Is it possible to live without the shadow of the past? Can we survive even a single day without rumination, reminiscence, reexamination, and regret?
Can we escape that all-too-human tendency to revisit our previous experiences- our memories, actions, and behavior- and instead live completely and entirely in the present moment?
In my personal experience, this has proven to be one the most difficult (if not the most difficult) things for to accomplish in my daily life. Yet, through a great deal of meditation and patience, through the cultivation of mindfulness, and by working to erase both personal history and self-importance, I’ve become capable of doing just that for minutes at a time, and occasionally in multiple hour stretches, but at some point during each day I always find myself dragged down by the past and dunked back into the sorrow, confusion, and psychological suffering which I’ve been attempting to leave behind altogether.
I revisit my past actions, past decisions, ideas, thoughts, and beliefs, from what feel like a lifetime ago- from a life which I’ve come so nearly to leaving entirely behind- but just haven’t quite been able to abandon. I find myself day after day revisiting that past life and playing that foolish and pointless game of wondering “What if…?”
To give you an example- this weekend I went backpacking (like usual) in one of the most interesting and incredible landscapes I’ve been fortunate to find here in Southern California- the land of brown hillsides and barren desert. I had stumbled my way across it on a website during searches for local backpacking places, but from the reviews of the area, I honestly wasn’t expecting too much from my trip.
Little did I know that San Mateo Wilderness would turn out to be quite more impressive that I had originally imagined! Picture an absolutely massive landscape of rolling green hillsides, cavernous valleys, and gorges covered in lush, over-head coastal scrub. Breathtaking views of the ocean, early morning banks of dense rolling fog, beautiful deep-blue skies, a perfectly clear night sky just littered with stars, and hardly any human interference whatsoever.
It’s pretty much everything I’ve ever wanted to find- and at just an hour from my front door down a sunny stretch of the 5 freeway, and the inviting curves of the Ortega Highway, it’s as convenient a place as I could ever hope to find! A veritable Paradise on Earth, wide-open, inviting, ripe for exploration and adventure.
Yet for the past year and a half, even after all of my backpacking trips, day-hikes, and research looking for places such as this one, I’d completely failed to uncover this diamond in the rough. This wide open wilderness had been sitting right under my nose for all this time, yet completely absent from my awareness, even as I’d put so much energy into searching for something just like it!
Because most of my trips find me returning to places where I’ve already been. While I love adventure and exploration, I do fully recognize that above all- like most human beings- I am a creature of habit. I know what I like and I know what I don’t. What I like I return to- what I don’t I avoid. I eat the same thing for breakfast, lunch, and dinner just about every day. I’m comfortable in my routines, and above all else, I’m used to the complacency and false sense of security that this illusory “order” tends to bring. I feel safe, I feel secure, and I don’t often find myself face to face with the unexpected.
But the problem with that kind of attitude, and that kind of lifestyle, is that while it may be quite comfortable and convenient, it’s also inherently limiting, and driven by deep-seated fears of the unknown.
You see- human beings have evolved to watch their environment, remember causal relationships, and predict future events to help them overcome obstacles, plan for disaster, and above all else, preserve their own person by avoiding danger.
But what would life be like- and how could it possibly be worth living- if we had foreknowledge of everything that was to happen?
If there were no surprises, no experiments, and no lack of foregone-conclusions, then what would drive us to get out of bed in the morning? What could we possibly find of interest, what could we value, and could bring that sense of excitement, adventure, and joy that makes our lives worth living?
When I look at myself and observe without the presence of the observer, when I’m able to get around the “I”, that despicable and selfish “me”, one thing becomes imminently clear:
My life is a long series of mostly predictable events (punctuated by a few major surprises) and strung together by a consciousness that seeks logical explanations for everything, as well as some semblance of continuity. The “self” analyzes all that has ever happened to me, retaining those events, my interpretations, and responses to them in the form of memories, recalling them whenever it seems plausible that they could offer some sort of assistance into predicting what might come next. All of this is done to help me avoid danger, achieve the maximum result out of each situation I find myself faced with, and preserve my organism so that I can continue on for as long as possible.
But how often has this planning truly helped me to live a happier, more complete, or more fulfilling life?
Personally- and perhaps this is just me- I’ve found all the planning, all the preparing, and all the goal setting to do nothing but let me down by trapping my awareness to previous experience, previous conclusions, and especially previous misconceptions. And each time I face new events with the observances of the past, I find myself responding to them in less than adequate ways. For each moment of my life, in reality, is completely different from those that have come before.
And after all, what really is the future- is it not the unknown?
What- I’m asking you- can really be done to prepare oneself against it?
And should we seek to prepares ourselves for meeting it at all, or is it no more than a waste of energy?
If the universe is in a constant state of change, with energy swirling all around me, people coming and going, technology developing at an increasingly rapid pace, and world-changing events occurring with what seems to be a greater frequency than at any other time in recorded history, then how could I possibly expect to properly plan for what’s coming next?
Even if I did have perfect, complete, and accurate information of everything that had ever happened before- which I most obviously do not- how could that possibly account for the infinite numbers of potential future scenarios, and especially for the element of random chance?
By the time I’d analyzed all that data and prepared myself for responding to future events, wouldn’t other things have been happening in the meantime, causing me to have to once again reevaluate my “best” course of action?
It’s as if we live glued to the past- glued to our previous experience, to our successes, our failures, and everything in the middle- ignoring present experience, and always preparing for a future that is not only impossible to predict, but has no guarantee of ever arriving at all (think cataclysmic world event, getting hit by a bus, or any of the other many potential “world” and “life” ending potential events).
While this may seem depressing- and it certainly did when I first looked at it- I now see this simple fact as the key to achieving real happiness, true freedom, and to leading a life that’s actually worth living.
Forget your past, forget your preparations, and for the love of all that’s Holy, forget yourself, even if for just one moment!
Instead, find delight in living out each and every moment it’s beautiful entirety. Completely. Wholly. With total attention and complete awareness of everything happening both around you, and inside you.
Relax. Slow down. Take a deep breath, and be still.
Stop planning for the future. Stop worrying about the past.
Let go of your illusory “control”, your beliefs, your expectations, and even your conclusions about the world, about yourself, and about everything else.
For without the capacity to let go of all of this, you can never hope to meet life as it truly exists: A movement. A subtle dance. An unchoreographed, unpredictable, and incredible series of events, perhaps anchored in limited moments of time, but also in eternity. In the flowing, evolving, and ever-changing movement that is impermanence, which makes up this thing we call “living”, which is essentially conditioned existence.
Meet the unknown for what it really is: The unexpected, the unplanned, the unexplained and untamed. That untouched, unblemished, and incredibly beautiful movement that is uncertainty.
For just one second, put your planning aside and smile right into the void, knowing full well that you don’t know, and never can know, a single thing with any certainty.
Smile like you’ve never smiled before, and live your life in Total Freedom.