Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

How To Break Free Of The Past

The past can't be changed—or can it?

Photo: Leonidas Tsementzis
http://www.flickr.com/photos/goldstein/370262106/
As I wrote in an earlier post, The True Cause Of Cruelty, for me seventh grade was a disaster. I was persecuted by anti-Semites and so traumatized that my parents endured owning two houses at once for six months in order to get me into a new school. I left seventh grade mistrustful, fearful, and socially isolated, feeling as if I'd hidden my true self for so long in order to minimize the risk of persecution that I'd lost track of it entirely.

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In subsequent years, I'd occasionally look back and wonder how the experience had scarred me, figuring vaguely that what didn't kill me made me stronger, but never really delving too deeply into the fear that still remained in the pit of my stomach whenever I'd be thrust into new situations.

Then in my first year of medical school I began practicing Buddhism. I was told, among other things, that through practicing it one could change one's past, present, and future. Present and future I could understand—but past? I had no real understanding how I could change something that had already occurred.

And then one day while chanting about my seventh grade experience, curious to see if the practice would provide me any insight into what had happened, I had an epiphany: the true reason I'd been made a victim as I had was because I'd let it happen. Whenever I'd perceived myself to be in danger of being attacked my strategy had been to ingratiate myself with my would-be attacker in any way I could. I'd allow myself to be teased, disdained, embarrassed, or humiliated as long as I believed it would prevent me from being hurt. Not once did I ever fight back.

In a flash, I saw this pattern stretch backward from that moment to touch my failed relationship with my first girlfriend, then arc through my seventh grade experience, and finally extend into the farthest recesses of my earliest childhood. Making myself into a victim had been a strategy I'd used throughout my life, I realized, for many reasons: to get attention; to convince others to protect me when I felt threatened; to appear invisible to malevolent peers. And though the strategy often worked, the problem was actually just that—the strategy often worked. I had little incentive to challenge my fears and learn to stand up for myself.

I didn't actually recognize it until sometime later, but at the moment I awoke to how often I played the victim in my relationships, I ceased being willing to do it. And as my change in attitude gradually began to seep into my interactions with others, the relationships I'd created that required me to remain a victim faded away, and relationships with other people who were attracted to my new-found assertiveness began to appear.

WHERE DOES THE PAST EXIST?

Though this was a wonderful breakthrough for which I was profoundly grateful, an even bigger realization struck soon after: the way I felt about my seventh grade experience had changed as well. It was no longer a sensitive wound I took pains to avoid rubbing but was now a well-healed scar I could hardly even see. The experience seemed now like nothing other than an example of my tendency to play the victim (not that this tendency in any way excused my classmates' behavior) rather than a major trauma from which I still struggled to recover.

I realized, in short, that I had indeed changed the past, in the only way that mattered—not by changing what had actually happened but by changing the significance of what had happened and therefore how what had happened continued to affect me.

The events of the past exist nowhere else but in our memories, which give rise to the feelings and thoughts we have about them. By themselves, of course, events are neutral. We place judgments on them based on how they affected us, rendering good judgments about those things which benefited us and bad judgments about those things which harmed us. It's the feelings that result from those judgments that remain with us, not the events themselves. And though we can't change our memories of events, we can change whether or not they harmed or benefited us.

HOW THE PAST CAN BE CHANGED

We can do this by finding a way to create value out of events we judged as harmful. If we can genuinely utilize past events as springboards for growth, reinterpreting them into positive events that may have been traumatic but which were actually required for our development, we can free ourselves from the pain associated with our memories of them.

I transformed my seventh grade experience when I reflected on it and came to the sudden insight that it was really a manifestation of my tendency to allow myself to be victimized—and, most significantly, changed it. Had my seventh grade experience never occurred, I might still be playing the victim today. However, as a result of being able to use the experience to eject a significant piece of negativity from my life, I now feel genuinely grateful for having suffered through that persecution.

How then can we break free of the past? By using it as fuel for growth in the present. If an event from our past remains painful to think about, we should understand that pain as an indication we have unfinished business—not with whoever or whatever else was involved in the event itself, but with ourselves. Maybe someone hurt us. Maybe we hurt someone else. Maybe we made a choice out of weakness or fear or anger that we regret. We don't have to waste time in recriminations or in wishing we could go back in time to change what happened. We only need to find a way to turn that hurt or regret into a catalyst for growth moving forward from today. If you can truly find a way to think about the past like that, take a good look back at your own. Instead of painful traumas you'd rather not think about, you should see nothing but opportunity after opportunity after opportunity.

 

Dr. Lickerman's book, The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self, is available now. Please read the sample chapter and visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble to order your copy today.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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