How to Stop Living in the Past: The Real Solution

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The Power of Now" by Eckhart Tolle. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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Do you find yourself constantly living in the past? Do you feel guilt or regret over past actions, or do you dwell on pains and sadness from the past?

Living in the past is holding you back from being present now and enjoying the most out of every moment you have. Want to stop living in the past? Learn how to do so in our detailed guide, from The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.

Why You Live in the Past

When you live in the past, you feel guilt, regret, resentment, sadness, bitterness, and unforgiveness. You also carry old hurt from your pain-body, the invisible entity of cumulative pain you have experienced in your life. The pain body is like a parasite, feeding on negativity and driving us to think and act in negative ways.

For example, someone who has experienced abandonment is likely to be sensitive to comments or situations that trigger that pain. In response, her pain-body may push her to attack others by lashing out, or attack herself by blaming herself and feeling victimized. This is an example of living in the past in a way that distracts from living in the moment. (We’ll talk more about the pain-body and how to overcome it in the full summary.)

Your Ego is Causing You to Live in the Past

Why are so many of us driving ourselves crazy thinking about things we can’t control, and distracting ourselves from the real moment we are experiencing right now? The inner voice in your head, called the ego, is responsible for this endless internal monologue. The ego is a part of your mind that tries to control your thinking, emotions, and behavior. Your ego causes you to live in the past.

Your ego projects a false identity, made up of your membership in groups and communities (such as gender, nationality, profession, and religion) and your past pain and experiences. The ego tells you that your memories, experiences, religion, upbringing, education, career, gender, political beliefs, and nationality make you who you are. 

All these aspects of the ego-created identity are based on external forces. If you believe that these external factors — like life experiences, profession, and political affiliation — make you you, then any new experiences, career changes, and challenges to your political beliefs have the potential to shake your identity. 

In fact, your ego is distracting you from connecting with your true self or Being. Your Being is a purer energy that lives within you, unaffected by external forces and circumstances. 

How to Stop Living in the Past by Disconnecting from Ego

You can only be your true self when you are present, when your thoughts are not focused on the past, future, or the ego-created false identity. By connecting with your true self through presence, you access inner peace. Disconnecting from your ego is how you stop living in the past.

The ego, then, prevents you from being present and from enjoying a state of inner peace. 

You can disconnect from your ego and connect with your true self by observing your thoughts, as if you were a third-party witness to your own mind. 

  • Try thinking, “I wonder what my next thought will be.” Wait and watch. Notice that your thoughts will likely stall for a moment while you are in this state of presence and alertness. You’ve just observed your mind.  
  • When you can separate yourself from your thoughts — even if only for a moment — then you have briefly disconnected from your ego. In this moment, you were fully present and in touch with your true self. We’ll dive deeper into this in the full summary.

How to Live in the Present and Stop Living in the Past

How do you stop living in the past? You live in the present. You appreciate the power of Now.

What is the power of Now? The Now is the present moment — each individual moment in the innumerable sequence of moments that makes up our lives.

The power of Now is in experiencing each of these moments with your full and undivided attention, without being distracted by your internal monologue (whether that includes thoughts of your to-do list, living in the past by replaying an interaction from this morning, or running commentary and analysis of the present).

By actively engaging in each moment, you can prevent much of your pain and stress and live in a consistent state of inner peace and fulfillment.

Engaging only with each moment — and not with the past and future — allows you to break down problems to a more manageable size. When you isolate problems to just the present moment, you start to see that most problems only exist in the context of time

You may find clarity and context by asking yourself, “If everything stayed the way it is at this exact moment, would I be OK?” (Shortform note: You can relate this to the adage, “This too shall pass.” If you’re only taking life moment by moment, nothing is beyond what you can handle.) This is how you stop living in the past.

Imagine you are walking along a path while it is pitch dark and very foggy, but you have a flashlight that illuminates enough space in front of you that you can make your way forward. 

  • The fog is your life situation, including the past and future. 
  • The flashlight is your presence. 
  • The illuminated space in front of you is the Now. 

How to Stop Living in the Past: The Real Solution

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of "The Power of Now" at Shortform. Learn the book's critical concepts in 20 minutes or less.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Power of Now summary:

  • Why you feel pain from the past, and how to get rid of it
  • How to be more present and stop worrying about the future
  • The 8 key ways to achieve mindfulness

Allen Cheng

Allen Cheng is the founder of Shortform. He has a passion for non-fiction books (having read 200+ and counting) and is on a mission to make the world's best ideas more accessible to everyone. He reads broadly, covering a wide range of subjects including finance, management, health, and society. Allen graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and attended medical training at the MD/PhD program at Harvard and MIT. Before Shortform, he co-founded PrepScholar, an online education company.

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