How to Stop Holding on to the Past

One of my favorite Buddhist Jataka Tales or Parable, is The Story of the Two Monks:

A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her cross to the other side.

The two monks glanced at one another because they had taken vows not to touch a woman.

Then, without a word, the older monk picked up the woman, carried her across the river, placed her gently on the other side, and carried on his journey.

The younger monk couldn’t believe what had just happened. After rejoining his companion, he was speechless, and an hour passed without a word between them.

Two more hours passed, then three, finally the younger monk could contain himself any longer, and blurted out “As monks, we are not permitted to touch a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”

The older monk looked at him and replied, “Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river, why are you still carrying her?”


This simple Zen story has a beautiful message about living in the present moment. A pure example of how to live a mindful life. This story of the two monks is one of my favorites because of how it vividly captures the essence of what it means to hold on to the past much longer than necessary. How often do we carry around past hurts, resentments, ruminations of missed opportunities, or regretful failures....fragments and shards of pain that we are continuing to hurt ourselves with? How many of us are guilty of hanging onto relationships, material possessions, and archaic old ways of thinking that deplete us? How many of us believe in the false notion that we would not be able to live or be happy without whatever it is we are holding on to?

Could we perhaps put them down on the other side of the river, instead of romantically lamenting over our losses? Could we instead choose to let go of what doesn't serve us or anyone we care about anymore and concentrate on the present moment? Until we can find a level of peace and happiness in the present circumstances of our lives and accepting and embracing it just as it is, we will never understand contentment and happiness, because "now" is all we will ever have. We will never allow true joy to enter our lives, to replenish and nourish us, if we are attached with our past. This attachment significantly lowers our chances of ever making peace with the past and moving on. 

The older monk, having a mind free of attachments, saw the situation, responded to it, and continued to be present to the next step his life after placing the woman down on the other side of the river. The younger monk, whom we most identify with, was bound by ideas, held on to them for hours, harboring negative emotions of anger, regret and loaded judgment. In doing so he missed his journey. 

Mental attachments to ideas, experiences or attitudes thwart our ability to live mindfully and in the present moment. Attachments hinder the mind, interfering with appropriate responses to the immediate situation, of what is called for in the actuality of our life. We make excuses for our attachments when we say, "this is the way it always has been done," or "this is the way I was taught." We dig our heals in, rigid and prejudiced. We react by pushing away what we don't like, or are not familiar with, instead of being resilient, open minded and trying something different.

This is not easy, to just put all of our past away and drop it on the river bank. We are human and the feelings we hold on to are normal. Leaving the past behind is a challenge for many of us, perhaps in a strange way it is tied to our instinctual fear of death. The finality of an ending can be scary and painful. Not knowing what lies ahead causes uncomfortable feelings of doubt, uncertainty and a loss of control. We logically know that the cycle of life, death and transition is a natural process and that every entity that exists must pass through. But, we cannot seem to tolerate the identity crisis that emerges when it is within us. Even stars in the depths of space eventually die and disintegrate into celestial pieces of new life. Perhaps we have difficulty accepting these cycles because we have lost touch with our natural world? We have domesticated our ability to shift and transition in our lives like our wandering ancestors once did with ease. We encounter problems when we get stuck in grief, loss, and pain from the past when we allow it to permeate our present situation, invade our thoughts, emotions and cognitions by clouding it with a conceptual overlay, and carry its heaviness into every single present moment, even when we don't realize or recognize that we are doing this. We tend to make our past part of our identity and our story and we block joy and happiness from entering our present life. 

Our identity can come out of our stories, but we cannot attach to them as if they are entirely us in this present moment. If we continue to see ourselves as attached to all the past hurts, pains and regrets, we will undoubtedly enter self-damaging territory and live a joyless life.

I have experienced a significant and painful loss myself, on a visceral level, and I am profoundly aware of how difficult the process of moving on can be. It can seemingly be impossible to give up hope on what could have been. Grief, pain and suffering occur on no predictable timeline and it is a very organic process of when we transition into the next phase. But it isn't really on a timeline. We cannot stop living now and wait until we are "healed" from our past.

Everything doesn't happen for a reason....or maybe it does....but trying to make sense of the nonsensical will certainly keep you stuck in rumination or an eternal existential crisis. But, I do know that every loss, every moment you touch pain, every moment you experience suffering can teach you something and make you stronger, but only if you choose to look. This requires ultimate bravery and courage and is not for the weak-minded. The wisdom of living mindfully allows you to examine and lean into the pain and investigate and discover the lessons, the habitual patterns in your experiences and how you can use it to heal yourself and help others. Mindfulness teaches us to surf on the waves of discomfort. But we have to be willing to get in the vast, deep ocean in order to surf.

Mindfulness helps you find stability and vulnerability at the same time. There is a way to end our suffering through the practice of mindfulness meditation. Thich Nhat Hanh, a well-known meditator, says, "the way out, is in."

Stick with it and it will get easier with time. Trust the practice. It gets easier and lighter every time you practice mindfulness meditation. It trains us to leave our anger, grudges, judgements, resentments, pain, suffering and virtually all of our past on the river bed and allows us to freely continue on our journey. AAAhhhh! How refreshing and joyous would that be?!

Feel your feet on the ground today as you walk on your forward path liberated from your past. It is still there...don't worry....but you don't have to cling to it anymore! It doesn't define you anymore!

Personal Insight Question: Is there something from your past that you cannot let go of? What steps will you need to take to resolve it so that your past doesn't imprison you today?

Start with this breath.....then the next one......then the next one.......