“The past exists only in our memories, the future only in our plans. The present is our only reality.” ~Robert Pirsig
Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by unpleasant thoughts and feelings? Do they show up like an uninvited guest when you’re least expecting them?
About eight months ago, I quit a lucrative corporate job in finance to follow my passion, writing.
Like most things in life, this decision came with a cost.
And all the angst that comes with it.
A few months into my venture, I noticed my angst had become a large part of my mental world. I worried I’d run out of money, that my dream of being a well-paid writer wouldn’t materialize.
I’d admonish myself for leaving a perfectly secure job to chase a pipe dream. “What were you thinking?” I’d say to myself, “I mean, how stupid could you be?
Eventually, I noticed something interesting.
All the obstacles to my happiness were about imagined future scenarios (i.e.: I will never earn a living again), or doubts about past choices (i.e.: Did I make the right choice by leaving a lucrative corporate job behind?).
None of them were rooted in the present moment.
In fact, they stole my present moments like thieves in the night.
Eventually, I realized that if I didn’t deal with these feelings, I’d snap. I had to find a way to deal with these obstacles to my happiness that kept me from taking positive action in the present.
So I did what anyone would do: I turned to Google.
I researched various approaches of dealing with my feelings that held me back from acting in the present.
I discovered meditation and daily mindfulness practice as a powerful solution, and subscribed to various mindfulness blogs.
A few months down the track, I came across this post by Lori Deschene.
Lori’s words around letting go of emotions (dealing with the mental demons once and for all) struck a chord with me:
“Feel it fully. If you stifle your feelings, they may leak out and affect everyone around you—not just the person who inspired your anger. Before you can let go of any emotion, you have to feel it fully.”
The truth is, you can only let go of feelings after immersing yourself in them.
Sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it?
But that’s the one thing that always works.
The following are five great ways to overcome the obstacles to happiness and feelings that keep you from living fully in the present.
1. Fully embrace your feelings with openness, even the negative ones.
Embrace your feelings fully in each present moment. And let them pass when they’ve run their course.
So, if you’re feeling fear, feel it fully in the now. Without reacting to it.
Watch the fear as it manifests in your body. Fear manifests as butterflies in my stomach and tingling in my forearms.
How does it manifest in yours?
Remember, the only way to truly let go of feelings is to allow them to run their natural course with conscious awareness.
2. Use journaling to create mental spaciousness and increase your ability to let go.
This is quite effective in slowing the mind down.
Most writers would agree that seeing your thoughts appear on a page before you is therapeutic.
Writing also increases your ability to detach from the immediacy of painful thoughts and feelings.
Journaling is a great way to bring awareness to your destructive thought patterns, so you can change them.
At the end of each day, write down what you learned from the day. What upset you and what made you feel fantastic? If something upset you, how much of that was based on your interpretation of the situation, which arose from your assumptions about it?
How often do you journal?
3. Use your breath to bring your attention back to the present moment.
Mark Twain famously said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
So many of our fears (future projections) never actually come to pass.
And anyway, the past and the future live only in our imagination—in this present moment.
When your mind is fully in the present, you can’t engage in fearful thoughts about the future or regretful thoughts about the past.
So, focus on your breath in this present moment.
The benefits of doing this are as follows:
It brings your attention back to this moment.
It engages your mind in something non-conceptual.
What’s your breathing like right now? Is it deep? Shallow?
4. Recognize that your reaction to events dictates your life experience, not the event itself.
In his book called Your Erroneous Zones, Wayne Dyer explains the importance of separating our reactions to thoughts from the thoughts themselves.
Cal agonizes over the idea that his boss thinks he’s stupid. He loses sleep over it. It’s the bane of his existence.
Now, let’s say Cal had no idea that his boss thought he was stupid.
Then he wouldn’t be unhappy, right? How could Cal be unhappy about something he didn’t know?
The point: Cal’s boss’ opinion isn’t making Cal unhappy. It’s Cal’s reaction to his boss’ opinion that’s making Cal unhappy.
By taking ownership of his reaction of his own thoughts, Cal can take charge of his mental world.
He can choose to react differently to his boss’ (low) opinion of him. Cal can choose to give his boss’ opinion less importance by recognizing that it’s one person’s opinion among many.
Paradoxically, this would actually enable Cal to see it as constructive criticism and better himself as a result.
Think about the last time you were upset. What were you telling yourself about the event that upset you? Were you upset because of your reaction to the event or because of the event itself?
5. Discover how your underlying assumptions are secretly affecting your life.
Our underlying assumptions—of which we are often completely unaware—are responsible for a lot of self blame and distress.
Let’s go back to my example at the start of this post.
My feelings of fear, anxiety, and worry were all based on an implicit assumption that my writing career should have taken off within six months. My assumption just wasn’t valid. Getting traction as a writer often takes years.
My underlying assumptions were wrongly implying that I had failed without me realizing it.
Once I recognized the absurdity of the underlying assumption, the feelings of fear around never being able to launch a successful blog dissipated immediately.
What are the underlying assumptions that have you judging yourself harshly?
Conquering your demons isn’t easy, but nothing worthwhile is.
Sure, it’s often uncomfortable to embrace your feelings fully, or to be mindful of how your underlying assumptions are sabotaging your life. But each of us has the capacity to do it.
The question isn’t, “Can I do it?” but rather, “Will I do it?”
If you want to live a full life, resolve to set yourself on the path this very moment. Right now. Don’t put it off for another second.
You have to realize that this life is yours to be lived to the fullest. And only you can determine your attitude toward letting go of self-defeating thoughts and behaviors.
So take a deep breath. Breathe in this moment. And give it your best.