(Originally posted June 2, 2019)
When I think back to different times in my life, I have the strongest memories about things I spent a lot of time thinking about – both at that time and since then. Seems obvious, right?
Over time a river bed becomes deeper and ingrained into the earth the more water that flows in that area. The river carves its route through the rocks and soil – flowing naturally and more swiftly along the well-worn route. In the same way, our neural pathways for a given memory become strengthened the more we think about it and the more it is brought back into our awareness. The Queensland Brain Institute uses the analogy of a frequently used walking route across a patch of grass becoming a well-trampled path – to describe the same thing.
But what about how much attention we’re paying to any given situation we’re currently in? How distracted are we with thoughts of yesterday or tomorrow?
In recent years, I’ve noticed that I don’t recall certain details of fun events from my youth that a friend might remember, even though we were both there. One might say: uh oh, are you having memory problems? Not really. I’m quite sure it’s because back then, I was so busy ruminating, obsessing, worrying about something else – rooted in the past, or concerned about the myriad “what ifs” of another situation, or concerned about what I thought others thought of me – that I wasn’t really present in the experience. I was hardly even paying attention in that moment with so much going on in my head – so much so that I never really ingrained into my memory the details of those events. I was just so steeped in my thoughts.
These days I endeavour to be present, witnessing the experience, with gratitude and acceptance of what is. It’s work to create a new habit, as the mind is always busy. It takes practice to stay focused on where we’re at, not what we’ve just done or where we’re going tomorrow. But, like anything, usually the more one does something the easier it becomes, and then lo and behold – a new habit!
Sure, “what ifs” go through my mind; that’s pretty natural, and we need them. One can’t ignore possible negative outcomes, it’s part of our built in safety mechanism to be able to evaluate options and make a decision. But when I feel myself begin to get caught in a “what if” cycle that’s distracting me, I force myself to go to the worst case scenario. There, I instantly consider: how could I resolve within myself if things were to unfold this way? I consider and accept how I would handle the worst case scenario, and work backward from there, quashing any concerns about less-than-worst-cases – knowing I can handle whatever happens. This allows me to release the grip on the distraction and let it go. This has taken years of practice, but it works for me to get out of that cycle fairly quickly.
Who is it that defines a negative outcome, anyway? Ourselves, of course. Along with a bit of society’s definition of “good” or “bad” – for good (or bad) measure. How many times have we had “bad” things happen: we didn’t get the job, we lost that “great” relationship, had serious financial hardship, etc. – and then said later on, wow, that was actually one of the best things that could have happened to me! Reflection helps you realize that the so-called “bad” thing guided you onto a different journey which resulted in something pretty great. All in all, maybe that “bad” outcome you’re so concerned about may not be so bad after all – just different.
Being present, finding something to be grateful for, noticing things to love about a certain situation, getting past the “what-ifs” and really letting go of concerns around what has happened in the past (we can’t change it now, anyway) – all help allow more attention to the present. In this way, soon-to-be memories from the current experience can gel a little more strongly.
How would you like to remember this time of your life when you look back? What would you prefer to be your strong, indelible memories? It all starts with what you focus on and spend time thinking about, now.