Do you remember having feelings of joy and exhilaration as a kid, completely present and yet simultaneously lost in the moment?
Maybe a memory that pops to mind is that time you were riding your bike down a hill, lifting up your hands or feet, feeling in control, and free from worry. Maybe it was when you were swimming, diving under the water in that muffled quiet, gliding as effortlessly and smoothly as a fish.
Everyone has their own memory of childhood experiences like this, even if we grew up in the most dire of circumstances, or in a place that wasn’t safe—those moments of total absorption in something that we were doing, when we were sure no one could see us and we felt utterly alive.
Maybe you got lost in a book, transported through time with the characters. Maybe you had a secret hiding place. I remember going to the little stream next to my house growing up, searching for tadpoles and crawdads, or peering through the dock boards at the lake we used to swim in, watching minnows and bluegill take shelter from the summer heat while the sun warmed my back. I often think of these times with nostalgia, because of course, that’s what nostalgia is for.
Researcher Tim Wildschut refers to nostalgia as “a psychological immune response that is triggered when you experience little bumps in the road.” Are these nostalgic memories completely accurate? Most likely not, as studies have shown that 50 percent or more of the things we remember did not occur as we think they did.
Does that even matter? Maybe, maybe not. What we do with these memories is probably more important.
Do we use them to feel connected to something or someone in a way that is healthy and useful to our current lives? Are they increasing our feelings of self-continuity, keeping us in touch with that part of ourselves that remains steady and true over time? Or are we using them to punish ourselves or someone else—to trap, or stay trapped in a world of shame, guilt, or hurt?
In the last case, it may be helpful to remember that re-tracing all of the mistakes that we or someone else made creates a thought loop that can be very difficult to break.
If we want to feel or think in a way that’s different, that has to come from a new level of thinking about the problem. That being said, we also do not have to revisit the problem over and over and over, searching for new angles or looking for an explanation. Dare I say it? We can relax and set the worry aside.
In my experience, as well as that of many wise teachers I have studied, the most helpful thing to do is to stop resisting what is troubling us—to stop pushing for a solution or a new way of feeling or thinking.
This is where nostalgic thoughts and feelings that have a positive association can be useful.
Remember those times of exuberance, freedom, and creativity you had as a child. Did you have to constantly search for a way to feel better and solve problems? Chances are, probably not.
Children have a natural ability to access these feelings and problem-solving abilities before they are bogged down by life and expectations. How? They play.
They don’t set quarterly goals to determine if their game is going to be a success. They try something and see if it works. If it doesn’t work, they try something else. Then something else. They adapt and they follow their curiosity. They act things out, draw pictures, move their bodies, and ask other people for help.
Maybe the space in their mind that was focused on figuring something out takes a break while they play, and a new idea has the chance to form and come in. We all have this ability, we’ve just buried it under stacks of bills and adult problems.
Give your mind the rest and space it needs to access new levels of thinking.
At times, particularly right now, it can seem like we have to be thinking, solving, and doing at every moment so that things don’t fall apart. But maybe letting things rest is exactly what we need to do so that something new can emerge. We’re only scared because we can’t see through to the other side.
Think about standing behind a waterfall. All you would hear is the noise of the rushing water roaring in your ears. This is like the sound of endless thoughts looping around in your mind. All you could see is the water pouring down in front of you like a thick, impenetrable curtain. You’d be trying to solve your problems by looking into the dark cave of your past behind you because that’s all you know and all you can presently see.
But if you stop looking behind you, take a breath, and step through the waterfall, what could you see? A world of possibility and beauty that did not even previously because you couldn’t see through to the other side. We won’t always end up at the perfect solution, but we can always end up on the side of possibility.
Set your worries down.
>> Take a walk or sit outside and listen to nature.
>> Talk to a loved one or a friend.
>> Do something thoughtful to surprise someone.
>> Give a compliment to someone you suspect doesn’t often get one.
>> Read a book you’re interested in.
>> Spend time with your pet.
The ties of nostalgia have bound who you once were to who you have become. Cast your gaze along that path to remember when you were curious, playful, and filled with fascination and hope. Let your children or the children you know be your guide. Let your thinking brain relax and get lost in this moment.