It is very common for people who are experiencing excessive stress in their lives to dig for answers from their past. In many respects, this is what the therapy profession emphasizes. We look under every stone that our imaginations can find, accessing the library of memories from the past to see who did what to us and how that may have affected our development and made us think and behave the way that we do.
This type of self-reflection is not without its merits. Sometimes, we can get a clearer picture of how our minds were influenced and conditioned by experiences outside of our control and how we adopted certain patterns of thinking as a result. Shedding light on the past can help us to rewrite our present moment thinking and avoid some of the pitfalls associated with adopting these dysfunctional patterns in the future.
However, if we are only to examine the past through a new lens, we often end up in the same basic dilemma. Even with a clearer picture of the past, we can think, “well, now what?” Having more clarity alone will rarely solve the problem. A lot of the time, people find themselves ruminating on the same issue just as much but from a slightly different perspective. Even if we find it in our hearts to forgive ourselves and others for the ways in which these impressions have affected us, we can still feel stuck.
This is when we need to remember that our bodies and minds are still having a present moment experience, it’s just that we are using that present moment experience to relive the past and maybe considering different hypothetical outcomes for what might have been had the past been different.
Our present moment experience will never be constructed entirely of thoughts. In fact, our thoughts will always be related to the remembered past and the predicted or hypothetical future. What is actually present is the sensory experience of the body and the body’s energy. It is the sensation of breath flowing through the body, the heart beating, etc.
Let’s use the analogy of a sailboat for the physical and energetic body. When the sailboat is sailing effectively, it is doing so because the sales are taut and the wind is able to push it along. There is what we could refer to as a “positive, intentional stress mechanism” at work. Without this mechanism in place, the boat is drifting listlessly at sea.
When we experience excessive stress in our lives, this positive, intentional stress mechanism suffers. We may develop rips in our sails or the sails might begin to loosen and have too much slack. The next thing we know, the sail is no longer functional. There is no longer a positive, intentional stress mechanism working to guide the boat in its intended direction. The boat is now adrift at sea without direction and it is at the mercy of whatever waves hit it.
The waves, in this analogy, are the outside circumstances of our lives; the phone call with bad news we weren’t expecting, the relationship issue we’ve been struggling with, the pile of paperwork that just showed up on our desk at work.
Without the sail functioning properly (remember the “boat” in this analogy is the physical body), the boat just gets slammed by every wave, taking on water and going nowhere. As this happens, the sailors (our minds) are in a constant state of reaction just trying to keep the damn thing afloat, never mind going in a positive direction. The longer this happens, the more exhausted and directionless we become.
Now, here’s the good news. There is a new sail down in the cabin. Rather than try to fix the tears in the old sail (reviewing our thoughts about the past and trying to think differently), we have the option of just tossing the old sail off the boat and grabbing the new sail. But in order to get that new sail up and taut so that it can function properly, it needs our physical energy. If you’ve ever cranked a sail up on a mast, you know that it is really hard physical work. It takes a lot of energy to get that sail up. It doesn’t just go up easily. It is physical work, not mental work. It involves breathing deeply, engaging our muscles and not stopping until the sail is all the way up.
Once the sail is up, we can aim the boat in the direction we intend to be going, but we have to remember to keep the sail taut. Every new challenge is a potential threat to the integrity of our sail, but if we keep breathing fully and engaging our physical bodies, we can keep the sail taut and keep moving in the direction we want to be going.
When the boat is functioning properly, we can examine our patterns of thinking and behaviors from a more neutral and less emotional disposition, allowing us to assess our thinking without losing site of our goals.