Living in the present, or The Now as Ekhart Tolle termed it, is the only way to live with less stress.
Past and future don’t even really exist except as memories and concepts in our mind. We can’t affect anything in the past or future, yet almost 100% of our stress comes from regretting the past, reliving old hurts or worrying about the future.
You can’t make anything happen in those time periods. All you can do is
1 – Change how you respond to the memories
2 – Change the course of what you do Now to impact the direction of your future.
If your life is spent regretting or romanticizing your past, you are not living in reality.
If your life is spent wishing, hoping, planning for a different tomorrow, you are not living in reality.
When we are out of touch with reality, we are handicapped in our ability to manage our stress.
If today feels uncomfortable, rather than deal with the discomfort we:
- Take it out on someone else
- Dream of a romanticized past when life was “better”
- Put our hope in the future and focus completely on setting goals so tomorrow is better than today.
Living in the reality of what we are feeling and experiencing right here and now takes courage. There is no hope for a better life in the past or the future because we do not ever live there. We only live in the right now. Hope is only available right now.
If you put your hope and trust in a higher power, this is particularly true. God is eternal, He lives in eternity. Eternity is not a really long time period extending from the beginning of time to a never ending forever. Eternity is outside of time. Everything exists in now. God is always in now. Therefore His grace and the hope we have in His goodness can be found in right now.
Rejecting the reality of what is right in front of us and refusing to accept things the way they are is the source of stress, frustration, anger, disappointment, all the feelings we think of as negative. Please note – I am NOT saying we have to stop trying to improve our lives or live with toxic people and just accept being treated poorly. You can absolutely work toward a better future while at the same time accepting that what is, right now in this moment you are living, is reality and cannot be changed.
Ironically, that level of acceptance, combined with trusting that God is giving us what we need for right this moment, is the first step toward changing the trajectory of our life for a different tomorrow.
Past and Future Thinking
We believe we are responding rationally and completely objectively to the real world. We aren’t. Our emotions drive how we behave, how we think, and how we act. Emotions are not a rational and objective response to events.
Emotions are triggered by the stories we tell ourselves about what events mean to our life.
Where do we get those stories? From past and future thinking. What we believe about the world is rooted in our past experience and future expectations. Starting from birth we develop a filter of sorts compiled from memories of what happens to us, how people treat us, how other people act, and what we learn from our tiny corner of the world. Every single thing we experience is viewed through that filter.
We also have expectations, or rules, about how the world should work, about how we want the future to look.
All of those past experiences and future expectations are like little labels slapped on a window. Everything is view through that window and our brain continually attempts to make sense of what we are experiences by holding it up to one of those labels to see where the new experience fits in. If the experience lines up with our labels we are comfortable. If they don’t, we either ignore the event, if it has no relevance to our life, or we resist it as “wrong” somehow and the intensity of our emotional response depends entirely on how much we insist on having our own way so our unfulfilled needs get met.
Joanne is currently homeschooling her kids. She went to public school and in her experience, the public school method of lectures, textbooks, worksheets and standardized tests are the only way to learn. That’s her past experience. Her future expectations says kids should get as close to all A’s as possible, score well on the SAT, compile a resume of activities to impress a college admissions board, and get into the best possible college.
There is nothing wrong with Joanne’s stories. It all seemed to work okay for her so in her mind that affirms her beliefs. Reality with her son is different. Chandler is athletic, active, and loves to take things apart to see how they work. Sitting all day at a desk reading a dry boring text book is something akin to torture. His natural gifts lie in being creative, inventive, troubleshooting, and building things. Traditional school methods are not a good fit for Chandler.
If Joanne is open to living in the now, she will see that reality – the best educational situation for her son, does not line up with her past or her future ideas. If she is stuck in past and future thinking, educating Chandler will be daily stress, arguments, and resentments.
Most of the Time Most People Reject Reality
Accepting reality for what it is can be difficult. In order to stop resisting what is when it doesn’t line up with your past experience and future expectations, you have to feel confident that your needs will be met even if things don’t turn out as you expect.
That’s the whole secret to why we hold on to past and future thinking.
We are driven primarily by a desire to have certain needs met. Trying to meet needs such as security, comfort, getting an adrenaline rush, gaining more power, safety, etc. is what drives every single thing we do every day. Our brain works hard at finding ways to meet those needs and at identifying obstacles to getting those needs met. Our brain, or ego self, wants to be in control of getting what we want, in the way and timing we want it. Unfortunately we are not divine. Our brains are not all-knowing. The only means our brain has of figuring out if our needs will be met is through that window of past experiences and future expectations. That is our bias and it colors how we view events.
If we can step outside of that ego self in our brain and learn to trust that all of our needs are already met, regardless of what the circumstances are around us, then and only then are we free to look at reality with an open mind. We can live in the now, and see a bigger picture of what is happening. My friend Joanne can let go of her need for Chandler to be educated in the same way she was. She can trust things will turn out okay if he doesn’t get great grades and go to college.
When emotions are out of control and you seem stuck in conflict, stress, and overwhelm. Ask yourself what past experiences and future expectations are clouding your ability to accept reality.