happened to us or what will happen to us in the future. This may not solve all problems with anxiety or depression, but techniques of mindfulness have helped me recover from my own low points.