Alan Watts, the notable mid-20th-century American philosopher, asserted that concentrating on the past is akin to driving a car while gazing into the rear-view mirror. It's crucial to assimilate the lessons of the past, but they shouldn't dominate our focus in the present.
When we concentrate excessively on the past, we often find ourselves engulfed by regret. Counterfactual thoughts operate like a Möbius strip. We become ensnared in a web of what could have been and what should have been. This mental chatter, stuck in the past, represents a significant source of disturbance for many of us.
So, what's next? How can we start to calm this monkey mind lost in the past?
Here are a few practical steps you can take to avoid becoming a victim to your past regrets:
- First, we need to be aware of how much the past is shaping our present. Mindfulness is about observation. Unless we recognize the disproportionate influence the past exerts on our present, nothing will alter. Meditation is an excellent practice to help us become more adept at observing our racing thoughts and grounding ourselves in the present.
- Lead with compassion. Epictetus, the ancient Greek philosopher, argued that we are a sum of all the impressions made on us. The most influential of these impressions were formed in our childhood, before we had any control over our circumstances. Accepting this viewpoint makes it easier to lead with compassion and forgive our past mistakes.
- Once we've observed our noisy chatter and embraced a self-compassionate perspective, we can inventory these past impressions and begin to reflect on the impact they've had. Have you assimilated these lessons from the past? If so, rather than becoming hindrances, they assist you in preparing for future challenges.
- Finally, rinse and repeat. Observe. Show compassion. Learn.
Our character shapes what we value and how we behave. Character is embedded deep within us. For genuine change to happen, we need to put in the effort. We need to journal more, reflect more, and consistently seek opportunities for learning and growth.
The rear-view mirror exists for a purpose. If it becomes too dominant, we fail to see what's ahead of us. When we begin to give it the attention it merits, our future starts to become clearer.