Living in the ‘here and now’, without constantly referring to (or extrapolating from) past and future events is what I aim for now. I tell myself that being this way fills life with possibilities rather than foregone conclusions, and I make myself curious and excited about what every new situation, person or challenge will bring. I sometimes like to say that — before I came to a better understanding of myself — I was like a lighthouse; shining a light backwards and forwards into the darkness, desperately trying to illuminate the dangers I was convinced were out there, and using events that were behind me to make predictions about what was ahead.
Did this approach save me pain or serve to protect me, or did it just stop me experiencing, growing and living? I can’t say for sure. I only know that now, walking into a new situation with an attitude of ‘I have no idea what is about to happen’ provokes a set of sensations in my body that are far preferable to the rapid heartbeat of fear and the heavy-limbed walk of trepidation. My heartbeat is still quick, but my breathing is deeper and more regular, my head feels lighter. I tell myself I am curious and interested, rather than fearful and anxious, and that I am noticing what is happening around me, rather than just allowing it to happen. I tell myself that I make myself calmer with this thinking, and more able to listen without interpretation or judgment, allowing me to truly meet with a person, rather than immediately start work on trying to ‘get’ what they are saying, who they are, what they may think of me and what I should say next to influence that opinion, all of which is frankly exhausting.
So how important is the past? In bringing up past events we are sometimes accused of ‘rehashing’, not ‘letting go’ or ‘refusing to move on’. Living in the ‘here-and-now’ surely means that the past is the past, and no longer has relevance, but is this true?
In my experience the past regularly enters the here-and-now when past events nose their way into present situations, and influence the way I feel physically. One moment I can be completely present with someone, listening without judgment or prediction, and the next my stomach is turning cartwheels, and my forearms are tingling with electricity. When this happens I recognise that something has happened or has been said that has triggered a past memory, and my body is reminding me of this. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the sensations, tears can come to my eyes, my heartrate can climb rapidly, my whole body can start to shake, and all before I have even made a single solid connection with any specific memory. So if this past event is intruding into my here-and-now with such force, once I have noticed the sensations and allowed myself to sit with them until I can tolerate their being there, should I continue to ‘chase’ that memory?
The first question I normally ask myself in this situation is: have I explored this particular link before, and do I understand where the event that triggers it is located in my memory? Am I satisfied that I have dealt with that memory, or do I still have questions, anger, dissatisfaction about how it fits into my past? My experience has been that the stronger the physical reaction to a memory, the less likely it is that I have fully dealt with it. If I’m reduced to a quaking, sobbing puddle whenever I am yelled at for example, it’s unlikely I’ve completely expressed the feelings I had about being shouted at in the past. If for example I was frightened as a child by a yelling parent, have I expressed the anger and sadness I feel about that to the person responsible, or have I just told myself that ‘the past is the past’?
Returning to difficult or sad memories and allowing myself to feel the sensations, say what I want to say as an adult, and gain a new perspective allows the past into the present in a way that feels — to me — more like taking control. I don’t allow the events of the past to storm into the room, kicking over chairs, wrecking my personal space and causing chaos, instead I can choose to invite them in and sit with them in curiosity and acceptance, and to truly listen.
I believe this is the way I can integrate my past with my present, and accept the me I was is also the me I am. I cannot change or re-invent the past, but I can shine a light onto it without judgement or shame, and move forward from this point with my past as part of me.
Law Turley is a qualified integrative counsellor and certified Radical Honesty Trainer living and working in the south west of the UK.