You Are Not Your Past
I enjoy troubleshooting problems with my students. It could be code that’s not working, a physics solution that didn’t come out quite right, or a design challenge that needs a special mechanism to get the thing working. It’s an opportunity for me to model problem-solving techniques with my students, and it’s also really fun.
I was on a call yesterday for a school counseling class I’m taking, and as we discussed a case study, one of my fellow students said, “It’s so fun to psychoanalyze people!” And it clicked for me that the thrill that some of us feel in psychoanalyzing ourselves or others is very similar to the thrill for me in troubleshooting code, physics, or design problems.
The key difference is that people don’t actually need to be psychoanalyzed to be freed from our limitations. Our “problems” don’t need to be reviewed and analyzed, and we don’t have to find the bugs in our past programming to achieve present and future ease, satisfaction, and well-being.
Most of us take for granted that we’ve accepted a model that who we’ve become is a sum of our past experiences, the things we’ve done, the things done to us, the people who raised us, the kids we were friends with, the thoughts we’ve had, the support or lack of support we’ve received, the struggles and success and failures and love and hurt and sadness and joy that we’ve experienced along the way. The past, just like our DNA, is an immutable force determining who we've become.
We are beings who live through time, and our memories seem like perfectly valid explanations, descriptions, and stories about how we’ve become who we are. By sifting through and interpreting our pasts, we can determine who we are. This model is flawed, however, and all we need to do is look at our present experience to see how.
All that I have ever or will ever experience is in the present, the eternal now. In Get Grounded Before Taking Off, I wrote about what makes up this present experience of now, and here’s a summary:
My present experience is made up of sensations and thoughts (and their fascinating and moving combination called emotions). That’s it.
Impulses, hopes, desires, fears, and passions all arise in the present and compel us to act. But when we experience those is always right now. It’s not any other way.
So where does my past actually exist? It exists in the present in the form of memories. Most of our memories are stories, visual and verbal thoughts and interpretations about what happened. Some of our memories are sensations, muscle-memories and tensions stored in our physiology. This is true of trauma too; trauma is an emotional (psychological & physiological) response to something that happens, and it gets stored as memory in our bodies and minds.
We have great, detailed, and explanatory origin stories about how we came to be the way we are. We have judgments about ourselves, others, and the universe itself based on those stories. We have thorough and seemingly accurate interpretations of all those experiences. And it all feels like The Truth about ourselves.
But let’s not confuse the story of who we’ve become with the person we are.
Who I am: the space in which Thought, Sensation, and Emotion arise. It’s who I’ve always been and who I always will be. A space of awareness in which feelings and stories and interpretations arise. I am the white space in that diagram above, the space in which my experience arises.
I am not the stories, the thoughts, the sensations. I am the space in which all of that arises.
From this understanding, anything becomes possible.
I hope you have a great day. ❤️
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