There’s this scene in the Lion King, more than halfway through the movie, where Rafiki and Simba are speaking, and Rafiki randomly whacks Simba upside the head with his stick, and Simba asks, “What was that for?” Rafiki replies, “It doesn’t matter! It’s in the past! …Oh yes, the past can hurt, but the way I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it.”
As a kid, this scene didn’t necessarily speak to me. I considered it “the nighttime scene with the monkey” between all the big action; it wasn’t until I remember my dad quoting it to me during my childhood that I ever considered what Rafiki was saying. As an adult, I see that Rafiki’s message touches on something we all tend to forget.
We don’t live in the now. Okay, technically we do, but as a society, we grossly overlook the present moment. We can see this everywhere–every time you check Twitter in the middle of a conversation, every time you worry about the future, every time you zone out while doing an ordinary task, whenever you analyze a past conversation, whenever you treat someone differently because of what you expect them to do, you are not living in the moment. You are not rooted in the very second you exist in and is the only second you are guaranteed to exist in.
I used to spend a lot of time thinking about things that didn’t matter. For example, I would lie in bed and replay the entire day’s events in my head, dissecting how everything went and all the events that transpired. Other times, I would reminisce and fill my head with nostalgia, getting “high” off the memory of when I used to live in the dorms, or about the friends I used to have in high school, or about a silly game my brother and I used to play as kids. I would spend my precious time wearing my memories to death without realizing this too is a time I will one day reflect upon as a warm memory, whether it was actually a good time in my life or not– we tend to remember the past in a warm way, because it is comfortable, and already played-out. We get to have peace of mind with memories, which is how we can become attached to them. I used to spend a lot of time living in the past without realizing how unhappy it made me.
When you live in the past, it subtracts from your “now,” from your current opportunity to enjoy. When you go through the day sadly thinking, “Nobody loves me anymore; people used to love me so much,” you are feeling self-pitying and sad, closing yourself off from all the love that people are trying to give you now, but isn’t good enough for you because it isn’t a memory yet, isn’t something you can look back upon. To keep reconsidering the past will make you sad.
At the same time that I used to reminisce, I would also fantasize/worry about the future. I used to daydream about wild scenarios like my wedding, or what it would be like on graduation day, or a flawless journey to a faraway country, and I used to stress about ridiculous fears, like worries I don’t even want to speak about at this point. This was problematic because I would get these expectations in my head and be disappointed by their reality (when really the only reason it was disappointing was because I had created that expectation) or I would waste my time worrying about things that didn’t even happen.
This habit, too, I learned subtracted from my “now.” Someone once told me that 85% of what we worry about never even occurs; that number is completely arbitrary but it illustrates an interesting concept. How many times have you worried and worried about something, only to report back, “Oh, it ended up being fine.” Think about the amount of time you spent worrying about that–don’t you kind of wish you had that time back? Or had let go of your worries and enjoyed the moment? I realized that to keep anticipating the future was eating away at my life.
The combination of obsessively thinking about the past and the future was holding me back. I felt emotionally drained at the way my imagination was creating all these fake, exaggerated outcomes, at the way I kept feeling like a victim when I was really making myself into a victim, at the way time seemed to fly by before I knew it. If your thoughts are always focused on the past or future, you’ll find that time keeps slipping through your fingertips. It’s because you’re not experiencing a “now,” you’re not reveling in the present.
One of the ways I’ve found to be happy is to ground myself in the present. I try to appreciate each moment that I find myself and center my thoughts around how good it feels for it to be now. We are never guaranteed another day, and so we must take one beautiful breath at a time. Sometimes it’s hard to let go of habits, and sometimes people have mental conditions that make it especially difficult to feel calm, so a good way to practice rooting yourself in the present is to do breathing exercises. There are many resources for different methods of this, but I like to close my eyes and breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth. It helps to have a few phrases you remind yourself as you breathe; I like to think, “Breathing in, I am a flower; breathing out, I feel fresh,” and a few others from the book Touching Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh (which is a really good read if mindful living interests you). When I try to bring myself back to the moment, I like to compel myself to feel the different parts of my body (feel, not touch), starting at my head and working my way down. I close my eyes and think, “I feel my eyes in my head, and I am grateful for them because they allow me to see so much technicolor beauty.” I move on to another feature, such as my nose, and think, “I feel my nose, and I am grateful that I have this nose that allows me to smell so many different scents, like this coffee in my mug.” You can provide your own reasons, and I also implore you to consider your internal operations, too (“I feel my heart and I am grateful that it beats so dutifully”), but this is a good way to sort of bring yourself back to the moment if you find your thoughts are very fleeting and scattered, and to really appreciate everything that we take for granted or stop paying attention to because we get used to it.
I tell myself not to worry about the past because I can’t change it; it’s over. If I worry about something because I think someone else is still thinking about it, that’s foolish because how are we supposed to know what other people feel? All I can do is move on and hope that if the other person is still bothered, they communicate with me, or if I’m still bothered, I communicate with them. If something continues to bother you, then by all means, communicate it and seek resolution. But if something continues to bother you and you don’t seek a resolution, then all you’re doing is torturing yourself for no reason. Resolve it or let it go. That’s how I try to discipline my thoughts now. I also tell myself not to worry about the future because that’s a fantasy right now–quite literally anything could happen at any point, and humans always want to control things, but we have to learn to go with the situation. I trust myself to handle the situation when it arises. I don’t know what will happen, but I trust that I will respond in an adequate enough way for all things considered in that given moment, whenever it happens and whatever happens. That’s all I can do until it’s my time to deal with fate. And incidentally, I’m dealing with fate right now: in the now, in what is real and right in front of us.
Sometimes the way we think and perceive causes us more unhappiness than we realize or want to acknowledge. In the west (because I can’t speak for anywhere else), we’re taught a lot of self-destructive habits and fed a lot of media that gives us unhealthy thinking practices. Understand that when I talk about living in the “now,” I’m not saying that you should never have a plan or a goal or a strategy where it allows, or that you should forget about your past entirely. There is a time and place for daydreaming and reflecting, but it’s when those activities start detracting from our life that we should reevaluate. Balance is crucial, and the way we are able to balance best is when we are firmly rooted with a strong center, and we can do that by loving ourselves and paying attention to what feels beautiful in each moment.
I think about that scene from the Lion King a lot– it makes me laugh. “What was that for?” “It doesn’t matter! It’s in the past!” I find myself letting go of the things that don’t matter enough to hold on to anymore, and I have emotional energy and endurance. Here we are: welcome to your now. Happy today, my slanted readers.
If you enjoyed reading this, I have written a few other blog posts about mindful thinking and self-love, which you can read by clicking this link. Thanks for reading!