Nostalgia, regret, hope and worry

by Jack on February 2010

And then, something happened. I let go. Lost in oblivion. Dark and silent and complete. I found freedom. Losing all hope was freedom. (Fight Club)

The way to inner peace and contentment is to live completely involved in the present moment, without distraction by thoughts of past or future. To be “in the zone”, so to speak.

One thing that can be difficult to accept about this occasionally cliched Zen / Power of Now / “be in the moment” way of living is that thoughts that seem positive in nature at first glance, do not necessarily lead to positive feelings. In fact, deliberately thinking positive thoughts, reciting affirmations, and other common self-help practices may actually lead you to an unnecessary orientation toward the future or the past, and pull you out of living in the present moment.

There are four fundamental ways this can happen: nostalgia, regret, hope and worry. These four erroneous states of thinking break down along two axes – “positive” and “negative”; and “past” and “future”.

Nostalgia. This state comes from a belief that the past was better than the present moment, that it is now gone permanently, and that it cannot ever be recaptured. Most commonly seen in older people, this mental state is trapped in “the good old days” or “the way things used to be”. However, nostalgia is by no means limited to the elderly, of course – any new graduate working a boring first job and thinking back to the fun of their college days can tell you that.

Regret. Regret arises from a belief that the past was worse than the present, and/or a belief that events in the past have permanently tainted the thinker’s potential for happiness in the present moment. Many people spend their lives constantly analyzing and rethinking choices that they made in the past, wondering “what if I had done it differently?”

Hope. Hope is the state of looking forward to the future, feeling that the present is not good enough, but that some day things will be better, and a state of happiness will surely arise then. Great numbers of people live out their days on “Someday Isle” [1], always hoping, intending, planning, and daydreaming but never actually getting around to acting or doing.

Worry. This is the state of looking ahead to the future and anticipating that it will not be as good as the present moment. All fear arises from the state of worry. The process involves the following steps: examining the present; predicting the future based on present reality; believing that prediction to be true; and finally, judging that hypothetical future and finding it to be somehow threatening, painful or otherwise undesirable.

Attachment and state transmutation, or “it all flows from the same source”

All of these states have a common thread of attachment running through them. In Zen Buddhist teachings, attachment to transient things – among which is included everything that we see in the physical world – is identified as the source of suffering. Attachment is most commonly observed when the mind clings to situations that have gone past – for example, the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship – but it also manifests itself in clinging to ideas of possible futures as well.

The key to interrupting these distractions due to attachments is to identify when they arise as quickly as possible. The more you practice recognizing, “Oh, a state of worry (or nostalgia, or …) is here”, the better you become at returning to the present moment. The power of capital-P Presence in the Now dissolves the distractions of these states and returns you to your natural state of contentment and inner peace.

Each of us has a tendency to gravitate toward one or more of these states preferentially. This can differ over time, and also depends on the details of our life situation. For example, a 90 year old who is unable to leave his bed is most likely to exit the moment through Nostalgia, while a high school senior waiting to hear back from colleges might be more inclined toward Hope.

Each of these states has the power to transform quickly into one of the other states. Being present and being conscious is binary – you’re either living in the present moment or you’re not, and if you’re not, you’re as suceptible to any one of these mind states as any other.

For example, when she moves outside the Now, our high school senior might oscillate among all four states: “I’m going to miss my friends so much after we all go to college” (Nostalgia); “I wish I had gotten better grades in sophomore algebra” (Regret); “Stanford is going to be so great – I’m going to get top grades in pre-med and become a vascular surgeon” (Hope); “What if I can’t get in to any of my first choice colleges, and I have to live with Mom and Dad, keep waiting tables at the diner, and take night classes at the community college” (Worry).

They all flow from the same source – going outside the present moment in your thoughts, and then believing those thoughts and attaching to them.

Addressing and eliminating NNSs, one by one

The following are specific action strategies for each individual “non-now state” (NNS). Depending on which of the NNSs affect you the most, you could try one or more of the action item exercises listed. For extra fun and credit, make up your own.

Defeat nostalgia. Take action to make your present day life at least as interesting as you believe the past to have been. (Action Item: Sign up for new activities and connect with new people in order to add excitement and enjoyment to your present-day life.)

Defeat regret. Recognize that you did the best that you could have done with the resources you had at the time. If things had been different, you would have made different choices, but you can still choose to be at peace now. (Action Item: Make amends, and take direct action to counteract now what you believe went wrong in the past.)

Defeat hope. Acknowledge that the future only ever emerges from the present moment, and that if you are not at peace now, the future cannot and will not give you peace. Create a mind state of gratitude and giving, and acknowledge the “miracle” of the present, so that you do not expect the future to give you anything that the present doesn’t already contain. (Action Item: Create a practice of gratitude for the good things already in your life – for example, write down ten things that you are grateful for that are in your life right now.)

Defeat worry. Let go of outcome orientation and the need to control people, events, and things in your life. Permit the universe to unfold as it will. After all, reality is what it is – and it’s not as though you have a choice in the matter anyway. 🙂 (Action Item: Consciously and deliberately give up control in an area where you have previously been attempting – successfully or not – to control things)

Be present, now.

There’s only one way to be present, but there are four ways to exit the present moment and thus to cause disequilibrium and suffering. Whether via “positive” or “negative” thoughts, leaving the present moment and dwelling in the past or the future is a perfect recipe for pain.

Being in the present moment is the only state in which you can ever be at peace, because it is the only place where you are – ever. Being in the present moment is the only way for you to align yourself completely with reality.

Being aware of these four “failure modes” that drive you away from being present enables you to intervene before you spend too long in an unconscious state. By practicing being present, and avoiding the traps of nostalgia, regret, hope and worry, you achieve a state of inner peace in the present moment. The more practiced you become at returning to Now, the more frequently you experience this state of inner peace. And who couldn’t use a little more inner peace? 🙂


[1] i.e. “some day I’ll…” – get a motorcycle, start my own business, go to rabbinical school, or whatever. Apologies for the cheesy pun – I didn’t make it up. In any case, don’t live on “Someday Isle”. Just don’t. Because then I might have to use this joke again.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Abby February 4, 2010 at 09:39

Excellent post! It reminds me of the quote from Lama Sabachthani, “Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past.”

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