A friend of mine recently told me that she’d been to a meditation course in which the teacher had told them to let everything in their minds go.
That’s a pretty standard principle of mindfulness right? Focus on the here and now and in doing so cut out everything from the past and everything on the future.
Except – and far be it from me to criticise age old philosophy and a hugely popular underpinning of what we’re told is the road to happiness – I think that there are definite limits to that.
Don’t get me wrong here, I absolutely see the need tune yourself into the here and now and to be mindfully focused on the present in your day to day. After all, dwelling on the past is a sure fire way to stop us from moving forwards, and stressing too much about the future is almost certain to keep us paralysed enough to avoid any actual progress.
But can we – or should we – let go of our past experiences or our future hopes completely?
Working to cast the feelings and memories around those things out of our minds completely robs us of two vital things – the experiences that have made us who we are now, and the fuel for creating the life it is that we want.
And on top of that, it’s also a bloody simplistic and slightly ridiculous approach to healing.
My friend actually pulled the teacher up on that very point – asking what she suggested for someone who, for example, was badly burned in their childhood and was now terrified of fire.
The teacher simply smiled at her and told her that with enough control over their mind, that person would be able to cast out any negative memories of fire and instead smile about that experience.
Because yes, I’m all about recognising the blessings in our lessons, and about being able to overcome our fears, but we don’t do that by casting the memories out completely. That’s impractical and flipping dangerous.
So what do we do with our past?
Through counselling and EFT, I’ve worked with a lot of people who’ve undergone seriously painful, even traumatic, experiences. And I’ve always found that trying to “forget” those memories or pretend they mean nothing to us only ever leaves us feeling worse in the long run when they pop up unexpectedly.
Because although we’re uber powerful and very capable of taking charge of our minds, if we don’t actually deal with the stuff that hides in its shadows… well as any child who’s scared of monsters under the bed will tell you, that’s not a particularly sturdy foundation for success.
Healing ourselves in the here and now isn’t about letting our past go, it’s about making peace with it for ourselves – confronting those experiences head on and working through the shitty horrible things that come up when we do.
Sometimes that means forgiveness – but not always; and sometimes it means letting go of things we wish had happened differently or of apologies we never got – but not always; sometimes it does mean that the memories which had previously been all consuming at the front and centre of our minds fade into obscurity – but again, not always. Always it means delving into the depths, sitting with what we find there and then learning to accept the past as a part of our lives while also knowing that it doesn’t define us.
In EFT there’s a technique called “tearless trauma” in which we go – gently and slowly – into the awful event that is keeping them stuck. The goal of that technique isn’t about reach a point where we can pretend that experience didn’t happen, or even forget about it, it’s about being able to de-sensitise ourselves from the painful feelings around it so that we can work through the experience safely and move forward more freely.
Even when it comes to the good things that are keeping us stuck it’s about recognising that we can still appreciate whatever the past brought to us but knowing that we’re also strong enough to walk away and trust that better things wait ahead for us too.
The work of healing ourselves from the trials of our past is a damn sight more difficult than simply casting it out of our minds, but that gives us much more control and means that it’s for the long haul.
And the future?
Then there’s the idea of letting go of how we see our future.
Again, I can see what the teacher was trying to do with this one… there’s nothing worse than getting so wrapped up in the pre-determined outcomes we’d like to bring about that we miss out on something even better along the way.
Hell, it’s a lesson I’ve been re-learning recently when I was reminded all too powerfully that creating my future isn’t about focusing on the things or experiences I want, but on the feelings I want to feel.
But if we let go of everything but the here and now then those feelings undoubtedly get lost along the way. And without them where’s the inspiration to move forward and create the lives we want for ourselves?
In all my experience of coaching – and of building towards my own future and supporting the people I love to do the same – I’ve time and time again found that remembering how we want to feel does more to keep us on the path towards not only achieving our goals but also keeping our minds focused on those wonderful feelings along the way rather than on the haves and have nots.
The secret is in finding a way to do that which helps you move freely towards your goals and dreams, rather than feeling them hanging over you like some sort of monster you must appease every moment or suffer the consequences.
None of this is me suggesting you never let any of this stuff go – after all carrying the weights of your past experiences and your future expectations on your shoulders can be bloody heavy!
It’s absolutely OK to put those things in to a small box in the here and now from time to time. Hell, I’d even recommend it because one point where my friend’s teacher got it right is that we do need to live in the moment and enjoy our experiences for what they are whenever we can; and that is definitely a lesson so many of us could do with working on.
But we need to recognise that our experiences will always be coloured by our past and by our future; and that having that happen doesn’t make us weak or incapable of feeling happiness or fulfillment. It makes us human.
Knowing that also means recognising that having those experiences and desires in our consciousness doesn’t have to control us… or even shape our actions all of the time. If we’re prepared to face them head on and do the work that’s needed to make peace with our past and to create the future we long for in our mind’s eye, well that’s when the magic can happen.
And by magic I'm not talking about the sparkles and sunbeams that mean everything will be happy and stress-free in every moment for the rest of your life, but about the stepping forward from our past in the certainty that we are free to embrace our present and powerful enough to shape our future along the way.