mindful living series: changing the past.

{image from here}

through my yoga practice, i have learned how important it is to live in the moment. when you are living in the moment, you are not fretting about things that are going to happen or regretting things that have come to pass. you are fully experiencing everything that is happening right now. by doing this you can make the most of your life, because time spent worrying about the future or regretting the past is time where you're not creating your best life now. but living in the moment is really a lot harder said than done.

i tend to hold onto things for far longer than i should. the other day i got onto the escalator to leave my subway station on my way to work, and the woman in front of me just stood there. in my opinion escalators are not for just standing, they are for increasing your stair-walking efficiency. but she was blocking the whole escalator, so i leaned over her shoulder and said "excuse me" so that she would move over and i could walk past. i then proceeded to spend the better part of the next hour replaying the moment in my head, worrying that i had sounded too severe, or that perhaps i should have just stood on the escalator behind the woman and enjoyed a moment of peace in my busy morning. as a result, i was distracted, less productive, and rather miserable. is this really something that i should be devoting this much of my time to? the answer is definitely no.

the truth is, this is just an small-scale example. there are things that i've done in the past and regretted which i've held onto for years! i revisit them time after time in my mind, replaying an incident and cringing at the reaction i'd had to it, wishing i could have taken a deep breath before saying something (or, more frequently, not saying something and then wishing i had) or wishing that i could have taken some time to figure out how i really felt about a situation before trying to deal with it.

i've realized that holding onto these regrets has been weighing me down. they cause me to beat myself up (which makes me feel bad) and to live in fear of reacting the same way in similar situations. i try to make myself learn from a situation that i feel didn't go the way i wanted it to, but it is difficult for me to distinguish between learning from a situation and moving on from it, and revisiting it constantly and reworking in my mind how i would have handled it differently. one is healthy, the other is destructive.

so what can we do? how can we let go of these heavy loads that follow us around and make us cringe when we look back on them? well, i try to remember two things: one, that i was making the best decision with the information that i had at that time. that information includes my emotions, which (although they may have changed now) were very real at the time i was dealing with whatever the situation was. remembering how you felt at the time (if you were hurt, surprised, angry, disappointed, annoyed) can help you to understand why you reacted in they way you did, and if you remind yourself that your feelings were valid at the time (even if you may not feel that way anymore), it can make it easier to accept the outcome and move on. of course, if you do feel differently now, instead of wishing you could have done things differently you could evaluate what you can do about the situation moving forward, so that you can start heading towards an outcome that you would be happier with. two, i remember that we are not hard-wired into thinking the way that we do. as a student of science, i often remind myself when i am having unpleasant thoughts that the brain is made up of neurological pathways which are built and made stronger through repeated use. if something is constantly reminding you of a past incident that you regret, or if you are repeatedly revisiting something in the past and cringing about it, those pathways will become strengthened in your mind and you will activate them more frequently. but... if you consciously steer your thoughts in another direction when you notice you're starting to have these unpleasant thoughts (whether they are backwards thoughts of regret, or forward ones or worry) then eventually the pathways that you are making an effort not to use will get smaller and weaker, and your thoughts will travel along them less often.

so, the next time you realize you're deep in thought, replaying an unpleasant memory and wishing things had happened differently, or fretting about what could possibly happen in the future, take a deep breath and refocus your thoughts. tell yourself that you have no longer have any control over what happened before, and the only way you can control what will happen in the future is by doing what you can to live the life you want to live right now, in this moment. if necessary, distract yourself with another task or activity to take your mind off your unpleasant thoughts. learn from your mistakes, and let them go. then, instead of regretting that you had to gain it in the first place, be grateful for that new knowledge and use it in this moment to create a better future for yourself.


  1. Thank you for such a lovely post :) this was beautiful. I also often find myself in thought to the point of paranoia. I really need to change that. This is exactly what i have been needing to hear! I would take my mind away from my thoughts by reading an inspirational book or devotion that would fill my mind with good, positive thoughts throughout the day. :) this post was great. I love your blog. :)

    - missa
    - hellomissa.blogspot.com

    take care!

  2. By the way this post really inspired me to take yoga! I think i may register for that class next semester! It sounds so relaxing. :)

    - hellomissa.blogspot.com

  3. If I actually calculated how much time I spend worrying and/or regretting, I think I'd probably cry. So thank you for this post! I really identify with it, and have a similar tendency to replay, over-analyze, and regret too often. I had a customer service representative be mean to me on the phone over a year ago, and I still think about how I should have handled it differently! I too find that yoga is a wonderful help for learning to be present.

  4. Anonymous2/12/11

    Such a thoughtful post. We all are in this situation some time or other and you had beautifully put it in words.

  5. You and I are very similar in this way. I've spent too long worrying about what did happen, what could have happened? Did I say the right thing in the right way? Should I have held my tongue? But in the end I cannot change what has happened so I'm learning to stop regretting and start living. Thanks for this reminder. :)

  6. I found this to be very inspiring. As a person who is dealing with depression, I can relate to many of your feelings, sometimes on larger scales. I'm currently in a process of trying to find balance in my life and trying to figure things out. I'm been reading you blog for a while now and I have been inspired to start my own.


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