A big part of spirituality – and my own spiritual practice and teaching – has to do with living in the present moment. That’s because it is a crucial element of true happiness. And yet, so many people are living in the past. You may not even realize when you do it, or the extent to which you do it.
If I were to ask you to sit down and make a list of all your regrets, chances are it wouldn’t take you long to fill up a page, or several pages. The things you did and wish you hadn’t; the things you didn’t do and wish you had. The things you wasted time, energy, or money on. The relationships you squandered. The events you wish had unfolded differently. The choices you made that, in retrospect, seem misguided or harmful. All the ways you forfeited control and let things just happen to you. All the ways you exerted control in a harmful way. The things you’ve said that you wish you could take back. The things left unsaid. The list could go on and on and on.
One clear fact is that you can’t change something that’s in the past. Until someone invents a time machine, there is no way to undo or redo something. But there is a way to change the impact that the past has on your present.
In my book, Silent, I share the story of a colleague, Rhonda, who had been in a six-year relationship with a self-absorbed man who expected everyone in his life to bend to his wishes – even her. He took love and kindness from her but returned only indifference. When she ended the relationship and moved far away to a new life, she found love with a warm and understanding man who cared a great deal for her. Yet, she continued to have contact with the first man, who claimed he’d made a mistake in letting her go.
Over the course of her telling me these details of her life, I asked her some questions. As she considered her answers, she realized that she had stayed with that unloving man (and continued to stay in contact with him) because she believed she could “fix” him. She was acting out some unfinished business from her past – her inability to fix her parents’ marriage. When she was quite young, her parents became cold and distant toward one another. Even as a child, she did her best to be the intermediary, trying to smooth things over between her mum and dad, but, not surprisingly, she was unsuccessful.
The more we let the unfinished business of our past influence our present, the more we stay stuck. The key is in identifying what that past hurt or conflict is. Look at the areas of your life where you have difficulties: relationships, career, money, health… Give yourself some time to identify what feelings you associate with that negative state. Then, ask yourself when the first time is that you remember feeling that way. What were the circumstances? If you take the time to really think about it, you will make a connection. Once that happens, you can take steps to heal that wound of the past and stop it from coloring your present.
Before long, Rhonda was able to let go completely of the unhealthy relationship with her old boyfriend and, in doing so, strengthen her current, healthy relationship.