Until very recently I had the extraordinary privilege of having an incredibly wise, almost 101 year old grandmother in my life. She was a Renaissance woman, way ahead of her time. She lived life full on, embracing it as an adventure. She taught me many things and was a constant source of inspiration. Way before anyone was talking about the concept of mindfulness she understood the power and the value of living in the present moment. “Golden moments” she called them. It’s a life lesson that has always stayed with me and has informed much of my work as a therapist.
Over the years I have seen countless people who either suffer from depression or anxiety. These experiences can actually intensify with age. Depressive symptoms often show up as profound feelings of sadness, helplessness, hopelessness, guilt, or low self-esteem. Often this relates to being stuck in the past. Perhaps there is a keen sense of regret about not having accomplished more in life. Sometimes past behaviors or mistakes haunt the present, creating and fueling guilt or shame. Grieving the loss of something or someone from the past can keep you anchored there, making it impossible for you to move on. And for people with histories of abuse or trauma there can be an ongoing, frozen in time feeling of victimization or learned helplessness. I work with many people who continue to use the coping strategies that saved them in childhood such as not rocking the boat or not trusting other people, when those strategies are no longer necessary. You can imagine how falling back on old coping skills keeps them stuck in the past.
If depression keeps you stuck in the past, feelings of anxiety are often fueled by the worry that comes from focusing on the future. Fears take the form of “what if” something bad happens. As people get older it’s not unusual to think about the future with some degree of anxiety. There can be excessive worry about something that hasn’t actually occurred, but forward thinking minds can come up with all kinds of possible bad scenarios and outcomes. Obsessing about the future can be an unconscious attempt to brace for possible danger or unpredictability. A way to try to control something that is actually out of your control. The truth is, obsessing about the unknown does nothing to help prepare for it.
Whether you’re always looking behind you and stuck in the past, or continually focusing on potentially negative outcomes in the future, the important point is you’re clearly not in the present moment! The irony about living this way is that the past can never be undone or changed—no matter how much you think about it—and the future can never be predicted—no matter how hard you try. It’s a powerful exercise to identify an incident that keeps you rooted in the past and compromises your being in the present moment. Then allow yourself to imagine would happen if you made the decision to let go of that past experience. Next, identify one future event that you worry about that compromises your being in the present moment. What do you imagine would happen if you made the decision to let go of that future worry?
Hopefully, you will begin to realize that either staying stuck in the past or overly focused on the future depletes your energy and keeps you on a hamster wheel with no forward movement. It’s worth noticing what could shift for you in a positive way if you made the choice to be in the present. What is happening for you right now? What are the present-day experiences that are available to you? It’s possible that some of theresources you need to soothe and heal past pains, or comfort you about future worries, are currently present in your life and aren’t being accessed or used by you because you aren’t noticing “now.”
It’s certainly true that you have the right to make peace with your past and that often means looking at it and working through it with support. You also have the right to feel prepared for the future, and that might require some thinking and planning. However, the best way to accomplish both of those goals is to be able to draw upon the resources and strengths that exist in the present.
My wise grandmother taught me that the present is filled with moments of beauty, joy, possibility, and hope. There are people in your “present” who care and are available to you. There is your own inner wisdom seasoned with age that you can connect with in the present moment. There are insights and realizations that can surface and be revealed. There are external resources for guidance, feedback, support, coping, and validation. All of these things can be completely missed if you’re always looking behind you or way ahead. Sit quietly for a moment and notice where your thoughts and feelings go. Then see if you can gently bring your awareness back, again and again, to the present moment. You can anchor yourself in the present by connecting with sensations on your body or the sights and sounds around you. Simply naming your present experiences can increase your awareness about them. Make this a daily practice and soon you’ll discover all of the “golden moments” in your present life!
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