One of the things that mindfulness (to use the currently popular term) focuses on is what’s happening now. It’s really nothing more than another way to say “pay attention!” – to yourself, to the world around you, to what you’re thinking and feeling right now. “In the moment”, as they say.
Some time ago I was introduced to a couple of terms that help clarify the alternatives: re-living and pre-living.
Re-living is spending our time in the past. It’s remembering, with fondness, or with fear, that which has gone before. It’s nostalgia for things that are no more. It’s beating yourself up for mistakes made in the past.
If you’re anything like me there are events from your history, probably dating all the way back to your childhood, that you remember and think about from time to time. Every so often that embarrassing moment in grade school comes to mind, and for a moment, it’s as if you were reliving it all over, right down to “that” feeling in your gut. In times of stress perhaps you divert yourself by reflecting on better times.
Re-living is ruminating on all those things and more, from the past. The irony is that we know our memories are flawed, and those embarrassing situations may or may not have been as bad as you remember. Thanks to selective memories those better times may not have been much better at all.
Pre-living is spending our time in the future. It’s forward looking, with anticipation or dread, that which will presumably come to be. It’s excitement for things that you’re looking forward to. It’s imagining the bad things you expect to happen.
There are, no doubt, things in your picture of the future that you are concerned about or looking forward to. Perhaps you’re spending a lot of time thinking about extreme results from our current political climate. Perhaps you’re spending that time imagining what life will be like after you graduate / get that job / retire / whatever.
Pre-living is ruminating on all those things and more, from the future. The irony here is that we allow ourselves to get depressed about or find comfort in things that haven’t even happened yet – and may, in fact, never happen.
It’s not black or white. Re-living and pre-living are neither good nor bad, in and of themselves. Rather, it’s a matter of degree.
Ruminating is the word that I keep coming back to. At one end of the spectrum ruminating is simply thinking about something deeply. At the other, it’s dwelling and “spinning” on those thoughts unproductively.
Spending excessive time and energy ruminating on events that have long passed can be downright destructive and unhealthy. The mind has a very poor sense of time, and to the subconscious it’s as if those things are happening again, today. Similarly ruminating on all the “what-if’s” of the future serves no real point other than to distract us from the life we have in front of us today.
I’ve seen people who spend much of their time or emotional energy on one or the other, sometimes to the point of it being truly sad and unhealthy.
It’s important to learn from the past and plan for the future. To me, however, ruminating on what was or what might be completely misses the point of even being here today.