Chapter 4 – the past


Sorting out our past experiences is a task everyone must master. Some do this well, extracting valuable lessons and insights from what happened to them. Others speed through their memories as if trying to escape them and quickly leap into the future. Still, others passively allow current events to pull them into the future. These passive observers rarely closely examine what happens to them other than being angry or depressed about their worst experiences. 

A separate group travels through life guided mainly by what they see in their rear-view mirror. Old failures and losses remain to color their current mood and mindset in dark grays and browns. Relationships that fail are likely to be viewed as betrayals that permanently restrict their ability to trust. Lists of what we hoped to gain but never achieved grow and then congeal into well-defined disappointments. As these painful episodes accumulate, many expect their future to duplicate their past difficulties and discouragement.

This sad scenario describes individuals who live in the past. They anticipate a future that will duplicate their old hardships. This viewpoint tends to preserve unpleasant experiences and turn them into something worse than they were initially. Concentrating on the wounds of our lives will magnify their power to disappoint and grow into depression. Resentments are transformed into grievances, and regrets can evolve into victimhood. 

The signs that we tend to live in our past 

Blind spots are clever in diverting us from acknowledging our poor behavior and habits. They do this by quickly distracting us and nudging us to accuse others of causing our unpleasant experiences. Self-examination after traumatic experiences is often short-circuited by our habit of obsessing on our distress instead of wondering why we were so helpless in confronting our challenges. As more instances of suffering develop, we will identify more with our traumas than our successes. For many, our new motto will  become I hurt, therefore I am.

Other people are more interested in moving on than in hoarding disappointments. They expect to learn and grow from all experiences, especially the painful ones. They focus on adding to our knowledge and skills and modifying our outlook. They intend to learn how to manage our struggles more successfully. The goal is to live a fulfilling and successful life instead of one dominated by constant pain and retreat. 

Here are the general signs that we live in our past too much.

  • When we experience new disappointments or anxiety, we quickly match them with solid memories of our past failures, defeats, and losses. It is as if we want to add our old pain to the new ones to remind us of our continual our bad luck.
  • Our hopes and dreams of good times rarely occur because we are convinced they are unlikely to happen. 
  • Positive expectations are regarded as undesirable because they are just a setup for more disappointment.
  • We measure the value of fresh opportunities and people more by how they might put us at risk of danger and distress than any potential benefits.
  • We view cheerful and optimistic people as naïve and thoughtless.
  • When good ideas or plans are presented, we immediately consider how they might be flawed and not help us. 
  • We think of ourselves as persistent victims of bad luck and bad people.

What are the signs that living in our past affects our spiritual life

Chronic discouragement and pessimism will profoundly impact how we regard the abstract and spiritual aspects of life. Staying focused on our record of distress and disappointment will sabotage our efforts to attain good results.  

  • Many of our spiritual pursuits are motivated by our desire to escape the residue of horrible experiences by an immediate leap into endless peace and love. Exploring other aspects of our spiritual potential is uncommon. 
  • We mix our misery with the fear that our lack of success might be due to God’s punishment for our mistakes and sins. As we add our self-rejection to our regular distress, we move further from the contentment and peace we seek from the divine. 
  • Blaming the devil for unpleasant experiences becomes an all-purpose justification for our failure to live a successful and happy life. This shift to blaming external forces for our suffering adds to our estrangement from the life of spirit. 
  • The lure of our painful past keeps pulling us back to an earthbound state and mindset. This will severely limit our freedom to cultivate our spiritual potential for courage, confidence, and hope. 
  • As we become more obsessed with our painful past, the entire concept of spiritual possibilities becomes more remote and unlikely. Stories in scriptures about great miracles are viewed as fantasies.

How this blind spot can affect society

Large numbers of people focused on their painful past will harm society. The lack of a constructive orientation to life will slow down the evolution of society in these ways.

  • We fail to recognize or appreciate how much society and its institutions have evolved, reformed, and eliminated most of the old problems. This is especially significant in the discussions of racism.
  • We assume that many government, religion, or education reforms  are still needed when some have already been overdone. For example, they are dumbing down the curricula in K-12 education, decriminalizing shoplifting, and opening the border to noncitizens.
  • We are too ready to accept new reforms that are unnecessary or undermine our society’s core strengths and its noble values.
  • The resolution of old prejudice is delayed by those who seem to believe we are living in the early twentieth century or before.

What are the core problems of those who become stuck in the past? 

  • The primary reason we can become stuck in our past is our lack of interest or inability to resolve the many conflicts and failures in our life. We tend to gulp our experiences, like a python snake that swallows the whole animal they catch—hide or feathers intact. The fundamental assumption is that we can digest all the parts and sort them out later. Yes, this is a crude analogy, but it describes the utter lack of effort to understand what happened and how we managed  these events. 
  • Many only seek to examine why their adversaries are so mean and selfish. This results to fixing the blame for the problem but not the problem itself.
  • We mistakenly believe that revisiting and reliving our pain and suffering is a legitimate way to “understand” and heal our distressful experiences. Instead of learning something constructive from our challenges, we only agonize over them. Our real motive for reviewing painful memories is to:
  • feel sorry for ourself  
  • find someone or something to blame
  • search for what is wrong with our enemies or society      
  • reinforce the belief that we are helpless 
  • justify our continued hostility and selfishness.
  • Many mistakenly choose to manage their distress mainly by developing their defensive skills of stubbornness, intimidation, and shifting responsibility for problems to others. They install comfort and safety as their chief priority in life and become casual opportunists instead of having a well-defined sense of purpose with clear goals and a flexible plan to achieve them. 

A second core issue in living in the past is the misdirection of our imagination. Unless we discipline the use of our imagination, it will likely turn against us and begin to obsess over our record of fear, doubt, worry, and disappointment. The effort will magnify our distress and nudge us to expect more of the same. Just as some people are guided mainly by their reactions to outer events, our imagination can lead the way in projecting our negative expectations of our future. This action amounts to laying a curse on our whole future. It must be stopped!

What can we do to fix the problem of living in the past?  

Living in our past and emphasizing the worst parts of it can cripple our capacity for hope, confidence, and the ability to recognize opportunities. Establishing an outlook dominated by doubt, discouragement, and indifference creates a significant barrier to a successful and fulfilling life. We need to unchain ourselves from our strong associations with our painful past. Otherwise, our world will likely shrink to one shaped by our fears, anger, and helplessness. 

Unfortunately, our blind spots have bodyguards that will protect them from any effort to reform their habits. They will try to excuse our bad habits by claiming our problems are too severe to be overcome by positive thinking nonsense. If this belief fails, the bodyguards will claim that other methods will be too difficult or require too much time. These excuses will enable us to return to our misery and the belief that nothing can be done to change our enslavement to our painful past. We must beware that this devious and morbid thinking only protects our bad habits and returns us to the cheap comfort of the familiar misery we know instead of the liberation we need.  

Aside from rejecting these irrational assumptions, we must also work on unpacking the messages in current and old experiences. While these events caused us distress, they also informed us where we were deficient in self-control, patience, tolerance, and awareness of our noble purpose in living. 

Suppose we can recognize the lessons in our traumatic experiences (e.g., a need for more effective skills in managing our problems, self-confidence, and stamina). In we do, we can begin flushing out our distress and move on as more competent and assertive individuals.

Of course, some people have little interest in looking for the lessons in their experiences. Instead, they learn how to use their distress in two significant ways. First, to validate their well-worn grievances and justify their resentment toward their perceived enemies. Second, to manipulate others to be more generous and supportive of them. Unfortunately, this motivation also incentivizes us to cling to our pain. Healing the problems of our past requires working to comprehend them rather than weaponizing them to procure unique benefits.

These methods can help us become more mindful of the present

  • Try a new perspective on our experiences. View our past as a prologue for our future and a rehearsal for more extraordinary experiences. If we use the present to focus mainly on our past distress, we unwittingly will be rehearsing for a future that will be similar. However, if we use the present to wonder what we can do to build a better future, we can prepare ourselves to become more skillful and successful. 
  • Practice compartmentalization by temporarily setting aside our past without trying to change it. Learn to “park” these remembrances like we would park a car for a few hours while going to work or shopping. We might ignore them for a few hours or a whole afternoon. Tell our critical nature that there is no danger that we will forget these memories. If a flash of a memory of failure or anger appears during this time, we can tell ourselves we have “been there and done that,” so we don’t need another useless review or reliving of our painful past. Then, enjoy our day as if it is new, shiny, and enjoyable. Build up a few experiences that are free of old attitudes and expectations.
  • Later, we might use our imagination to reinvent ourselves briefly as a successful person who enjoys life and is enthusiastic about our days and the weeks ahead. Allow ourselves to take a mini vacation from our painful past. This will allow us to build up some constructive experiences free from the dark shadow of past events. Tell your friends we are not ignoring our history. We are simply taking some time off from worshiping it in our habitual gloom and regret. (Yes, our desperate clinging to our old traumas rises to call it a form of worship—in despair, not devotion.)  
  • Remember that we usually greet each new day with many new investments in ourselves. We take a quick bath or shower, pay attention to our grooming, and dress in clean clothes. We also can duplicate this process at the psychological level by “dressing” ourselves in new expectations that today can be better than yesterday. This should include banishing our inner grump from taking complete control of our lives.
  • Begin investigating our past experiences by trying to discover their deeper meaning instead of judging them as outrageous insults. The key questions that help this process include wondering why we were so vulnerable to being upset. Are we too sensitive, irritable, or intolerant? Do we understand that retreating into sulking is not helping?
  • Look for how we have developed helpful insights, skills, or attitude changes precisely because of some distressful experiences. Did we become more patient, humble, or less self-centered because of them? Did we become more sensitive to the needs of others? Were we embarrassed by how we responded in such a destructive manner? Just what was our constructive takeaway from these events? 
  • Have we learned that we must acquire the ability to live with the many imperfect people who inhabit our world? No, we do not have to accept criminals and genuinely nasty people as friends, but we must overcome our tendency to allow annoying people and events to ruin our day and destroy our peace of mind.
  • Have we been unrealistic about expecting others to treat us like a prince or princess? Is our sense of entitlement continually setting us up to be disappointed? Just who needs to change?   
  • Try treating our painful past like a nightmare we could manage. The traditional method is to imagine a new outcome in the scenario in which our difficulties were resolved in a manner favorable to us, ending with our victory and sense of accomplishment. This is also a way to begin managing our painful past. While we cannot change the past, we can alter our feelings and interpretations about it.
  • Work on becoming more flexible and resilient. Begin this by being mindful of the many different and successful ways to cope with challenges and difficulties. It is absurd to assume the only way to manage an annoyance is to become outraged. Instead, appreciate that other solutions are available. The more choices we have, the more successful we will be. 


We are not expected to forget our traumas or escape their impact. However, we are expected to grow through them. We can do this by comprehending their significance and moving on with the knowledge and skills we have learned from them. 

This is a process that requires more than studying good ideas. We must search for why we were so badly hurt by our experiences and demand that we develop better skills to manage these struggles. Just as we cannot learn to swim without getting into the water, we will not learn to cope with problems unless we engage what challenges us. Acquiring more patience, tolerance, and persistence is not developed by fighting against what annoys us. It grows by managing our distressful experiences with skill, forbearance, and gentleness. 

As we begin to comprehend the value of our experiences, we can harvest their wisdom and add it to our base of knowledge, skills, and confidence. Let us keep looking for the lessons inherent in our experiences. They will eventually liberate us from our misery.

Points to ponder  

  1. Every day is a new day with good possibilities. Don’t strangle it with our pessimistic expectations and old resentments even before we engage in it.
  • Can we substitute tolerance for blame for a few of our grievances? Might the relief we feel be worth continuing with this attitude?
  • Impose a new rule for ourselves. Think of a successful experience for every unpleasant memory that spontaneously appears. This will help balance our tendency to concentrate on the negative.
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