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.......

 

The Power is in the Pause!

 

This is what mindfulness is all about. This is why it is so important, in so many ways, to literally and metaphorically search inside yourself to discover freedom and peace. Thich Nhat Hahn a well-known meditation master says, “the way out is in.” What is here to be discovered, or uncovered, is the full spectrum of who you already are as a person.  And because mindfulness is not about getting someplace else—some other worldly, existential, blissful state of transcendence (although that sounds incredible and awesome perhaps even like divine restoration right?) If you meditate and get there, let me know and take me with you.

Rather, mindfulness is about being fully where you already are and realizing the power of your full presence and awareness right now, in this moment---it’s really about finding or uncovering, rather than searching. So if you are searching for happiness out there somewhere….take note….because you already have it. It is about discovering, and un-covering that full dimensionality of your being that is already yours and then developing and refining it through systematic cultivation and practice.

The Power Is In The Pause!

The Cost of Multi-tasking Vs. Mindfulness. Is Multi-tasking Over-Rated and Not Worth It?

Not only is our constant craving to be stimulated a problem, but also how we align ourselves with this cultural rat race.  We as mothers in particular wear a proud badge of how awesome we are at multi-tasking. Checking the mail while breast-feeding, while making a call to clear up a mysterious charge on our Amex, while cooking dinner on the stove. Not a problem. We can get stuff done--right? I recall even putting down on my resume once, a long time ago, “excellent at multi-tasking.” I listed it as an acquired skill, one that took practice and proudly touted that I was better at it than most people so you should hire me!

However, clinical research is now emerging in abundance that is proving otherwise. We are actually terrible multi-taskers. One study recently published from the University of California- Irvine revealed that not only do people tend to switch activities alarmingly every 3 minutes during the course of a day, but it takes them significantly longer to get back on task, and all of that ricocheting leads to higher levels of stress, frustration, mental effort, feeling of time pressure and mental workload. To read more about that study click here.

One of the first things you will discover from doing a meditation practice is how much time you will actually gain. You will notice that your mind will feel more alert and energized and in your newly found wakefulness your body and mind will become naturally more organized, scaling down the amount of time you oscillate between activities. This increase in efficiency and productivity has been measured repeatedly in studies. Not only are you task oriented, you feel an increase in your time and a decrease in your sleepiness, because you are no longer exerting so much of our energy by trying to multi-task.  We waste so much time thinking and ruminating in the past, or are preoccupied about our future which leads to depression, anxiety or worry. That sentence alone can illuminate how an unfocused mind can exhaust us, deplete us, and lead to severe mental and physical conditions. 

Most of the time we are not busy, we are just preoccupied. We have too much preoccupation in the mind. Thinking about the past or the future, not allowing ourselves to be in the actuality of our present life, our present mind, our present body. What if we took a video of our day, if we hired a video camera man and asked them to walk around with us and filmed us during our day? What would that look like? Perhaps we would discover how many unnecessary things we are actually doing in our day. We have time to gossip, we have time for Facebook, we have time to take care of everything and everyone else, but not take care of ourselves. No wonder we are so freakin’ tired. I used to think I had no time to meditate in my hectic schedule…where can I fit it in? I used to be a martyr and can identify with a busy day….like it almost defined me and if I wasn’t busy, busy, busy then I would be unaccomplished, or the great mom guilt would arrive and invite itself in. The guilt imprisoned me and strengthened that voice inside my head. You know that voice. The one that tells us that even if we do have a second to sit down and breathe and be with ourselves, we feel we need to be doing something...anything. Look busy, act busy, create busy, or........or what? We become less than? We dissolve into nothingness?  We become invisible, disappear inside ourselves, and are unimportant? Where does this come from? This judgment of guilt, of self-sacrifice to the degree of our own depletion, lack of nourishment and the cause of our very own suffering. 

A mindfulness meditation practice made me suddenly see the quality of my life in a very different way. It shined a light on my suffering and made me realize that I single-handedly was the one creating it...at least in this judgment of guilt when not doing something and just sitting, or being in a moment, still, quiet, peaceful and content.  My life became very different when I dropped this judgment. I love my still, quiet place. I visit it often. It is my home and can be touched at any moment. My mommy mantra is "Deep within me, there is a stillness, that cannot be disturbed." (adapted from the book, Mommy Mantras.)

If we make time to meditate, it will make a huge difference, you will see. If our mind became more organized, these unnecessary words or actions will disappear, then we will have more than enough time.

 

What is Mindfulness? And What is it Not.

Although mindfulness has its earliest roots in the 2600 year-old lineage of Buddhism, it is not a religion. It’s not even Buddhism-lite and I am not delivering Buddhism through the back door. In fact, mindfulness in our Western society began at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, which makes it very American. In 1979, a man named Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, secularized mindfulness and brought it to the U.S. He developed an 8-week program called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction or better known as MBSR. He first developed MBSR to help adult patients with chronic pain and illness, but over the last 35 years, it has become a standard clinical intervention and community offering. It is currently offered in a variety of settings worldwide. The scientific evidence is so strong now that mindfulness is being employed in places like Google, Procter & Gamble, Bank of America, the U.S. Marines and the National Health Service. And the practice of mindfulness is being researched and or taught in most major universities in the world; Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge; just to name a few. Many of them including Oxford are now offering Master’s degrees in mindfulness. Everyone seems to be talking about mindfulness! It is almost impossible to flip a page of a magazine or swipe an iPad without coming across yet another article telling us why we should be more mindful and less mindless.  Doctors, academics, neuroscientists, journalists, coaches, famous athletes and politicians alike all seem to be embracing the practice, proclaiming its benefits, and pushing forward what might be described as the mindful revolution. I mean heck even Katy Perry has an established mindfulness practice.

 

Now whilst it is wonderful that mindfulness is entering the vernacular, I have noticed that not everyone who is excited by mindfulness has a clear idea of what it actually is or what it requires.  

 

It is no longer looked at as fringe hippie nonsense. We do not need to move to Tibet and abandon our jobs and families and join a monastery or sit on a mountain top doing intensive retreats in zendos or meditation halls. Mindfulness is also not therapy, it is not yoga (although you can do yoga mindfully), it is not visualization, it isn't a practice where all of your thoughts dissipate into thin air leaving you with a clear, blank, tabula rasa mind. Another very common misconception is that it is meant for relaxation purposes. To clear this up, mindfulness is not relaxation and it won't put you in a state of calm, blissful indifference adopting a Pollyanna attitude toward your life. It is an awakened state heightening all of your awareness inside of you as well as outside of you. It is a way of discovering what your mind is doing and closing in on it with a flashlight of attention, investigating your thoughts, feelings, emotions, cognitions and sensations. This type of attentional training will increase your resiliency so that you can lean into your life, giving you the ability to respond with insight, clarity, compassion and kindness to whatever arises. 

Mindfulness is now considered as a mainstream health movement founded on cutting edge science and well-established research. This is not a new age trendy thing. Look how far yoga has come in our society and how we continue to hear about new studies on its beneficial qualities to enhance our lives and well-being. Lodro Rizler, a well-known meditator and author, equates mindfulness now is how the progression of running began in the 1950's.  If someone said, “I’m going for a run. Someone would ask who was chasing them." 

 

While there are many definitions of mindfulness, almost as many definitions of mindfulness as people who are talking and writing about it.  You don’t need to be aware of them all, but the most widely recognized is Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition from his bestselling book, Full Catastrophe Living, and also in Wherever You Go, There you Are.  He says mindfulness is, “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” Or simply,

 “Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” Jon Kabat-Zinn

 

For today, just try focusing on that one basic tenet of approaching your day non-judgmentally and see how you do. Encourage an attitude of not categorizing thoughts into "like" or "dislike" or "approach" and "avoid." Just experiment with letting all judgments go, not only judgments of others, but also including all of the self-damaging judgments of self. And at the end of the day, examine your experiment, keeping in mind, that however you did, it was not "good" or "bad."