Living in the Moment: Using Self-Compassion to Remain Present Despite the Desire to Perfect Past Events

Living in the Moment

You have probably heard the saying live in the moment a million times.  The simplicity of the phrase makes it sound easy, but when it proves difficult to obtain, people give up.  So, people do not live in the moment.  Instead, they let their concerns of looking foolish prevent them from requesting a clear definition of this destination and the instructions necessary to get there.

Living in the Moment or being present to your experience as it manifests simply means participating in life as it is occurring in the present without being derailed by thoughts about the past and the future.  I don’t mean never have thoughts about the past and the future.  What are we robots?  I mean that when thoughts about the past or the future arise, acknowledge them, name them, and let them pass, so that you may return your focus to what is occurring now. 

What makes this practice so difficult for Westerners, particularly, is that there is a cultural emphasis on nostalgia, and rampant self-criticism, striving, and perfectionism that leads us to return to old conversations and activities to think about what we might have done differently to get even better outcomes than the ones we have already gotten.  Of all of our impediments to live in the present, our need to obsessively return to prior experiences and better them causes us the greatest suffering.

Returning to Past Experiences

 In the West, our ethos is to strive to make things better.  We use words like superior, extraordinary, and perfect when describing items that we desire to sell to the public whether they be physical like a t shirt (ie: the perfect v neck) or procedural (ie: the perfect diet).  While this philosophy certainly generates productivity and increases spending, it also burdens us with the enormous existential anxiety of never being or having enough.  Never being or having enough motivates us to continually seek perfection in the hopes of attaining positive self-worth.  Unfortunately, the game is set up for you to lose.  How else are they going to persuade you to buy that cheetah print bag with real cheetah noises or the cell phone that serves as a portable black light?  They can’t. 

While this makes sense for businesses or your government that would like you to keep GDP (Gross Domestic Product) up, it does you the disservice of making you feeling that you never measure up.  You feel great disappointment, when you have perfected something, but still do not feel enough. Or, worse still, you have a bad day and feel that all of your imperfect actions are conclusive evidence of how broken and worthless you really are.  No matter how good the moment, we feel an almost compulsive urge to return to it, and make it better in our minds in some way.  We make ourselves skinnier, faster, smarter, better looking, better dressed, funnier, taller, more feminine, more masculine, more similar to the people with whom we have interacted. 

In this, we feel like we have found mastery only to return to the present in which we are the version that failed to measure up in all the fantasy qualities we have imagined for ourselves in going back to this past event.  There are three reasons this causes such great suffering.  First, you can never go back to this past event.  The past is gone.  Going there in your imagination reminds you how helpless you are to change it.  Once you come back, you just feel helpless.  Second, you lack the qualities or responses that you wished for your fantasy self.  Going back to the past now makes you feel incomplete.  Third, on some level you acknowledge that your present is not so great, since you feel so obligated to return to the past.

 Self-Compassion for Visits to the Past

 Now that we know that living in the past is impossible; we cannot magically attain qualities wished on our fantasy selves, and returning to the past poisons the present, we have enough ambivalence about returning to the past that we can begin to think of ways to make this journey unnecessary.  To free ourselves from these fruitless ventures or more aptly put, spoiled fruit ventures, we will take the following 5 steps.

Step 1. You are the Boss.  When we return to the past to better it, we are serving a master, who has decided that we are not good enough.  We project this onto all of the people involved in the past experience about which we are obsessing.  Your friends are the boss.  Your parents are the boss.  Your boss is the boss, but not the boss of your work, the boss of your well being.  We let all of these people determine, when we will feel good enough about ourselves to be whole and happy.  There is no other way around this. 

You must reclaim your position as boss.  You are already whole.  You are the only person, who actually knows what you need to be happy.  Listen to your heart and your body.  I promise you that they will laugh with your well being in mind, when you ask them if perfection leads to happiness.  Perfection stinks.  It is the absence of anything human, and lovable.  Get rid of perfection, it is the moldy sock that stink up your life.  Listen to your heart and your body, and seek that which brings you well-being (your body will feel full of energy and ease) and meaningfulness (you will feel focused and at ease).  If your body is tied in knots, you are pursuing the stinky sock of perfection.

Step 2. Magic is for Kids.  Magic does not exist, well at least not in a way in which we draw out qualities we did not previously possess from the nethersphere.  If there are qualities or actions that you would like to possess, write them down and make a plan to attain them.  Listen clearly to what comes next.  It does not matter if you attain them.  If you really need them to live a good life, then you will acquire them by pursuing them.  If you do not attain them while pursuing them, you were probably meant to learn to accept yourself as you are or to acquire skills that you were not even aware you needed. 

Let the path determine what you really need, and simply become a person of action.  You can control your desire to act.  You cannot control the result.  If life needed you to control the result, you would be able to control it.  No matter how much life seems like a conspiracy against your well being sometimes, I promise you that many of us love you, and are inspired by your journey.  We will not love you more if you increase your vertical leap by 2 inches or become a best selling author, but we will celebrate both these things if you achieve them and desire our support.

Step 3. Live Now. The Past is Over.  Good or bad, the past is done.  You can never, ever, ever, ever live it again, so it must have been good enough.  If it was not, thank goodness it is over, so you never have to live through that moment of not feeling good enough again.  Even when it is great, having to go back to the past often will stymie your ability to be creative and enjoy your life in the present. 

I think about this when I am surrounded by friends, who more often than not tell all of their stories about past events.  I am always thinking that I love spending time with them in the present, and would not give up any of our current adventures for those of the past.  That is what a real loving relationship sounds like, and one of the few times you will feel good enough and at ease.  If your current relationships are making you feel like you have to constantly relive the past, bring this up, and if it remains the same, move on.  There will be plenty of time to dwell in your past when you are dead.  Just kidding!  You will be dead.  If that is not living in the present, I don’t know what is.

Step 4. Enliven Your Present or Practice Gratitude.  If your present is not as exciting as your past, and you actually need some new adventures to feel alive again, then go on some new adventures.  No matter how old you are, you will never have enough time to travel everywhere, and experience everything.  You do not need to go far either.  Try a new cuisine.  Immerse yourself in a book you never would have read before.  Join a group of people pursuing something that sounds exciting or vaguely interesting.  Even if you do not like it, you will have a story, which, surprise, if you love living in the past so much you will probably adore having more stories to tell.  An added bonus is that you will probably even get all of the details correct in these new stories because they will be from the recent past. 

There is no matter of life situation that prevents you from broadening your horizons.  When my grandfather lay in bed slowly dying from Alzheimer’s disease, each of his grandchildren, and his children took turns at his bedside offering nuances to relationships that he had never had.  Until his last breath, he continued to live an exciting life of new adventures.  I would know.  I was holding his hand, when he passed.  This was the closest moment of our lives.  Nothing before comes close.  If all else fails, practice gratitude.  It will remind you of how much you actually have in your present life, and how unlikely you would be to give this up to relive your past.

Step 5You Owe It to No One to Suffer.  Let Go of Returning to the Past.  Returning to the past, and obsessing about past conversations, choices, or interactions is a direct condemnation of your current skills and your past decisions.  Punishing yourself for being human only hurts you.  You will never do things perfectly no matter how hard you try, and even if you did you would not feel the infinite validation you seek.

Notice how your body and mind feel when you return to the past.  Honor this suffering.  Name it.  Make room for it.  Let it Pass, and bring Kindness to your experience.  Tell yourself: Whatever I did, it was enough.  This moment is enough.  I am enough.  No matter how badly I feel about myself, I am worthy of love and compassion.  Simply wishing so, and living in the present give me all the opportunity I need to live a good life.  If you are still not convinced, consider your other choice: the rotating door of suffering.  Well, forget that!  Doors rotate, so that you can come into the present.  Think I am joking?  Imagine staying in one of those revolving doors all day.  You think your past might be judgmental.  Do that, and see how the present treats you ;).

May you feel that you are enough.  May you remember that you were born whole, and cannot be halved by life’s experiences.  May you acknowledge that perfection is a myth, and give up the fantastical past to live in the real present.  May the present reward you for your good intentions, and decision to act in favor of your self-compassion.  May you never forget that each moment you live in the present is a new moment for others to love you that they would not exchange for 1 gazillion of your most brilliant, past adventures.

365 Days of Kindness.  Self-Compassion.  Day 67.  In the Books.