What do you think of when you think about your future? And when you do think about it, which I’m sure you do from time to time, how you feel? Do you feel happy, excited, and joyous? Or do you feel uninspired, a bit nervous, or even scared?

The reason I ask is because, to an overwhelming degree, it has been my experience that when people don’t feel good about their future the reason for that is two fold. 1) They reflect on their negative memories and feelings from the past and anticipate that it is those memories and feelings that will determine the quality of their experience in the future, and 2) They then create uninspiring or scary pictures in their mind’s eye of just how bad they think the future is going to be for them.

On the other hand when people do feel good about their life ahead that also comes down to two factors. They create compelling movies in their mind of them experiencing their lives in ways that fill them with joy and, more importantly, they are genuinely bought into the realisation that the past does not equal the future.

I’ve yet to meet a living soul who hasn’t had to encounter painful events in their life, or had to overcome difficulties, or deal with the frustration of things not turning out the way they had hoped. I’m convinced that if you were to walk up to any stranger in the street and say to them “I’m really sorry to hear about your problems”, they’d look at you with an amazed expressions and say “How did you know?”

So if everybody’s history is littered with memories of the challenges they’ve faced, how is it that some get to anticipate their future more positively than others? It is because the way you feel about your future at any given moment has less to do with what you’ve actually been through in the past and more to do with the quality of the thoughts you’re having in the present about what the past and future means to you.

I have met with and coached many people who have been frightened about what they think their future had in store for them, and in every case the starting point for turning it all around has been one remarkably simple realisation.

People are never scared of what they think they are scared of, they are only scared of what they think.

Here’s why. The relationship between reality (the one that actually happens) and the reality that we make-up in our minds has been one that has confused us since the moment our brains became evolved enough to ponder such meaty topic as the past and future. Somewhere along the line we got it into our heads that the act of thinking a thought makes it true. That’s why when you imagine yourself suffering in the future, say, failing at important tasks, being unhappy in your career, or not achieving what you want out of life, you start to get an uneasy feeling right away. The nervous system takes what ever you think about – past, present or future - and acts on it as if it’s a factual event taking place right now. Of course the problem with this is that most people tend not to challenge the things they feel to be fact, so left unchecked those thoughts get free reign of the imagination and monopolise they way you feel about life.

In those moments when you think about the future it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that it has already been determined in accordance with the kind of thoughts you are having about it. But the future doesn’t exist, it never has. All you have is this very moment, now. The future can never arrive because it is not coming from anywhere. What you think of as the future is just a clear empty space into which the Now can evolve, and that empty space is pure potentiality. So the question is not, “What do I want to have happen in the future?” it’s, “What do I want this very moment to evolve into?” and “How do I want it to keep evolving so that this very moment is the best kind of moment I could hope to experience?”.

I’m guessing you’ve already noticed this in your own life, that it is so much easier to make decisions and take action at the times when you can actually be there to make a decision or take some action. It’s always in the present moment. So often we spend time evaluating decisions from the past or anticipating decisions we might need to make in the future, but when it all comes down to it, it only ever happened, or will happen, in the Now. As Erkart Tolle said, “Life is now. There was never a time when your life was not now, nor will there ever be.”

So, if you ever get a bad feeling about the future and you then realise that the future doesn’t actually exist, that just leaves you as a person quietly thinking a thought in the present moment - Nothing more, nothing less. Every thought you’ve ever had took place in the present moment, and a thought, in and of itself, is absolutely harmless. It’s only when you breathe life into it by responding as if it represents actual reality that it can have the potential to cause you suffering.

After a while most people are able to see, or at least understand the idea that the future is not what we usually think of it as being in our heads. After all, intellectually we know that the future hasn’t happened yet, so how could we possibly know how things are really going to turn out? What can be more of a mind bender though is the idea that the past doesn’t exist either. That one really catches people out! “But surely the past must exist, we’ve been through it haven’t we? We’ve had the physical experience of it and can remember it clearly.” That may be true, but when all of those things in ‘the past’ happened, when did they actually take place? In the present moment. There has been no disconnect between that present moment and the one you are experiencing right now. You didn’t leave it behind, you brought it with you!

Right now you may be thinking that I’ve lost the plot, or you might even be wondering, “So what? Why is this significant?” Well the reason that it is significant is because when we believe that our past still somehow exists, it also encourages us to believe that all the hurt and pain we’ve experienced also still exists, but is out of our reach; crystallized in time gone by. If we think that pain still exists in the past but we can’t reach it, then we become more inclined to feel held ransom to it effects.

But even when you think about the past and get that realistic sense that its echo lingers on and that it is following you around, that isn’t the past. That is just a process of thought that is taking place in the present moment. It is nothing more than electricity jumping between neurons in your brain, in the Now. It’s not the past that hurts; it is what you do in the present moment to make a mental reconstruction of old painful experiences that allows the same old feelings to stay with you.

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t think that we have a past or a future, just that we need be clear that the past and future are just concepts that can only exist when we think about them in the present moment. When you live in the knowledge that everything you’ll get to experience in your entire lifetime happens in the continuation of the now, that’s when you can make some real quality decisions about what you want you life to be about. Not later, right here in this very moment.

One of my all time heroes Byron Katie said “Isn’t the past kind? It’s always over.” What she meant by that is the very instant an event takes place it’s already gone, and can only live on as a memory trace in the mind. So if someone was to come and slap me around the face, while that’s not one of my favourite experiences, almost immediately it’s over. Sure, I’ll make an instant creation of it in my mind and replay it like its happening again and again; I may even take some further action, but the point is that what ever I do or feel next is only related to my thoughts in the present moment about what I remember taking place. It’s not what happened to me that determines the quality of how I feel, but what I do with it inside. Which brings me onto one of the most important lessons I believe anyone can learn if they are seeking true happiness and peace in their life.

Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional – but you have to provide that yourself.

We all have to go through painful events - that’s just part of life. We fall on hard times, we lose people close to us, we get betrayed, and we find ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. And the pain that is associated with those events needs to be dealt in what ever way is appropriate, because it creates change for us. The way we clear a space for ourselves to adapt to the change is to feel things like sadness, anger, disappointment, frustration… but those emotions are only designed to be temporary states that serve their purpose. Once we’ve processed those raw emotions, then we can re-stabilise and get on with the rest of our lives. The reason suffering is optional is because it requires you to have to build a bigger story about why everything is so terrible and to imagine wider unpleasant consequences. The lingering emotions are no longer to do with the actual events themselves, but a response to the quality of thoughts you’ve added into the mix yourself to spice things up a bit.

I remember about six months after my mum died I was feeling pretty sorry for myself about all the things that I’d lose out on because she isn’t around anymore. My kids would never get to know their Grandmother, she won’t see me getting married, Christmas will never be the same again, etc… But I realised that the major cause of my bad feeling at that time wasn’t that my mum had died, but that I was allowing myself to create unpleasant life like scenarios in my imagination that gave me compelling reasons for why it was necessary to be even more upset. When I was willing let go of my suffering and the story about what it all meant, that just left me with the sadness that she is gone. The sadness I could do something with; it allowed me just to grieve, which is all I really needed to do.

The wonderful thing about knowing that your life only ever happens in the present moment is that it opens you up to this perpetual opportunity of choosing how you want to feel. Regardless of what you’ve thought about your past or future up until now, the only questions you need to answer are “So how do I want to be feeling about my life right now?” and “What would I love to do next?”

So that’s your homework for today. If the past is gone and the future is just a clear open space of pure potentiality, what do you need to be doing or planning for in this very moment to make Now evolve into something amazing?

And I’ll leave you with this quote from The French writer Antoine de Saint Exupéry:

“As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it”

Author's Bio: 

Paul Dalton is a Hypnotherapist and Personal Development Coach / Trainer with bags of experience in helping people change their lives for the better, combining skills from: hypnosis, neuro-linguistic programming, life coaching, leadership effectiveness, metaphysics, motivation techniques, and more.

Paul is also the proud creator of www.Life-Happens.co.uk - a Personal Development resource website for everyone interested in the fields of human potential, self-improvement and positive living.

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