A couple weeks ago, I made an announcement on Twitter:
I hereby unhitch this wagon overflowing with past mistakes, failures, and embarrassing moments. I’m leaving it all right here. [Dances into the sunset]
— Ann Bevans (@annbevans) March 21, 2018
For a while now, I’ve claimed to believe that we should “die to the past every moment,” as Eckhart Tolle puts it. You know the drill:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
And of all the things you can’t change, the past is numero uno.
Alas, no matter how many times I worked on letting go of the past, I never could. I didn’t want to believe it, but I was attached to my story – the story of all the bad luck that had befallen me and all the terrible people who had crossed my path.
About Your Story
Your story explains why your past happened to you. It’s how you create meaning out of pain. It tells you, “I got cancer because my body is fundamentally broken,” or “my business failed so that must mean I’m a failure.”
These things sound so stupid when we say them out loud (or type them in a blog post for everyone to read). So why should we be attached to crappy stories like that?
Your mind weaves these stories as a defense mechanism. See, figuring out why a thing happened is your mind’s favorite past-time. If it can determine why a thing happened, it can help you avoid it in the future. That’s why, whenever you suffer a slight or feel a twinge of embarrassment, your mind calls up every time that’s ever happened before.
Despite your mind’s best intentions, your story is a powerful rationalization that creates a kind of learned helplessness, which subtly suppresses your ability to make your life better.
Two Kinds of Past
The way I figure it, there are two kinds of stories about the past: stories about why something happened and stories about why something ended.
We are total rock stars at making up stories that explain why bad things happened to us. But guys, things happen. That’s what they do. You don’t have to judge events as good or bad and you don’t have to have a reason.
If you are attached to a story about something bad that happened to you in the past, remember that it’s in the past. You can’t change it. And you don’t have to give it a meaning that limits your life in the present moment.
We’re also great at making up stories about why things ended. Relationships, businesses, marriages, childhood (yours or someone else’s), that trip to Bali – things end because that’s what things do. Nothing in life is permanent because life is not permanent. The sooner you realize this the better.
This was the one I really struggled with. When my business partner and I broke up a few years ago, I thought it meant that my business failed and therefore I was a failure and I shouldn’t even try doing anything new because I would just fail again.
Or, maybe this: my marketing business ended because I learned everything I could learn from it and it was time for me to move on to the next stage of my life.
Or better yet: that shit’s in the past and it doesn’t mean anything. I can live my life in the present moment and forget that ever happened.
Because honestly, a better story can get you over the hump, but in the end, it’s still a story.
When I decided to unhitch the wagon for real, here’s a little trick I invented:
Whenever I feel myself falling down the rabbit hole of things that have already happened, I yell “PAST!” and put my attention on the present moment.
Yes, people think I’m a little crazy, but to be honest they already thought that.
Try it and see how it goes!
Reclaim Your Energy
If nothing else in this post got your attention, here’s one final shot across the bow:
If you’re attached to your story, you are wasting huge amounts of energy.
Ruminating, feeling guilty or humiliated or miserable, wishing things had gone differently – all of that takes energy. We don’t have time for that.
The good news: you can reclaim that energy for your life now. The present moment is available to you now, if you can just (finally) get your head out of the past.