Have you ever noticed that there are quotes and sayings from the ancient stoics from over 2000 years ago? All of these quotes have got me wondering how they apply in the modern world in which we now live. So, I’ve decided to pick a quote per week from those ancient philosophers and put my modern day interpretation to them. We will start with this one from Marcus Aurelius.
“Think of the life you have lived until now as over and, as a dead man, see what’s left as a bonus and live it according to Nature. Love the hand that fate deals you and play it as your own, for what could be more fitting?” – Marcus Aurelius
Whether you believe we are a product of nature or nurture, or a combination of the two, it’s painfully clear that who we become is shaped by the people and situations we experience in life. And of those people and situations, it’s the negative encounters that we tend to focus on and remember most.
The problem with that, of course, is that focusing on the negative creates a mental blinder, preventing us from feeling happiness in the now – and so, learning how to let go of the past and live in the present is one of the best things we can do for our mental health.
Obviously, it’s normal to think about the past – and it isn’t necessarily detrimental. We can learn a lot from our pasts; mistakes we’ll never make again, things we would do differently if the situation were to present itself again. Using these experiences to grow as a person and to educate ourselves is one thing, the problems start when we forget that we need to keep learning from the present, and rely only on the past – which is futile. Sure, you can learn lessons from what’s been and gone, but you can’t go back and change anything; you can only live in the now.
When we live in the now we benefit in more ways than one. First of all, studies have shown that being present can reduce stress and anxiety, which can lower blood pressure and stave off heart disease and obesity, as well as improve your overall psychological well-being. Being mindful can improve your relationships – being present means that you enjoy being with other people in the now and can make a deeper connection than if you’re not really ‘there’ because you are constantly distracted by the ‘what if’s’ of the past. There’s also evidence that by living in the moment we can achieve greater control over our mind, body and emotions, as we’re no longer at the mercy of a racing mind that isn’t focused on what’s happening right now.
So, if you’re someone who is constantly reliving and wallowing in the past (without taking anything productive from it!), how can you consciously begin to stop worrying, and start to live and learn in the now?
Don’t Worry, Be Happy
Telling someone not to worry when they are worried isn’t particularly helpful, so that’s not really what I’m doing here. What I am suggesting is that you take practical steps to calm your mind, which will help you to see situations and problems much more clearly – and more realistically! (We’ve all done that weird thing where we imagine a whole bunch of possible scenarios in our heads – most of which could never come true).
Calming your mind, either through meditation techniques, or simply by training yourself to stop and assess a situation before you start needlessly worrying, will reduce your mind’s confusion and bring you back to the present.
This is easier for some than others. It all really depends on whether you are someone who tends to focus more on solutions, or problems. Whether you’re solution or problem oriented depends on factors such as your upbringing, your education, what you do for a living…even your gender. People who find it easier to focus on problems rather than solutions definitely find it harder to stop worrying about the past and live in the now.
Find Out What’s Stopping You From Living In The Moment
Living in the moment isn’t easy, especially in today’s busy world and is something that the ancient stoics are advocating in the quote. One of the reasons for a racing, busy mind is an excess of sensory stimulation. When any one of our five senses are stimulated, a thought is triggered, which then leads to another, and another and so on. It can be impossible to slow down; the ping of a text message, the sounds of traffic, the glow from the TV screen, the scents from a million restaurants and takeaway places wafting up through your window….it’s no wonder we are all so easily distracted!
`So, what happens if one of those sights, sounds or smells brings back a painful memory or emotion? How do people cope with that? Generally by doing whatever they can to avoid them – relying on stimulants to make them feel good, like food, alcohol or sex, or by dulling the mind with substances – in other words, anything to avoid living in the present moment.
Qualified counsellors and therapists are trained in a variety of techniques designed to help you come to terms with past traumas and to start living freely in the now. But perhaps for you, the obstacle isn’t some big past event that’s getting in the way of your now. Maybe it’s a wandering, unproductive mind….a procrastinating mind…a mind without focus that is simply an endless chain of thoughts. Perhaps you are too easily distracted – it’s not surprising; what with the media drawing us to the past, and advertising to the future, both competing for our attention, it’s no wonder we struggle to stay grounded in the now.
To be mindful, is to live in the moment, as I’ve already mentioned. When you’re mindful you are fully in touch with the reality of what is happening in the present. You’re aware of your body, mind, and emotions. It is more about observing than it is about thinking; we expand our awareness, calm our minds and emotions, so that we can see clearer.
But how can we do that in a world that is constantly trying to make us think of the past or the future?
Meditation is about spending time away from the constant barrage of sensory stimulation that we face each day, and allowing our minds to focus just on the here and now. Time is no excuse, as even just five minutes a day can have numerous health benefits.
It’s all about training ourselves to observe things more objectively, without our views being influenced by preconceived ideas. Earlier I mentioned meditation and it’s the golden key when it comes to practicing mindfulness. Everyone can meditate; there’s no special equipment necessary, and you don’t even have to be an expert straightaway. All you really have to do is sit quietly and be aware of your breathing. If you find that your mind starts to wander off, just bring it back to concentrating on your breath. Let your breathing become relaxed and natural, and notice how your lungs expand and contract with each breath in and out.
Not really one for sitting still? Would you find it less distracting and more relaxing to walk instead? In which case mindful walking could be an option. And no, this isn’t some bollocks I’ve just made up! Similar to mindful breathing, mindful walking brings you into the now by focusing on each footstep as you walk. Concentrate on your steps; the movements of your arms and legs….if your mind wanders off, bring your attention back to your walking. Because, unlike mindful breathing, mindful walking has to be done with your eyes open (I don’t recommend it otherwise), it means that as well as paying attention to your body as you walk, you can also take time to pay attention to the trees, the birdsong and the sunshine. A mindful walk really is an enjoyable way to focus the mind and enjoy the present.
Of course, in theory you can do any type of activity ‘mindfully’, in order to really be in the here and now. It’s just a case of, whatever you’re doing, doing it mindfully, and if your mind starts to wander, bring it back to the task at hand. Mindful washing up, perhaps, mindful ironing…..mindful golf… basically giving your full attention to the task you are doing NOW, totally living in the present.
Like with anything, the more you practice mindfulness, the better you’ll get at it – all you have to do is bring your mind back to the present task in hand when it starts to wander. Stick with this practice, and you’ll learn how to truly be in the moment, and stop worrying about the past. We can’t move forward if we keep looking back.