Our brains are designed to store information as memories. Some from recent moments, some from the remote past. Our brains are also designed to analyze, judge and stew over things. If the mind isn’t actively engaged, it may turn to the memory files for something to chew on. Then, we may find ourselves replaying a situation again and again, pondering what we could or should have done differently. Sometimes it’s like a song on constant repeat. Why can’t we just let it go?
I love a good story, so I’ll share a Zen Buddhist tale I heard recently that illustrates this tendency. Two monks were walking home from a journey. They came to a river, and saw a lovely young woman standing by the edge. It was clear she was afraid to cross by herself. The younger monk crossed to the other side, ignoring her. Then the elder monk picked her up and carried her safely across. He placed her down and the two monks continued on their journey. As they walked, it became clear that the younger monk was upset. Finally, he could no longer contain himself. “Why did you carry that woman? You know it’s against our vows!” The elder monk looked at him and said “You’re still thinking about that woman? I left her back by the river. Why are you still carrying her?”
The younger monk was dragging along his irritation and upset about a situation that was already over and done with. He couldn’t let it go, and he walked for miles allowing the past to hold onto his emotions. The elder monk, however, was peaceful and content on his journey. The past didn’t enter his consciousness, and the young woman stayed by the river. So how do we learn to leave it behind?
The little every day upsets that come and go can get stuck on replay. The best way to leave them by the river is to act like the elder monk. Return to the present moment. Take a deep breath, feel the breeze on your skin. Hear the birds singing in the trees, and smell the freshly cut grass. There is no room for the past when we focus on the beauty of right now. The more we practice mindfulness, the easier it becomes to stay present. Our minds aren’t muddled by the little things, and we can more easily see the big ones that need to be addressed.
The past is there to teach us something. Why else would we need to store memories? I learn that a hot stove will cause a burn, and I know not to touch it again. When our minds stay fixed in the past, however, we are preventing ourselves from moving forward. I can’t change something that happened last week or last year. I can learn from it and change my behavior so I act more according to my values in the future, if that’s what I need to do. Then I need to release it. If it comes back again, I need to reassess if I’ve learned all I need to from it. This can be done with a meditation technique, such as iRest, or with journaling, or the support of a good counselor. Eventually we can work through the file of memories, separating them from the emotional baggage that drags us down. The we are free to continue our journey home.