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Where is the Past?

The past is never where you think you left it. —Katherine Anne Porter

Once a moment has passed, it is passed; it no longer exists. What can exist is a memory, of course. Our minds are storehouses for our pasts. If we really look closely at our thoughts, we see that they consist only of the past and the future—and all of our thoughts about the future are in terms of the past: what we liked and hope to repeat, what we didn’t like and hope to see play out differently, what we didn’t understand and hope to understand better, and on and on. It is literally impossible to have a thought about the present moment. Even a thought such as, “Wow! Those mountains are breathtaking!” is a memory of the past. In the very moment in which we first see the breathtaking mountains, there is no thought; there is just perception and awe, with no mental activity at all. It’s only after that initial moment that our minds begin to narrate the action, and thoughts about the breathtaking mountains arise. By then, the experience we are narrating has already passed, even if we are still seeing the mountains. Try it. See if you can have a thought about the present. If you’re successful, PLEASE let me know.

So where is the past? It’s in the present in the form of memories, imprints, scripts, habits, perceptions all shaped by our experiences in the past and stored in our minds. We carry our pasts with us like luggage that would exceed the weight limit of even the most generous airline for the flyer with the most favored status. Where our past is joyful and uplifting, and we are able to recreate it in the present, we don’t see that as a problem. But where our past is darker, or where we’re unable to recreate the joys of our past, we feel the weight of that luggage poignantly. We live most of our lives in the past.

But this is not inevitable. With practice, we can train ourselves to live more in the present and to leave the past in the past. Everything we know from or about the past that we need to know in the present remains accessible to us, but without the overlay of all the stories that weigh us down and cause us to recreate the past in the present, even when that’s not necessary. The present is profoundly peaceful and contented, even when the world around us is in chaos or there are disturbing things happening in our lives. It’s hard to imagine how that could be, but even a little practice reveals that it’s true.

So here’s to letting the past be truly past and opening to a present that’s truly present.

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