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Living in the moment or healing pain from our pasts - which holds the key to a fulfilling life?
The idea that we can best enjoy life by “living in the moment” is often associated with giving our full attention to the world outside of ourselves, rather than to our thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness, which is about accepting and appreciating the given moment, generally promotes noticing and letting our feelings go rather than exploring them further. Although this can be extremely helpful, it can also be seen as an invitation to put to one side feelings that, if given our full attention, might enable us to resolve emotional pain and stuckness.
It is necessary to distance ourselves from our feelings at times for any number of reasons. However, when we put our feelings at arms’ length and keep them there, we not only miss out on opportunities to heal and grow, we are neglecting our fundamental need to be heard. When we do this habitually, we can become stuck, perhaps feeling resentful that our needs always come last or perhaps even becoming fearful of those feelings and memories that we are unaccustomed to facing.
It can be argued that it is precisely those feelings and memories that we attempt to disown that are most likely to hamper our attempts to live in the moment. Many of us have been through emotionally challenging or even overwhelming experiences. Although the situation we faced is long gone, we can struggle to move on from these experiences and take them with us in the form of feelings that return again and again, bodily-felt tensions, beliefs and ways of coping that are self-defeating or life-limiting. In order to cope we might numb ourselves to the past and the present, repeat situations from the past, respond to the present in ways that worked in the past but which do not work for us now, or let our determination not go back to a place of overwhelm, grief or terror continually override our need for new or satisfying experiences. Neglecting our past can leave us vulnerable to it.
We naturally desire to protect ourselves from pain and we can fear that, if we turn towards it, it will overwhelm us; it will be a bottomless pit. However, one reason that therapy helps is that when we listen to our feelings with curiosity, care and enough safety to let ourselves experience them, they tend to change and move on. So paradoxically, confronting the past can reduce its hold on us and allow us to live more freely in the present.
Can we conclude then, given the above points, that healing pain from the past is the way to a fulfilling life? In some ways the answer is yes, and yet the idea that we cannot be happy until we have confronted our pasts can also be an obstacle to a fulfilling life.
It is possible to believe "I have been through so much - I cannot truly enjoy life until I have dealt with my past" or "I cannot be happy until I am fixed or healed". We can be so focussed on coping with or recovering from our pasts that we blind ourselves to all that is good in our lives right now.
Happiness can never be forced and, as with all feelings, it is temporary, something to be “lived in the moment” but not held on to. Sometimes it mingles with other feelings such as sadness or fear (about it ending) etc. In spite of these things and because of them, it is ok to accept happiness where we find it, and often we do find it even in the most difficult circumstances.
At different times we can benefit from either appreciating the moment we are in or giving what we are still carrying from the past our full attention (and each person is the best judge for which they need to do in each instance). Arguably, one picture of a fulfilling life might be one in which our decisions about where to focus our attention are made with the fullest possible sense of safety and freedom.
About the author
Rhian Gower is a BACP member, practicing in Brighton.
After completing her PGDip in humanistic therapeutic counselling (distinction), she was hired to establish a counselling project that recently secured NHS funding. She has over 13 years of experience working with people in crisis, and has provided counselling in schools and the charity sector.
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