Embracing the Presentby Nicola on 2012-07-14
Letting go of the Past and Embracing the Present
By Dr Nicola J Davies
Many people do not discover or live to their full potential because they carry their past with them, wherever they go. This can have devastating consequences for those whose past was shrouded in negative experiences. Even positive memories of the past can prevent is appreciating the present. Indeed, spiritual teacher and author Eckhart Tolle, believes we are better off learning to let go of past memories. This article highlights why most people keep their past alive in the present, and why this can be damaging to health and well-being. It also offers advice on how to make living in the present your major focus, so that you can start to enjoy a more meaningful and creative life.
'Midnight Sun,' courtesy of David Ho
Do we need the Past?
Author James Frey once said, “The past doesn’t matter. People cling to it because it allows them to ignore the present.” In contrast, the present always offers the opportunity to make a break from the past and to pursue new directions. This is challenging to the ego, since it has a vested interest in keeping what has gone before alive in the present, as painful as some past experiences may have been.
To understand why people cling to past negative experiences, and why it’s unnecessary, we need to appreciate how we are encouraged to perceive and make sense of ourselves. There is a part of the self – the thinker – which wants and needs to keep the past alive. In addition, there is another more deeply buried part which sometimes makes us wish we could forget about what has gone before. Western psychology has a huge role to play in making us believe and accept that our personalities are essentially composed of the ‘the thinker’ – the part of ourselves that wants to hold onto the past.
This accepted view is problematic for various reasons. It not only shapes our self-perceptions and understanding, but also underlies much psychological suffering and social ills. We can become so dependent on the past, to the extent that we rely on something that doesn’t exist anymore (i.e. the past) for a sense of personal identity. In short, we hold on to the past because our egos gain psychological benefits from doing so. These may not benefit the person in the long term, but they are useful to the ego for now.
Why do we hold onto the Past?
Without keeping the past alive in consciousness the ego, and hence the personality, is lost; the person-centered ego fears it will lose its sense of identity and fall apart. This is an identity it has fashioned for itself since childhood, and it continues to operate unconsciously with a momentum that keeps most of us emotionally stuck in the past. For this reason, many adults today carry around childhood identities which negatively impact current relationships: the unloved/uncared-for identity; the victim; the loser; the needy one; and a host of other identities.
At those times when the deeper buried, non-rational part of the self comes to the surface of awareness in the present moment, making us question the value of past experiences to which we are still emotionally tied, the thinking ego feels threatened. It usually automatically reacts by generating all kinds of doubts, anxieties, worries and fears. These are old self-defensive tactics it employs to motivate the person to hold onto the past, or indulge in a fantasized future where everything will sort itself out automatically. The thinking self thus has a vested interest in keeping the old victim or loser identity alive; without it there is nothing, which is a terrifying possibility for the ego-mind.
What are the Negative Consequences of holding onto to the Past?
The past can be a source of joy and laughter. It also has survival value; we can make informed decisions about future actions when reflecting on what has previously worked and what hasn’t. Sometimes emotional relationships to previous occurrences can be helpful, but many associations we’ve learned from the past can do us more harm than good, according to hypnotherapist Mark Tyrrell.
It’s not uncommon for many people to hold onto earlier happier times, or cling to some romantic view of what has gone before, as a barometer for current experiences or events. In such instances, previous events, relationships or circumstances are always better than now. One of the consequences of this orientation is that present opportunities for something new gets missed, and robs the person of seeing and pursuing new directions in life. Potential new friendships or romantic relationships are likely to be doomed since these won’t be able to match the great ones from long ago or last year.
When the thinking ego is allowed to dominate every waking moment, the individuals’ present and future life amounts to little more than rehearsals of the past in the present. Old unconscious templates formed by earlier experiences keep motivating adult behaviors and attitudes, leaving the person feeling emotionally stuck, even if external circumstances change. These unconscious templates are responsible for what Tyrrell calls ‘faulty pattern matching’; somebody or some event triggers old emotional patterns that match a current happening in some way. When we overact to something in the present, it is likely that unhelpful faulty pattern matching has occurred.
Some people tend to be selective about which past events they focus on when making comparisons to present circumstances. When viewing the past in mostly negative terms, this can cause consistent low levels of self-esteem, making us unable to identify opportunities in which to excel.
Can I Learn to let go of the Past?
Fortunately, we can learn to let go of the past so that we can enjoy the here now. Here are some tips on how to achieve this, but keep in mind that they will take practice and perseverance before the positive effects manifest.
Practice Mindful Living:
Mindful living entails consistently and deliberately focusing attention on the present moment without making judgments about the experience. Through moment-to-moment mindfulness you will become aware that you spend most of the time ruminating on or thinking of the past or future. The present moment rarely holds our attention for long, since the thinking ego always wants to take center stage in our attention. Every moment of mindful awareness of the present contributes to a fading of the past, and the potential for newfound freedom from it.
There are various mindful practices you can use to strengthen the experience, and learn to effectively let go of the past. Focusing non-judgmental attention on your breathing for any period of time on a regular basis, or switching attention to sensations from outside or from within the body are all daily practices that are useful. Of course, the ego will interrupt such experiences with thoughts about the past or future. When this happens, gently direct attention back to your breathing, the sounds you hear, or the emotional state you are in at any moment. Learning to observe your stream of thoughts dispassionately is an effective mindful strategy that helps to loosen the grip of the past on the personality.
A non-judgmental attitude helps to cultivate acceptance of whatever experiences or memories come into awareness. It’s then a matter of learning to welcome and acknowledge the experience instead of labeling it as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ and then letting it go. Resisting it will only further entrench old patterns, thereby making it more difficult to let go of the past. Awareness of the present moment, according to Tolle, helps interrupt the individual’s ongoing story or identity of the past and the imagined future.
Stop making Personal Myths:
We all have a tendency to create personal mind ‘stories’ about events to help us make sense of what happened. In this way we constitute identities for ourselves as victors or victims, based on subjective and sometimes highly exaggerated interpretations about others, ourselves and the world around us. Part of the problem is that the myth-making never stops, and helps to inform current impressions of people and events, which we believe as irrevocable truths. When we stop weaving these fictional tales, we become curious, alive and open to new opportunities, situations and perspectives.
Practice Mental Strategies:
Learn to make new positive associations to past events that have emotional momentum to push you into negative states. In other words, learn to use the imagination to overcome old unhelpful thinking patterns that keep you stuck in the past. There are a host of mental tactics you could practice that are designed to replace old reactions with new ones. For example, let’s say a thoughtless teacher once belittled you in front of the class because of poor pronunciation, and to this day you dread speaking in front of groups. When alone, replay the memory, but this time imagine everyone as cartoon characters, playing out the scene to incongruent background music, with parts sped up and slowed down. The more humorous and outrageous the image, the better. After a few practice sessions, you will burst out laughing or smiling when thinking about what happened. The idea is to interrupt the old association between the original occurrence and its emotional meaning.
Learning to let go of the past is not easy, and requires constant, conscious, daily practice. However, it is necessary if we are to realize and live out our full potential, which will remain trapped as long as we allow the past to dominate our everyday lives. It is possible to learn to live totally in the present moment, emotionally free from past burdens. As Roman philosopher Seneca once said, the idea is to “Begin at once to live, and count each separate day as a separate life.”
'Looking Back,' Courtesy of David Ho
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Dr Nicola Davies is a Psychology Consultant and Freelance Writer with an interest in health and well-being. Her publications can be viewed at www.healthpsychologyconsultancy.com. Alternatively, you might like to sign up to her free blog: http://healthpsychologyconsultancy.wordpress.com/