When we think back to our past, it’s usually with big smiles and lots of nostalgia – those were good times – we were happy then.
But were we really happy?
I’m not suggesting you haven’t had many good times but there is always something you are leaving out that makes the memory seem that little bit better than it really was.
It is precisely because we ignore this important detail that we perpetuate a constant state of dissatisfaction and unease, even though we keep telling ourselves it wasn’t like this before.
When we remember past events or look at old pictures we see smiling faces, a sunny day, a special event. So we assume, we must have been happy.
But what do we leave out of the picture?
We don’t see what we were thinking about at the time. Our worries about the future. Our constant need to feel secure and the ongoing uneasiness that we’re not.
How will things turn out?
Will I be OK?
Because some time has elapsed, and everything did work out alright (you’re still here right?) we conveniently forget that there was never a time when we weren’t worrying about our future – our security – on some level it’s always a concern.
We’re not too different from a squirrel nibbling on his acorn constantly looking around in fear, sure I’ve got the nut now but what could happen next?
So when you reflect back on a memory – maybe a picnic with friends, reminiscing of a time when life was simpler – you might really believe that you were happier then than you are now.
But in reality you might have spent some portion of that day worrying about something at work or wondering how you’re going to pay for some repairs to the house or if you’ll ever be able to retire.
And now here you are years later, perhaps at another picnic, with a new set of worries and fear about the future; ironically longing for the past picnic when you believed you were happier and had no worries.
An Endless Supply of Worries
Most people spend their whole lives worrying to some degree or another over the millions of things that could go wrong – each one potentially robbing us of a secure future.
You can take one less-than-stellar review from your boss and the next thing you know you’ve imagined you’re homeless and living on the streets. You’ll keep playing this story over and over for days to come, picking up even more irrational fears of things that could go wrong, but in all likelihood won’t.
This particular story will eventually fade, but it won’t take long for a new story to arise, perpetuating this state of unease about what might happen.
The point is, it never ends even though you think it does. It’s never different this time, even though you tell yourself, “If I can just get through this one thing then everything will be fine.”
It’s never the last time.
EVERYONE is experiencing this with different degrees of dis-ease; there are few exceptions.
Of course, we do have challenges that need solutions. But worrying is useless because it only leads to more worrying; but what if you had a tool that gets you to the right response quickly?
Meditation has proven to be a useful tool to help us manage our emotions and not let irrational fears get out of control. But there is a particular kind of meditation, that’s not often talked about in the West, which is my secret weapon for dealing with specific challenges that need a skillful solution.
Learning from the Masters
One of the cornerstones of Tibetan Buddhism practice is contemplation meditation, where you actively reflect on topics like impermanence, death or emptiness. These are deep subjects that require a different kind of thinking to really understand them.
It is precisely this type of thinking that can be applied to all sorts of problems.
When you worry you increase neural activity between the ME center of the brain and the FEAR part of it. But when you bring your mind into a state of calm and peace, you quiet down that neural activity; thankfully shutting up the inner critic and allowing you to analyze the situation more objectively.
With this mindset you don’t take things personally and you’re not a victim having to defend yourself. You see the situation with such clarity – it’s almost like giving advice to a friend – the answer becomes so obvious, so crystal clear, you can’t believe you didn’t see it before.
This is a skillful way to come up with solutions quickly and effectively. Compare that to the alternative of worrying for hours on end, sitting at your kid’s soccer game not really watching because you’re wondering how you’re going to pay for their college (for the fiftieth time!).
Contemplation meditation is not a beginner practice; I only teach it after I’ve worked with a client for several sessions. However, if you have some meditation experience and you have a specific problem that’s challenging you, I will do a one-off session to guide you through this practice so you can see for yourself just how effective it is.
When you have the right tools in your bag to handle life’s challenges only then will you be able to stop this endless cycle of worrying; and when you’re happy in the present there’s no need to long for the past.