Why it is good to let go of the past

Just as a snake sheds its skin, so we should shed our past, over and over again

The Buddha

There is a lot of wisdom in this quote. From the moment we are conceived we are continually changing. However, this can produce anxiety, and we have a natural tendency to try and reduce this,  by stabilizing our life and looking for as much certainty as possible. We like to have identifiable projects and clear plans,  a coherent narrative, a life story that seems to make sense, at least to ourselves. So we create our own personal myth that will give us a unity and purpose in the world. And one of the difficulties of sitting in meditation just with present moment awareness is that we often prefer to go back to our story, replaying it again and again, believing it to be our life.

However, there may be alternative ways of working with life.  Our story is frequently selective, it emphasizes certain themes and ignores others. The mind has a negativity bias, and it often prefers to hold onto things that have gone wrong and which have been stored in our unconscious as worry and anxiety. Thus, it may be best to let those things go. Also when we have been hurt and let down it is good to discover the freedom that  comes from letting go. Practice draws attention to the fact that all things arise and pass away: all things are impermanent.  The past is not really happening any more, except in our minds. Our life is continually changing and it may be better to see our selves as a succession of selves and just rest in how we are, in this moment. We can drop the story, the continual commentary on how we are doing, the wondering how we measure up in terms of this myth we – or others – have crafted for us. It is good to move on.

This can save us from the tendency we have to compare.  We compare ourselves with versions of ourselves at other times – how we “should” be now –  or compare by noticing the loss of what we no longer have, such as youth, activities, friends, relationships. We also instinctively compare our stories to others or the dominant stories in society, which tell us what “success” or “happiness” should be. This can lead us to overlook the fact that happiness in life comes not from holding onto the past but by living in the present with appreciation. If we see this we resist the tendency to make things permanent – this always has to be so – and free ourselves to delight in life as it presents itself each day.

Most of our troubles are due to our passionate desire for and attachment to things that we misapprehend as enduring entities.

Dalai Lama

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