The past, I find, can be extremely seductive. Someone somewhere in my extended family has a photo of my brother and I aged about 10 and 7 respectively sitting on a large Clydesdale horse. The photo reminds me, of course, of the hours Barry and I spent playing on that huge horse. The horse was too high to climb on, so we would lead him over to a strainer-post, and climb onto the large post. From there, we would try to mount the steed. Success came only after two or three attempts, because by the time we climbed up, the horse had plodded off, and would have to be rounded up again.
Being the elder, Barry would always ride up front and “steer’ the horse. This involved patting it on the side of the head, talking to it, and occasionally pulling the appropriate ear. The horse took it all patiently, just kept plodding on. I begged and begged to be allowed to sit up front. Eventually Barry had an idea. “I will steer the horse under the branch,” he said, “and I will grab the branch. Like he always does, the horse will keep plodding on and take you under me and I will drop on behind.”
My brother reached up and hung from the branch. I squashed down as the horse plodded on. But I couldn’t squash down small enough. In fact, the tree lifted Barry off the horse only a couple of inches. Barry was committed; the horse likewise was committed to keep walking. I tumbled off the back of the horse – quite a fall when you’re 7 years old and the horse is at least 17 hands tall! I looked up and Barry was still hanging from the tree. The horse was still ambling away. In the end, Barry too had to drop down, so we were both on the ground, and I had missed my chance to sit in the front! Despite my disappointment, it was so funny – especially as Barry got his come-uppance by being stranded 20 feet up in the air.
I’m glad we have that photo. It keeps the memory alive. I was lucky. I had a happy childhood – even as brother number four – and it’s pleasant to reminisce. But it’s also a distraction. Once I think of that photo, I start thinking of many associated happy times with Barry, with the horse, with the family. I’m in another world apart from the present.
At first glance, the past looks like a good place to escape when you are in great pain. And it can be. But the past is also a dangerous place. It can become, on one hand, an addictive escape that prevents us ever facing up to the real challenges of the present moment, until they escalate totally out of control.
On the other hand, the past has pleasant memories, but it is full of unexpected pot-holes. Just as we recall a pleasant event from our childhood, the memory sparks off another memory of being bullied, or being embarrassed, or of committing some act that even now catches us with an intensity of guilt.
While there are past experiences that do need attending to in order for healing to take place in the present, most of the incidents in our past are past, and should stay there. Bringing them back into the present just adds one more level of pain to those we already put up with. We can do without that.
Living in the present doesn’t mean forgetting the past; it means being mindful of the journeys we take there. Living in the present means we keep good hold of the coordinates of this present moment, so that when we visit the past we do it with awareness – both that nostalgia can be pleasant, but also that it is past, and has no direct connection with this present minute, this present day.
The same goes for the future. I can imagine wonderful things happening to me sometime soon. I can look forward to my daughter’s wedding. I can imagine the satisfaction I will have teaching a course next month. I can dream about being a famous author. But I must do so with awareness, mindful that the future, like the past, is full of dangers. We can worry about finances, especially when we are off work. We can project our disappointment if we cannot meet the travel plans we have made because of pain.
When we visit the land of future, the danger is that we will stir up unnecessary anxiety, just as when we visit the past, we trip over unnecessary feelings of guilt and shame.
Of course we must plan. But we plan with awareness that we are in the present. The future will never arrive. The present moment is the only moment which we can experience.
Jesus of Nazareth expressed it with realism, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
Indeed. The present may be full of trouble and pain, and we need to live it. But we do not need to make the present moment harder than it is by letting our imaginary journeys into past or future add to the sum of pain we experience now.