My sister once told me “guilt is in the past, anxiety is in the future.”
I think about it all the time.
When I find myself drifting into guilt. Why did I? Why didn’t I? I wish I hadn’t… I never should have… I didn’t… or did I? It’s fucked up. The spiral of questioning yourself. It’s that feeling of eating way too many carbs and definitely not enough vegetables. It’s that feeling of watching sesame street with your grandpa every afternoon and the one day you don’t go is the day he has a stroke. It’s that feeling of not helping your mom that one time she was sick at the mall because you were embarrassed. Guilt and shame often go hand in hand.
When I’m worried by anxiety. Will I? Won’t I? What if I can’t? What if I can? What if? What if? What if?… Ad infinitum. It’s that feeling of not knowing if you’re going to get the job. It’s that feeling of playing out the entire worst case scenario at least ten times. It’s that feeling of not liking change so spending all your time trying to avoid it. It’s that feeling of uncertainty. Anxiety definitely co-exists with guilt and shame.
The predisposition to guilt and anxiety comes from trauma. Trauma and fear often go hand in hand. So do trauma and strength.
My sister’s mantra reminds me that I have to drop into present time in order to differentiate anxiety from intuition and guilt from pain. How much energy am I expending living in the past? How much time am I squandering living in the future? What’s happening in this moment? Right now. Here. What can I do about my guilt, fear, shame, anxiety, trauma right this second? What can I do physically? What can I do emotionally? What can I do mentally? Sometimes the answer is cry. Sometimes that’s the best first step. Ugly cry, just let it all out. It really hits all the target points in the “what can I do” questionnaire presented earlier. However, I’m notorious for holding it in. Stoicism is another response to trauma. I’m working on it.
When dancing with that pull between future and past, I take deep breaths. I write. I walk. I stretch. I dance. I sing. I scream. I take baths. I drink water. I drink tea. I burn sage and copal. I talk, sometimes to a friend, often to myself. Some days I do a combination of these things. Some days I do all of these things. Some days I’m lucky if I remember to do one. Some days all I can do is lay on the ground and feel the strength of the earth beneath me and remember that I’m just one body being supported by another body.
That last one is actually my first choice. I’m privileged to have regular access to land where I can actually lay on the earth, but when I find my situation where I don’t have that ability, I still find lying on my back to be one of the best ways for me to fall back into myself. My grandma used to spend 20 minutes every afternoon lying with her back with her feet up on a chair. I learn well through observation.
I prefer to lay on the earth because there is nothing more rooted in present time then the trees, plants, water, birds and animals. It goes without saying that nature is the ultimate ally in grounding into present time (see: shinrin-yoku). Nature has nothing but the present moment and in that present moment it reaches infinitely through space and time. I wanna be present while reaching infinitely through space and time. That sounds fucking rad.
For example, trees don’t worry about anything. They stay rooted in the earth and reach towards the heavens. They expertly record their experiences within their rings. They don’t sit around fretting about when they might get cut down, they just grow. Even when they do get cut down (RIP), they continue to live (see: The Hidden Life of Trees). They’re baseline is a grounded connectedness to present time and community, founded in love and kindness. Be more like a tree.*
Guilt is in the past and anxiety is in the future.
I’m gonna try to stay right here. Like a tree.
It will not come without its trials. Every day is a new opportunity to practice staying present. Practice observing nature for tips on meditation. Practice knowing where you come from, having an idea of where you’re going and acknowledging where you are today. As my nieces say: practice makes permanent.
*actually getting into tree pose or going and sitting with a tree can help with this process