So what are we to do with the past? It’s long gone, can never be repeated and has no particular value as we meet the moment we call ‘now’. So some say! Yet we cling to it so strongly. We hold on to our memories, frequently reminiscing over the photos in the family album, while our cappuccino conversations are peppered with recollections of past triumphs and disasters, complete with re-enacted joy or despair.
It is said that our dreams and our memories are the two things can never be taken from us. But why would we want to hold onto either, as they are both somewhat unreal? We now have the most sophisticated recording equipment to capture and replay yesterdays scenes in images we call ‘high definition’. And there are whole industries based on a product called ‘nostalgia’ spending millions to exploit our emotional addictions as they feed us sights and sounds designed to invoke a past that was somehow better, more exciting, more fun, more safe, more entertaining, more intimate, more peaceful…than today! And sure enough we spend our money in the hope of being re-minded, of being re-stimulated, to re-create those moments we remember so well, so that we can be re-united with our feelings from ‘back then’.
Ah the past! What are we to do with you?
Well there are seven choices in how we view and either use or be used by our past.
1) Get Stuck
If you look back on your average day ‘they’ say you will find a classic 80/20! In other words 80% of our attention goes to the past. Review your conversations and you’ll probably find the vast majority of references are retrospective. And 80% of that 80% will be, in some way, an attempt to change what has already gone. Which is obviously impossible. The sign of attempting to change the past is the emergence of the emotion of anger any one of its many forms (irritation/frustration/resentment etc) while recalling or retelling our stories. Our lack of moment-to-moment awareness of where our attention goes means much time and energy can be lost in revisiting our past for no good reason.
2) Learning Resource
Although the past is obviously not a place to live it can be a source of learning. Like a filing cabinet it contains valuable information in the form of recorded experience. These experiences, if used in the right way with the right intention, can help us make good decisions now as we shape our future. But that will also depend on what we concluded at the time. For example if we felt hurt feelings when someone insulted us yesterday, we will likely use the memory of the incident and our recorded feelings to keep that person at a distance today. But if we realise they were just expressing their own hurt feelings for whatever reason, we might do the opposite and be ‘there for them’ today. So how we learn from the past depends on our understanding and interpretation of what actually happened, and that depends on the level of our wisdom today.
3) History Repeats
We don’t notice that if we keep replaying the past in our minds, if we keep running the same tapes, the same emotional stories, then the past becomes the foremost influence on our future. Patterns of thought and emotion that repeat in our heads will find their way out into behaviour and keep producing the same or similar outcomes in our relationships. And then we wonder why we feel as if we are stuck in a rut. While we often say we need to remember the terrible things of the past so that we do not repeat the same mistakes in the future, in reality what is repeated, mentally or conversationally, for whatever reason, is already being recreated. Perhaps that’s why we don’t learn so fast from our mistakes and why we see unpleasant histories repeat both locally and globally. The only way to ensure that repetition is impossible is to forget absolutely everything that just happened. Not such a good idea in some situations but recommended practice in others. Once again it will be the quality of our wisdom that allows us discern which is appropriate.
4) Yesterdays Successes
The past is neither good nor bad. It just was. But we tend to judge it as bad or good, depending on how we felt at the time. When we keep recalling what we perceived were past failures we subtly recreate the emotional states, which are not only uncomfortable but, but over time can be detrimental to our mental and physical health. There are successes in our past and identifying them and acknowledging them can be a ‘kick-start’ in building self-confidence. It’s worth looking back on our life ‘so far’ to note our successes. And it’s useful to review each day for a few minutes and do the same. But then, once it’s done ‘once’, to let it all go and move on.
5) Deeper Values
The past also contains many processes, relationships and perhaps adventures that ‘worked’, which resulted in peak performance, in harmony, in mutually beneficial outcomes. By identifying the values that lay behind what worked yesterday we can then consciously bring those values into the present and both ground them and apply them in the context of our life today. In this way we can create our own internal threads, threads of continuity and consistency that will hold our life together from inside out. For example, if we look back at our most stable and joyful relationships we would probably find the foundations of those relationships were respect and affection. It takes little effort to bring those values ‘into play’ in other relationships today. The intention is not to create the exact same kind of relationship, that is impossible, simply to bring from the past the ingredients, the values that were effective and worth applying in the present. We may need to release our judgments (past) and our expectations (future desires) of the other, in order to establish and maintain our respect and affection. And of course to remind ourselves that somewhere in the universe (some would say everywhere in the universe!) there is a little law that makes the world go round, which is ‘what you give is what you get’.
6) Contextual Understanding
We can also use the past to understand and find meaning in the present. Within history there are patterns and causes that contribute to the way things are now both globally, locally and personally. When areas of our life are disharmonious today we can be sure to find the causes in the past. The seeds were planted yesterday. The ‘context’ of our life is made of both space and time. Our destiny of today i.e. where we are, the kind of personality we have created, what is around us right now, have their roots in our past decisions. Looking over the vista of those decisions can help us sense exactly how we arrived where we are now and therefore influence the decisions that will shape our future. But only if we look dispassionately, through the eye of wisdom and not condemnation, with an intention of acceptance and not feelings of regret, with the intention to join the dots and create ‘big picture awareness’ before narrowing our focus around certain moments.
7) Doesn’t Exist
And then of course there are those who say the past doesn’t actually exist other than as a figment of our imagination! They would argue that it is impossible to know what has already happened because memories are just fragmentary, two-dimensional images that are always created in this moment now. And every time we recreate past stories we create them slightly differently each time. We recreate the past differently in the present, in the ‘now’, simply because there only ever is now. Reality can only be now, and the past, whatever it is, is therefore always somewhat unreal! When realised, this reality can release us from what some of us feel is the burden of our past almost instantly. When we ‘know’ there is only always the present we are more likely to meet the moment with full attention, full heartedly and fully committed to what we need to create appropriate to the needs of this moment.
But to do that fully requires we drop the past, see the past for what it is in the present, an illusion! Not easy because we have all been conditioned to cling to the past and to identify with it. And the idea of letting it go, of forgetting it, feels like we are asking ourselves to die. And yet, when we do let go of the weight of our memories we feel lighter in spirit, and even when we end our repetition of happy memories we feel more alive in the moment, more present to do what we are meant to do, which is simply be here now!
Question: Why do we cling to the past, to our memories, so strongly?
Reflection: Why, in reality, is there only ever now?
Action: What are the three main stories that you tend to repeat a) mentally and b) conversationally
Written by professor Mike George