Letting Go of the Past

One of the greatest benefits I’ve gained from practicing mindfulness is a better understanding of how my mind works. After years of being held hostage by my thoughts and emotions, I’m finally able to take a step back and look at my mind from a (somewhat) objective point of view.

What I’ve noticed recently is that my mind typically functions like a broken record, but instead of replaying the same song over and over, it likes to keep me trapped in thoughts of the past. I constantly find myself replaying old memories in my head, ruminating on failed relationships, and wishing for days of old.

This has become especially clear to me since my breakup two months ago. While the initial sting of it has long since passed, my mind still loves to remind me of everything I used to have. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing. Sitting on a bus. Writing a blog post. Trying to help students with their English pronunciation. All it takes is a single thought, or even just a feeling, to send me spiraling down the rabbit hole of past memories.

As destructive as I’ve found worrying about the future to be, I think this habit of living in the past hurts me even more. Not only does it distract me from whatever I’m doing in the present moment, it also prevents me from putting all my energy towards creating a better future for myself.

I’m starting to wonder if my constant focus on the past is just a form of self-protection, because even if it hurts to think about the past – and it usually does – there’s a certainty in it that I can’t find in the future. I don’t know what’s going to happen, who I’m going to become, and if I’ll ever be as happy in the future as I was in the past. The past has basically become my comfort zone, and it’s easier to sit and dwell on old memories than take action towards something better. It’s easier to stagnate than to move on.

Solutions?

Noticing my fixation on the past hasn’t done much to stop it, but it has made me ask myself two important questions. The first is, “Does thinking about the past serve me in any way? Of course not! It may give me a hollow sense of pleasure at first (similar to the high I get from indulging in negativity or gossiping), but it never brings me more happiness in the long term.

That answer leads me to question number two: How can I stop living in the past? The obvious answer is to focus on the present moment. It’s impossible to live in the past when you’re fully present to the moment. However, being present to the moment is something I struggle to do with any consistency. It may be simple but it definitely isn’t easy.

The obvious answer is to focus on the present moment. It’s impossible to live in the past when you’re fully present to the moment. However, being present to the moment is something I struggle to do with any consistency. It may be simple but it definitely isn’t easy.

Another answer that comes to mind is using a combination of awareness (mindfulness) and patience, while also having strong boundaries when it comes to my thoughts. The first two are simple. It’s only through being mindful that I can catch myself dwelling on the past. And an integral part of mindfulness is showing patience and compassion towards myself. I’m only human after all, and the nature of the human mind is to focus on the past and future. Being mad at myself for having those thoughts only makes things worse.

But what about this whole “strong boundaries” thing? What I mean by that is having the discipline to look at the thoughts I’m indulging in and simply cutting out the ones that won’t bring me true happiness. That may sound a little forced, even harsh, but I think it’s the ultimate sign of self-respect and self-love. If I truly loved myself, would I dwell on the past? Nope. Instead, I would put all my mental energy towards enjoying the present moment and creating an awesome future for myself.

More importantly, though, having those strong boundaries requires a commitment to my own happiness. Thinking about the past is as addictive as any drug, and the only way to beat an addiction is to decide once and for all that it has no place in my life.

~

To end this post, I’d like to share a Wayne Dyer quote that I recently stumbled upon. I think it perfectly sums up the mindset I’m trying to develop.

“Your past history and all of your hurts are no longer here in your physical reality. Don’t allow them to be here in your mind, muddying your present moments. Your life is like a play with several acts. Some of the characters who enter have short roles to play, others, much longer. But all are necessary, otherwise they wouldn’t be in the play. Embrace them all, and move on to the next act.”

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