Skillful Use of the Past

Someone asked me hopefully the other day, “It’s all about being in the now, isn’t it?  We’re always either stuck in the past or living in the future, but we just need to be in the now, right?” Which seems to be a common mantra right about now, and in its essence, holds a lot of truth. 

I’m reminded of Utah Phillips’ and Ani DiFranco’s song, Bridges, on the album The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, when Utah says, “I always thought that anybody who told me I couldn’t live in the past was trying to get me to forget something that if I remembered it would get them into serious trouble…” (if you’ve never heard the song check it out here: http://grooveshark.com/#!/s/Bridges/iTzz7?src=5 and really listen to the words).

I find it useful to make a distinction between living in the past, or being stuck in the past, from how Utah describes the past as informing the present, and that the lessons of the past are available to us in the present when we are open to accessing them.  And what Buddhist monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu refers to as a skillful use of the past in his insightful and practical writings on meditation and how the lessons we learn through meditation translate into and are applicable to the rest of our lives (which are distributed for free online here: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/meditations2.html).

A skillful use of the past means paying attention to intentions and actions and noticing the results as they unfold in the present moment, allowing discernment, perspective, and wisdom to grow as the present becomes the past, preparing us to deal as skillfully as possible as the future becomes the present. While each moment is a completely new experience, for the variables have never come together exactly as it is right now, the present is created by the past and directs where we are going in the future.  It’s all a continuum.

“Time is an enormous long river…and I am standing in it just as you are standing in it…My elders were the tributaries, and everything they thought, and every struggle they went through…flows down to me…And if I take the time to seek…I can build that bridge between my world and theirs…I can reach down into that river and take out what I need to get through this world…bridges…from my time to your time, as my elders from their time to my time…” Utah Phillips…

Being in the now is not tunnel vision, it includes an awareness of all that came before and all that will become in the future, in the peripheral vision, like a visual dristhi in asana, or physical yoga practice.  By focusing on the present, or the breath, or the visual focus point, we still see everything in the periphery, without having to stare or block anything out either.  We are focused at the center.  Which helps keep us from getting thrown off balance.

“We all put into the river, and it flows away from us…till it no longer has our name, our identity, it has its own utility, its own use, and people will take what they need and make it part of their lives…” U.P.

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3 thoughts on “Skillful Use of the Past

  1. Thanks for these perspectives.
    I’ve been spending a great deal of time in meditation on the past lately ( http://livefreeanddraw.com/ ). Like many things, the more attention you devote to it the more “real” it becomes.
    And is it not true that ALL of what we perceive as the “present” is actually the past, due to faint lags in processing between multiple sensory channels & our brains’ artifical coordination of the information?
    This Scientific American blog note raises some interesting questions…

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