Letting go of the past is essential if we wish to experience peace and contentment in the moment.
This story provides a good analogy.
There were two Buddhist monks walking in silence along a mountain trail in Japan. It was raining heavily and conditions underfoot were muddy and treacherous.
As they rounded a bend on the trail, they came across an elderly woman attempting to cross the path. She was clearly struggling with the conditions. Upon seeing her, one of the monks approached her, gently picked her up and carried her safely to the other side.
The pair then continued on their way in silence. Several hours later, the second monk said to his friend: “Do you feel that picking up and carrying that woman across the path was appropriate behaviour for a monk?”
To which his friend answered: “I put her down several hours ago. Have you been carrying her in your mind all this time?”
And this is what we do. We spend our days playing mental movies of the past and future in our heads and in doing so, miss the gift of happiness that the present moment contains.
Past and future have no reality of their own. What happened yesterday or what may happen tomorrow exist only as ideas in our head. As our attention can only be in one place at a time, when we are lost in thinking of the past, we miss the moment, we miss reality, we miss the simple contentment that is available to us right now.
In the case of the monk in the story, he wouldn't have been overly unhappy about the actions of his friend. We all regularly leave the present moment to think about this or that and it is not necessarily troublesome.
For some people, however, thinking excessively about past hurts and grievances or believing that happiness belongs in the past, can be very painful and seriously impact our ability to experience joy now.
Even when we are caught up in a continuous loop of thinking about some difficult past events or worrying about the future, we can still experience moments of peace and contentment.
When we are absorbed in a favorite pastime, a stimulating conversation or a creative project, for example, we temporarily forget about the past and future and we are content. When we are fully absorbed in the present moment, not distracted by mind movies, all problems vanish and contentment simply happens – by itself. We don't need to look for it. It is simply a by-product of being present.
Letting go of the past, whether it be an unhappy episode that happened years ago or an upset that arose two minutes ago, can be achieved in two ways.
We can simply choose to drop it, to stop giving it our attention, to make being happy in this moment more important than continuing to run the mental movie.
This approach can work for relatively minor grievances, such as in the case of the Japanese monk or when someone's behaviour has ruffled our feathers.
When the tendency to relive the past over and over is more persistent, more deeply ingrained, however, we need to take a moment by moment approach.
The key is to learn to be more present. Every time you catch yourself going off into the past or future, realize that you have a choice in that moment – to continue or to make the present moment more important than following the mind' s story.
A good tool you can use straight away to bring your attention back to the now is to focus on the breath. This is a key part of mindful meditation, which is a great practice for developing the skill of being present.
Each time you notice the old pattern is running, simply shift your attention to the breath going in and going out. You can also say the words 'breathing in' and 'breathing out' silently to yourself as you keep your focus on the breath.
As your awareness can only be on one thing at a time, the unwanted pattern will fade into the background.
When the pattern is strong, it will of course, resurface again and again. That's fine! Don't judge it, don't resist it – just come back again to the breath with an attitude of kindness and compassion.
If you patiently keep up this practice, over time, you will discover that the pattern gradually loses its grip on you. Your awareness is far more powerful than any thought.
You may like to check out my e-book, Kick The Thinking Habit, in which you will find a multitude of ways to take back control of an overactive mind to experience more peace and happiness in the moment.