Want to feel less stressed? Live in the present and leave guilt in the past

By Indira Das-Gupta

Just focus on the breath, breathe in , breathe out...damn I knew I shouldn't have had that last Hob Nob

I’m completely in favour of allowing ourselves to “feel all the feels” but I might make an exception for guilt. How many times a day do you feel guilty? Guilty because you didn’t manage to get up early enough to do some Yoga, guilty because you had sugar in your coffee, guilty because you had a Snickers bar for lunch, guilty because you crashed out in front of the TV after work instead of going for a run/walk/cycle. The list goes on. We are constantly beating ourselves up for making the “wrong” choices and not sticking to our health goals. The result? We feel even worse about ourselves and end up comforting ourselves with yet another glass of wine/biscuit/packet of crisps.

This vicious cycle tends to reach its zenith immediately after the Bacchanalian indulgences of Christmas and new year which is then often swiftly followed by an intense period of self flagellation. The fact that we all know this and yet go through the same charade every single year prompted my earlier blog Enjoy a guilt free Christmas.

So why have I returned to the theme of guilt? Having been brought up as a Catholic, I’m all too familiar with the feeling. When I was a teenager, my mum used to regularly shout, “I’m off to pray for you sinners,” when she left for church on Sundays. In response I would pull the pillow over my head and continued to nurse my hangover from the night before. I could always alleviate any feelings of guilt at not going with her by telling myself that I could always go to confession. That’s definitely one of the few perks of Catholicism: sin now, confess later. But sometimes even the thought of my confessional “get out of jail card free” wasn’t enough to assuage those feelings of guilt.

So I do sometimes wonder if my upbringing has made me more susceptible to guilt as it does seem to be a recurring theme in my life. Most of the time it’s about things I haven’t done: that I didn’t do a long enough self practice, that I didn’t call my mum, that I haven’t had enough time for the kids because I was working. In truth I’m tired of giving myself a hard time about the things I might or might not have done. So these days I’m trying to make a concerted effort to ditch the guilt once and for all. I figure, I can’t change the past, so why not just learn from it and move on?

The most fundamental premise of meditation is that we can only enjoy true peace in the present. So if we are ruminating on the fact that we didn’t go to that Yoga class or that we had that third biscuit and are feeling rubbish about it, we can not possibly be at peace - we are simply reliving the past. Think of it like Marty and Doc’s time travels in Back to the Future (I’m really showing my age here). Every time you allow yourself to feel guilty you are travelling back into the past and we all know how risky that can be from the first and surely the best movie in the franchise.

Likewise, when you start fretting about your to do list it’s like nipping into Doc’s customised DeLorean and whizzing off into the future. Again you have left the present where you could be experiencing genuine calm and have given yourself over to feelings of anxiety about something that has actually yet to happen.

“If the problem can be solved, why worry? If it cannot be solved, worrying will do you no good.” Shantideva

Learning to be more present takes time. When you first start it’s actually pretty mind blowing how little time we spend in the present. The vast majority of our daily thoughts are centred around either past or future events. It’s pretty rare that we focus completely on what we are doing in the present moment. Try and observe your thoughts for a day and see what I mean. Even if you are performing a task you love and that requires intense concentration, the chances are that sooner or later something will prompt you to either recall a past memory or think about something that is coming up.

I could write a book on how to try and live more in the moment, many already have and done a much better job than I could ever hope to (see below for recommendations). But if I really had to try and boil it down to a couple of salient points they would be these:

  • try to think about the past and future less

  • try and pay more attention to what you are doing in each moment

Sounds simple? The theory might be but the practice takes, well, practice. When it feels like your mind is spinning out of control, try to focus on your breathing, you don’t even have to use any fancy breathing techniques, just paying attention to your breath will help your mind to settle. The really cool thing about your breath? You can only breath in the present so if you are paying attention to each breath as it enters and lives the body, then bingo! You’ve made it to the present.

“If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.”

Amit Ray

I’m no guru living in a mud hut on a mountain, I’m just a pretty normal working mum from London. I would never claim to be a meditation expert but I have managed to incorporate a few simple techniques to help me navigate my way through the demands of every day life. Sometimes I get stressed, sometimes I get anxious, sometimes I feel guilty about stuff I can’t change or worry about how things will pan out post pandemic like everyone else. But when I feel like it’s all getting a bit too much, a little bit of mindful breathing goes a long way. You don’t have to do it for ages, just 5 minutes can make a huge difference.

So If you want to feel more at peace and calmer, and let’s face it, why wouldn’t you? Don’t feel guilty about the past, try to stop worrying about the future and spend as much time as you can in the moment.

“If you are depressed, you are living in the past.

If you are anxious you are living in the future.

If you are at peace you are living in the present.”

Lao Tzu

Recommended books on how to live more in the present:

I want to be Calm by Harriet Griffey (all the above quotes were taken from this book)

Things you only notice when you slow down by Haemin Sunim


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