Past. Mirror image of a woman thinking about her past while living in the present.

Living in the Present while Learning from the Past

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again
and expecting different results.

~Rita Mae Brown (popularly attributed to Albert Einstein)

We all have something to learn from our past.

Our personal history is a rich source of experiences that we can learn from and that can help us live a healthy and meaningful life. We can draw on our past experiences when we face challenges, enter unknown territory, or have a difficult decision to make. We shouldn’t live in the past, but we shouldn’t ignore it, either. The past can help us predict the outcomes of our actions and help guide us in achieving our goals.

Stuck in a rut—living in the past

Some people behave in a certain way because that’s the way they’ve always behaved. They repeat the same activities, see the same people, eat the same foods, and basically don’t grow. There’s nothing inherently wrong with living an established or settled life. Some people enjoy stability and find comfort in the familiar. But if we feel trapped or bored, it may be a sign that we need to expand our horizons and try new things.

We also need to be wary of falling into patterns of behavior that are unhealthy or damaging—to us or those around us. We may have certain learned or cultural traits that regularly lead to struggles or confrontations. We may not even be aware of them. They’re there because of our personal historical patterns of thought and behavior.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

~George Santayana (famously paraphrased by Winston Churchill

We may also fall on the other extreme—ignoring the past. We may fall into patterns where we repeat actions that lead to unexpected or unwanted outcomes. We convince ourselves that we’re right—that this time things will turn out differently—but we do everything the same as before.

Be present, but be aware of past experiences

Living in the present doesn’t mean forgetting about the past. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make time to think about the past. Learning from our past experiences is a balancing act. On one hand, we have to take the time to understand our experiences and what we’ve learned from them. But while we’re doing that, we also have to fully live in the present and be open to new ideas and experiences.

We have to develop a way to assimilate our past into our mindfulness. That may sound like a contradiction—how can we be truly present whilefocusingpart of our attention on the past? The key is making time for reflection. A mindful life necessarily includes making time to think about our experiences—how they came about, what the consequences were, and what we learned from them.

Learning from your experiences: regret versus insight

We’ve all had experiences we’d rather forget, experiences that we either regret or that set off intense memories that we have a hard time getting past. It can be easy to beat ourselves up. While it’s important to own up to the consequences of our actions (see Atone), it’s also important to forgive ourselves when we’ve done something harmful.

Part of the forgiveness process is learning from negative experiences. This doesn’t happen by chance—it’s necessary to go through a process that involves specific steps:

  • characterizing our actions and their motivations
  • assessing the consequences and who was impacted
  • atoning for those consequences (making things right where possible or otherwise making amends)
  • developing an approach or outlook to avoid repeating the same mistake

Going through this process can be extremely healthy and give us the insights we need to move forward positively and constructively. These insights are also what we should keep with us in the present moment—an awareness that we can incorporate into our mindfulness.

Our past is part of who we are in the present and is something that we can turn to as we move into the future.

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