Many of us have difficulty letting go of the past and moving on with our lives. For some of us, it can feel downright impossible, and it can have serious consequences to our physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
Attachment to the past is such an ingrained characteristic of the human condition that a great deal of scientific, psychological and spiritual studies are devoted to the subject.
In this article, we’re going to examine the nature of attachment, how it manifests itself to draw us to the past, obstacles this can create for our personal development and how we can use mindfulness meditation and other tools to let go of our past, so we can be free of it.
We will see how living in the present moment will enable us to find true happiness and lasting inner peace.
The Five Hindrances
Those of you who are familiar with Buddhism have probably heard of the Five Hindrances. These are basically 5 negative states of mind that are obstacles in our mindfulness meditation practice, and prevent us from achieving freedom from our suffering. You can find similar constructs in Christianity, Judaism and every contemplative tradition (e.g., The Ten Commandments). Don’t worry, there is no need to embrace any spiritual tradition here. We are using this construct simply as a helpful tool to explore negative blockers that can keep us anchored in the past.
The Five Hindrances are sensual desire, aversion, restlessness, sloth/torpor, and doubt. Left unchecked, these hindrances will manifest themselves into various behaviors that can often keep us dwelling in the past and living with regret.
They can be the sources of much of our unhappiness.
Most of us are brought up to believe that we can achieve happiness by stimulating our senses. When we positively stimulate our senses, we trigger positive emotions. For example, when we have a delicious meal at a nice restaurant, we stimulate our sense of sight, taste, and smell. If they are pleasing, we feel satisfied and content.
The problem with depending on sensual desire for our happiness is that it is short-lived. When the pleasant emotions wear off, we need to indulge in that behavior again in order to experience the same gratifying emotions. If we don’t know healthier ways of dealing with our emotions, sensual desire can become an obsession. This is the nature of alcoholism and drug addiction, or any other addiction, for that matter.
So, how does sensual desire keep us living in the past? Many of us have pleasant memories of our past. When we remember them, we trigger positive emotions such as love, warmth and security. There is nothing inherently wrong with having wonderful memories of our past.
The problem arises when we begin to depend on them for our happiness, at the expense of our happiness in the present. There reaches a point when these memories become obstacles to our freedom. In other words, they keep us anchored to our past. A good example is a past relationship (i.e., has a prior romantic relationship ever been a problem with a present relationship?).
Aversion and Ill Will
Aversion is simply the opposite of sensual desire. Instead of longing for the past, we try to run from it because of painful memories that stir up unwholesome emotions such as anger, resentment, guilt, and regret.
These memories keep us stuck in the past because we don’t feel these experiences have been resolved. For example, someone may have abused us when we were children, and we’re waiting for that person to rectify the situation, which is usually unlikely. The person who harmed us may be unwilling, unable, or no longer alive.
The truth is we will never be free until we repair the damage ourselves. It may not be just, but it is necessary if we want to be happy and free. In the next article, we’ll see how mindfulness meditation will help us cultivate the compassion and forgiveness we need to let go of past injustices.
On the other hand, some of us may have harmed others or ourselves. If we have harmed someone else, then we feel guilt. If we have harmed ourselves, then we feel regret. As with harm from others, it may not be entirely feasible to undo the damage. In this case, however, we should make an effort to make amends, and right the wrongs we have made. This will not only help us forgive ourselves, but it will also help heal the wounds of our victims.
Restlessness and Agitation
Restlessness and agitation are caused by the over-stimulation of our minds. Very often, we’re surrounded by a great deal of activity, noise, and visual stimuli. All these trigger thoughts, which eventually gain so much momentum that it becomes difficult to quiet our mind. Today, our mobile phones create never-ending possibilities for constant distraction. The Network for Addictive Disorders even calls cell phone addiction the number one addiction facing humanity. Think about that. It’s not heroin or opioids. It’s a smartphone.
But I digress. Restlessness keeps us in the past by continually triggering old memories, whether they’re pleasant or unpleasant. Our mind develops habit energy because the thoughts are able to travel only along the same neural pathways. In order to break this cycle, we need to allow the mind to settle down, and learn to live in the present moment. This will enable us to develop new neural pathways unrelated to the past.
Sloth and Torpor
Sloth and torpor are dullness of the mind. They are the opposite extreme of restlessness and agitation. Some of us don’t want to devote the time and effort it takes to process new information. We would rather shut down our senses and thinking. Some people even use alcohol, drugs or technology (social comparison, doom scrolling, etc.) to help them dull their minds.
The way it keeps us in the past is similar to restlessness. It prevents us from developing neural pathways related to the present. So, we end up stuck in the past. This is one of the major reasons why alcoholics and drug addicts are haunted by their past. Another reason is that their addiction causes them to do shameful things in order to feed their habits, which leads to more feelings of guilt, shame, and remorse.
Doubt is the fifth hindrance that can keep us clinging to the past. Most of us are uncertain about the future. That is normal. With mindfulness, however, we can gain some idea of how certain events are likely to unfold, but there still remains an element of uncertainty.
There are many factors in any given situation that we cannot account for. However, the mindful person knows how to increase the chances of a positive outcome, and is able to accept the remaining uncertainty—so he or she tends to be more optimistic.
Those who are less mindful have more difficulty accepting uncertainty, because it makes them feel powerless to influence their happiness. To them, memories of the past, whether happy or unhappy, provide them with a modest degree of certainty, and therefore, comfort.
Furthermore, those who are stuck in the past often believe that if they can recreate the same conditions of happier times, then they will be happy once again. They think that if only a lost love would take them back, or if their family would reunite, then they will be happy. So they spend a great deal of time and energy trying to make the past a reality once again. At the core of this line of thinking is doubt about their future—or more importantly, their present.
A Healthy Connection to the Past
Old memories can easily lure us back in time if we are not mindful. As we’ve seen, the Five Hindrances manifest themselves in various ways to distract us from the present moment. This is why they’re called hindrances.
There is nothing wrong with remembering the past. It can teach us some valuable lessons about ourselves and human nature. On the other hand, if we have strong attachments to the past, they can have serious physical, mental, and emotional consequences. They will clearly hinder our present-day relationships.
The good news is that we can overcome the Five Hindrances, so we can let go of the past, and learn how to find joy and fulfillment in the present. We can also learn how to enjoy happy memories without clinging to them.
Imagine the possibilities. You’ll be able to take charge of your life without your past holding you back. Your relationships will certainly improve. And when you finally let go of your past, you’ll learn the true meaning of the word freedom.
Letting go of the past can be quite a challenge for many of us. Pleasant memories lure us back to happier times in our lives, and unpleasant memories can be filled with unresolved issues. There is nothing inherently wrong with remembering the past. Rather it’s our inability to let go of our attachment to it that keeps us from being happy in the present.
This doesn’t mean that we should forget the past. It only means that we need to stop clinging to it, if we want to find freedom from our suffering. We’ll still be able to enjoy pleasant memories. In fact, we’ll enjoy them, even more, when we overcome the desire to recreate them. We’ll also learn to accept unpleasant memories, because we’ll be able to accept them without expecting amends from people who have harmed us.
Through the practice of mindfulness meditation, you will learn how to find happiness in the present moment, which is where reality is. The past is already gone, and the future will always remain in the future. We will always be in the present.
The Five Hindrances (sensual desire, aversion, restlessness, sloth/torpor, and doubt) keep us attached to the past, and unable to let go. Following is a detailed description of two mindfulness meditation practices that can help you to gain the strength and courage to let go of the past. This will enable you to find true peace and serenity in all areas of your life.
Many of us are led to believe that if we could only understand our past, then we could accept it. This is partly true—actually, a small part. It takes more. In order to accept our past, it takes courage, inner strength, and wisdom, and attaining these qualities takes effort and determination. The good news is that the practice of mindfulness meditation will enable you to make quick and steady progress. It is the shortest path to inner peace that I have found.
At the core of the mindfulness meditation practice is the development of our investigative skills—concentration and mindfulness. These will help us to see our past with deep insight and wisdom. We will also see how the Five Hindrances manifest themselves, and gain the strength to overcome them. The additional benefit is that the practice will give us the strength we need to overcome any of life’s challenges.
To develop these investigative skills, we must structure our meditation around them. Here are some basic guidelines for a typical meditation session:
Sitting Position – Sit in a comfortable chair without armrests; back straight, and feet flat on the floor. Keep your hands either cupped one inside the other just below the navel, or simply rest them on your thighs. The main purpose of our sitting position is to be comfortable and alert. Don’t lie down, as you’ll probably fall asleep.
Concentration – Use the counting technique to help you develop your concentration. During your meditation, count your breaths 1 through 5 silently in your mind. When you get to 5, simply start over again. Keep your attention focused on the air passing through the tip of your nose. When a distraction arises, simply ignore it and immediately bring your attention back to your breath. This will help keep your mind from wandering so easily.
Mindfulness – After a few minutes of concentration meditation, switch to mindfulness meditation. Continue observing your breath. However, this time instead of counting each one, simply observe the entire breathing process mindfully. This means that you are relaxed, and not forcing yourself to do anything. When distracting thoughts arise, gently bring your attention back to the breath.
In order to get the most from your meditation practice, we suggest meditating regularly—preferably daily. How long you meditate depends on your available time. But remember, how fast you progress in your spiritual development will always depend on the time and effort you dedicate to your meditation practice.
Another important component of the mindfulness meditation practice is writing meditation. This is a relatively new practice we’ve developed at the Mindfulness Meditation Institute, and is gaining worldwide acceptance among psychologists and practitioners. Author and clinical psychologist, Elisha Goldstein Ph.D., wrote about it in his article, Wiring the Brain for Better Relationships.
What the writing meditation does is effortlessly reprogram our brain to be more understanding, loving, compassionate, and forgiving. These qualities are crucial for healing the wounds from our past, and providing us with the interpersonal skills we need to form healthy relationships in the present.
Writing meditation is extremely easy, and takes only 5-10 minutes a day, but the benefits are tremendous. Within just a matter of days, you’ll find yourself being more loving, compassionate, and outgoing without any conscious effort.
Both the sitting and writing meditation will give you the strength, courage, and wisdom you need to find freedom from your past, and enable you to:
Find true happiness in your present-day relationships.
Gain the freedom to move on with your life.
Find inner peace and serenity, even in difficult situations.
The best part about the practice is that you’ll start to whittle away at each of the 5 Hindrances that I mentioned earlier. You can see and benefit from some immediate results, and continue making steady progress.
About the Author: This article was written by Charles Frances and edited and reprinted with the permission of our friends at The Mindfulness Meditation Institute. To learn more about their work, please visit www.mindfulnessmeditationinstitute.org. Find the original article here.