“The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but thought about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking.” ~Eckhart Tolle
For thirteen years I've lived a high-risk lifestyle that focuses very much on the here and now, because I'm an entrepreneur, and that means making lots of fast decisions that affect the future.
It took a while for me to develop confidence in myself, as we tend to doubt ourselves much more than other people might doubt us. Our thoughts form our doubts, so I knew I had to do something to move forward from the thoughts that weren't serving me.
I identified that many of these thoughts weren't even my own. They were instilled into me through society, parenting, environment, and the media.
In fact, until I left my last job, my life was one big predetermined path of ideas, set up by everyone else but myself.
Becoming aware of a problem is always the first step toward healing. Now that I entered into the realm of self-awareness, I realized that new thoughts were rapidly reconfiguring my past experiences to teach me new lessons.
As I dove into the rabbit hole and asked myself some tough questions, rather than getting clarity on my thoughts, I got more confused. There was just so much information around me, largely due to the Internet, that I had no way of getting to the important life lessons I knew were within me.
All this extra information became chaotic and useless until I could make sense and organize it in my mind. So, I took to journaling to begin this process of managing my thoughts, and in this process I learned some valuable ideas that have helped me to form the basis of the three tips below.
A major moment of clarity happened through writing when I learned that our thoughts and memories are never the truth; they are just our interpretation of them. Our own interpretations of reality are open to debate because, ultimately, our perceptions are not the truth.
That single idea that my truth was open to debate led me to question everything, and when I questioned all the painful memories from the past that were there haunting me, I knew I was onto something.
Those past memories act like a rubber band pulling tighter on unresolved thoughts as time goes by. By letting go of all those memories, the tension on that band is released, and that means you can be more present.
Living in the present has allowed me to love my family more, to pick and choose the right friends to have in my life, and to look forward into the future.
I'd like to share three things I learned that have helped me let go of painful memories and become more present.
Change the meaning you've given to painful memories.
I've mentioned that thoughts are never really purged from your mind; they are just suppressed or pushed down into the unconscious mind.
The trouble is that, although you might not be actively thinking about them, the meaning you have ascribed to them will linger in your unconscious mind and serve to move you in a particular direction. (The movie Inception handles this concept beautifully.)
As a child, my parents used to “teach me a lesson” a lot. I wasn't particularly naughty but my parents, coming from a strict Chinese upbringing, brought that style of parenting with them to the UK when they immigrated.
A lot of the painful memories I had as a kid taught me to hate them because I did not understand why they would be so mean to me. Different cultures teach in different ways, just as differently educated people teach in different ways.
Here I was, being brought up in a very conservative country with British ideals fighting with Eastern culture on thoughts about how to teach values to children. I spent a lot of years not understanding why they were the way they were, until I discovered psychology and NLP in my later years.
I took many courses to understand human communication and subsequently learned about changing past memories. That's when I looked back and slowly began to unravel the reasons why they behaved in such a way. I changed my perception of these painful memories.
You see, they were doing the best they could with the physical and mental resources they had available to them. They did a good job really, but it took revaluating those thoughts to realize this. Inevitably, my respect for them only grew, as more understanding meant more compassion.
You have to deal with these painful past memories and ascribe new meaning to them in order to move on. Talk to someone about it or spend some time contemplating it for yourself, but never leave it alone to gestate, as this will not serve you.
Documenting your thoughts provides clarity.
However you choose to document your thoughts and ideas, make sure you don't just meditate on them. Although I am a fan of meditation, I do think that getting the thought out of your head and onto paper/audio/video (whatever you works for you) allows you to detach from that painful memory and look at it more constructively.
Our emotions often cloud our judgment in the heat of the moment, so you’re likely to record past experiences that were charged full of negative emotion with a strong untruthful bias in your mind.
The documentation process helps to separate the facts from the emotion and allows you to reflect on that past thought more accurately.
I also learned that all our senses help make up our memories, and when we write in a diary we are only making use of two of those senses. But with a video diary I was making use of four of those senses. It just accelerated the whole learning process.
There is always a positive lesson to learn from every memory.
No matter how terrible one's past experiences might have been, there is always something positive we can learn from those memories. In the worst cases, our emotions get in the way of the lesson, but often if we can detach from the experience and look again, we can find it.
My sister was a right little spy when we were growing up. She would always be telling mother about the bad things I did, and I hated her for it.
I felt like she was betraying me, possibly just to get more attention from our parents, and this was the beginning of a difficult relationship that would grow between us. We hardly talk now, and she would never offer up information about her life willingly.
Only recently did I learn that perhaps I was responsible for this. I realize that I wasn't a sharer as a child, and maybe this was her way of trying to get me to share. Learning this, I decided to change the way we communicate. I now share a lot of information about my life with her when we do chat, and I've noticed slowly that she is also doing the same.
This relationship might take a while to repair, but that positive lesson from the past has meant that we can begin to take small steps forward now in developing a new sibling relationship.
By being a fly on the wall of your past experiences, you can look objectively at the situation and figure out what you can gain from it.
An Ongoing Promise
The thing about living in the present is that it quickly becomes the past. As evolving human beings we learn new things and experience new thoughts all the time, and that means there’s always an opportunity for painful memories to occur.
It's not possible to live sheltered from pain, which is why we need to commit to reflection and learning so we won’t be held back by our negative experiences.
It's a promise we must all make for ourselves: to learn, reflect, and be present.
Meditating man image via Shutterstock