Posted on November 20th, 2013
The past does not actually exist. Yet remnants of the past surround us, objects and places and people we have had significant experience with. Reminders of the past arise in us as memories too, beguiling us as we try to orient ourselves amidst the unceasing changes of life.
You don’t need much of a brain to find the past useful. Pigeons and mice will avoid what was previously painful and seek out what has brought pleasure. Orienting ourselves in terms of the past is that basic. But we human beings really know how to complicate things. Pull a dog away from the direction it was going, and within seconds it is enjoying going in a new direction. Pull us away from the direction we had intended, and it can be years before we recover.
This is due to our having the unique mental and emotional capability of stringing together into an identity memories of yesterday, experiences of today, and hopes for tomorrow. In the world of animals, identity is non-existent. In the world of human beings, identity is essential. It is a large part of our currency with each other and often with ourselves.
The presence of the past is itself not a problem; what matters is our attachment to it. We can easily get ourselves tangled up through over-identifying with what we have done, or have been, or have owned. In this way, the weight of the past can become oppressive, through the sadness of trying to hold onto something which doesn’t exist any longer, or through endless attempts to change the past by replaying it in the present.
The actual past is done, but in order to finish it for ourselves, we have to end our fascination with it. Life happens in the present, not in the remembered past (or the imagined future). Whether the past was glorious or horrible, it’s over. And whatever it meant when it was going on, that’s over too.
The way to a greater experience of life is through an expanded awareness now, not of what was or what could be, but of what is, in this moment, the only moment which is real.