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.

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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.”

Moving Forward

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Last week I had my first painful breakup in almost three years. Circumstances made the split inevitable, but it was shitty nonetheless.

I decided from the start that I would give myself one week to wallow in my emotions, and wallow is what it I did. It sucked. It hurt. Sleep didn’t come easy for me. But as the days went by, I could feel the worst of the emotions start to subside. My anger was replaced with sadness. Then my sadness started to feel more hollow, a sense of acceptance setting in underneath it.

Now a week has passed and the time for wallowing has ended. I’m still sad, of course, but I realize that this ending represents a new opportunity for me. Not necessarily an opportunity for new romance (that’s not even a thought in my head at this point), but for self-discovery and growth.

I guess the biggest mindfuck for me is that, throughout the relationship I maintained the belief that who I was hadn’t changed, that I was still that ultra-independent person, only to realize I was dead-wrong. And that’s the crazy thing about relationships: how they change you as a person. The way you think about the world shifts from an individual perspective to one that always includes the other person. No matter how independent you try to stay, making yourself vulnerable to someone for a long period of time eventually makes them an integral part of your reality. And when it ends, you’re left feeling like a part of you is gone.

The challenge I face now is not only one of accepting the reality of the situation, but also rebuilding myself. It’s relearning how to view the world from the lense of an individual instead of a part of a relationship. It’s figuring out how to incorporate all the ways I’ve changed during the relationship into a new, independent version of myself.

I’m fortunate in that this relationship changed me in a lot of positive ways. It helped me discover and embrace my creativity. It opened my mind to new ways of looking at the world. And, even though it hurts to think about, it brought me face to face with a lot of the unpleasant parts of myself, parts that I know I need to change if I want to be a happier person in the future.

So I sit here now, feeling as though I’m at the edge of a giant cliff. Past the edge is a whole lot of unknowns. It’s dark and frightening. But going back is not an option. What’s done is done, and trying to live in the past will only lead to pain and bitterness. My only choice is to jump into the unknown and have faith that everything will be alright.

It’s a scary situation, but I’m comforted by this quote from Joseph Campbell:

“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.”

Now it’s time to find my treasure.