The following simple but powerful story brought home to me how destructive hanging on to the past can be. It also made me realize that we alone have the power to do something about it.
“Two monks were on a pilgrimage. One day, they came to a deep river. At the edge of the river, a young woman sat weeping because she was afraid to cross the river without help. She begged the two monks to help her. The younger monk turned his back. The members of their order were forbidden to touch a woman.
But the older monk picked up the woman without a word and carried her across the river. He put her down on the far side and continued his journey. The younger monk came after him, scolding him and berating him for breaking his vows. He went on this way for a long time.
Finally, at the end of the day the older monk turned to the younger one. “I only carried her across the river. You have been carrying her all day.”
Just as with the younger monk, we continue to carry the burden of our past with us all day long, often at tremendous cost. However, letting go is difficult and we all have a long list of things we find challenging to leave in the past where it belongs. The list will range from habits, beliefs, ideas, assumptions, through to destructive relationships, guilt, resentment and everything else in between.
Just as with physical clutter, mental and emotional clutter elbows out any possibility of new experiences. If unchecked, our obsession with the past will become our prison. The sad thing is that the present will pass us by and we may lose what is really important in our lives.
Not only does the inability to let go affect our own lives, but it also affects the lives of those around us, particularly the people closest to us. Our burden becomes their burden and we inadvertently damage or destroy our relationships with others by refusing to let go of the past.
In my experience working as a coach over the years, some of my clients have struggled with pending retirement. They found it difficult to make the transition due to their inability to let go of the professional lives they have lived and everything that accompanied it. For so many years they have confused their identities with their job title.
Although we recognize intellectually that letting go is the first step in embracing a new life, accepting it emotionally and living it are two very different things. Tactics such as avoidance and procrastination will only make it worse.
Reflecting on our experiences and resistance helps us to gain awareness and insight into what we need to do in order to break the cycle. It is worth recognizing that we are not our past experiences and circumstances, nor our thoughts. We have the power to walk away from those experiences intact. They do not define who we are.
The things we hang on to often provide us with a reward or payback, even if it is negative in nature. Reflection can go a long way in understanding what the benefits might be and how we can find what we need in other more positive ways.
In order to create and embrace a new future with new experiences, we have to first let go of the old to make room for the new to enter. The first step is to accept the past for what it is. We cannot go back and rewrite history, but we have the choice to move on, no matter how difficult it may seem.
It is easy to get caught up in a downward spiral and convince ourselves that there is no way out. The walls of our prison seem impossible to scale. Yet, there is always a hidden exit, just persevere and the support of a friend or coach may provide the key to unlock the escape route.
Psychology and counseling advocate the need to examine our past in order to embrace the future and that is true. However, there comes a point when continued pontification of the past becomes quicksand from which it is difficult to extricate ourselves.
It requires effort on our part and a willingness to take action as well as thinking. Effort is necessary due to our human reluctance to change. We are creatures of habit even if the habit inflicts pain. Be prepared to come up with compelling and distorted reasons for clinging to the status quo, driven by our fear of the unknown.
At some point we also have to acknowledge and recognize the contribution we have made to past hurts or failures. Taking our share of responsibility for past events gives us the power to choose the present and create a new future. Being the victim keeps us firmly stuck in the past.