to top

Hanging Onto the Past

Oddly enough, the reason we’re all hanging onto the past in the way that we generally do is because somewhere in the dim recesses of our minds we imagine that we still have the chance of being different to the way we actually are in the present moment, if only certain key events in our lives could have happened a different way to the way they actually did happen…

 

 

This might seem like a highly illogical idea and we might therefore assume that its not the sort of ‘possibility’ we would spend too much time dwelling hopefully upon, but we do. As even a brief period of self-observation shows, we spend a significant amount of our time ‘wishing things could be different’. Every time we lose our cool (or our equanimity) during the day it is because we wish things could have happened differently. Every time we experience a negative emotion (or get into a bad mood) it’s because we wish things could have happened differently. If therefore we find ourselves thinking about something that happened in the past and losing our equanimity over it then it is because we wish that whatever it was had happened differently. Then we could be in a different situation now. This is a very common thought process, however illogical it might be!

 

 
Every time we unhappily brood upon stuff that has happened in the past it is because we are hoping that we could change it. We are – in effect – going over it and going over it, turning it over ceaselessly in our minds, because we are hoping to find a loop-hole. We are hoping – irrationally or not – to find a way in which it didn’t have to have happened! It is as if we have the unconscious belief that we can change things if we think about them enough.

 

 

Such – we might say – is the strength of our belief in the power of thought. “Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit to his statue?” asks Jesus in Matthew 6:27, but we clearly aren’t convinced. The reason we ruminate unhappily over things that have happened in the past is because we feel that they shouldn’t have happened to us and if we still feel that they shouldn’t have happened to us this very clearly means that we haven’t really accepted that they have! On one level this makes sense – something occurred and I wish that it hadn’t – but on another level (a more conscious level!) the fact that something happened and I can’t accept that it happened doesn’t make any sense at all! If it happened then how can I possibly refuse to accept that it happened? What kind of craziness is this? This stubborn ‘non-acceptance’ obviously represents a complete break, a complete loss of connection with reality on my part…

 

 

No matter how problematic the event was that I have difficulties in accepting, a loss of connection with reality is always going to be immeasurably more problematic. Getting dissociated from the real world creates no end of problems! And yet it remains the case that there are innumerable events in our history that we do not accept, and the proof of this non-acceptance is the fact that we keep on thinking (or talking) about them. If I accepted them then I would have ‘moved on’; if I accepted them then clearly I would have no further need to be obsessively concerning myself with them. Now this is relatively straightforward and it’s unlikely that anyone is going to have any big problem with this. What is probably a bit harder to get a handle on is the suggestion that who I am (my identity, my story of myself) is made up of (or defined by) all the stuff I haven’t accepted.

 

 

We all know that the best thing to do is to make our peace with all the stuff that we have issues with, so that we can be free to get on with our lives unencumbered, but what we don’t tend to see is that if we were actually to do this then we would be letting go of ourselves! The suggestion we’re making here therefore is that if we kiss our cherished grievances, grudges and gripes goodbye (and meant it!) then we would at the same time be kissing goodbye to ourselves. If it were true that our identities are actually created and sustained by this dogged ‘hanging on to the negative’ this would go a long way towards explaining why we are so extremely reluctant to give up our habit of indulging in retrospective ruminations, even though this practice (as everyone knows very well) causes us nothing but pain…

 

 

It is of course true that there’s a whole side to personal history that we have not yet mentioned, and that is the side that is made up of our pleasant (or agreeable) ruminations. That our agreeable ruminations (regarding all the pleasing things that happened to us) create and sustain our sense of identity is equally true, though this is naturally somewhat easier to accept. Its obvious that the type of story we tell about ourselves when we are trying to explain ‘who we are’ is made up on the one hand of pleasant reminiscences and on the other hand of unpleasant ones – this is in fact so very obvious that the chances are we wouldn’t even bother to mention the fact! But what is usually very far from being clear to us that when we relinquish this story, this narrative, we are also relinquishing ourselves…

 

 

Most of us probably believe that certain things should have been different in our lives – this is normal enough. We all have a story to tell about how we ended up where we are today and this ‘personal narrative’ accounts for the facts – such as they are – of our present situation. I could have been somewhere else (or someone else) but this is why I’m like I am today. One way to tell this story is in terms of ‘chances missed’, ‘things that went wrong’, ‘stuff that went against us’, and so on and so this is a personal narrative that is flavoured with regrets. The other story-telling option would be for me to see my life positively in terms of all my successes, in terms of all the things I achieved. This is generally seen as a much better way of looking at things – we are after all always encouraged to look at things in a positive light and see the glass half-full rather than half-empty!We are praised for being positive…

 

 
On the other hand it is also true that if I get too smug and too self-promoting then my story becomes a terrible bore for anyone to have to listen to – if they actually can be bothered to listen to me droning on about how great I am, that is! But whether I have a string of regrets and hang on to my dream of how things might have been, or whether I claim that my life is a success story I end up getting ‘trapped in my story’ just the same. And even if my personal narrative isn’t primarily about how I am either a loser or a winner – even if it is a balanced mixture of things that went well and things that didn’t – I’m still trapped in my own history. No matter how I tell the story, I’m still trapped in it.

 

 

It is very often said that having a ‘personal narrative’ is a good thing because it enables us to make sense of who we are and all the things that have happened to us. Most psychotherapists would tend to see it as a healthy thing. We need to make sense of all the stuff that happens to us – be it good or be it bad – and the personal narrative helps us do just that! So it is said. On a trivial level this notion seems to ring true and so we generally go along with it. If we think about it a bit more deeply however the whole business of the personal narrative starts to look somewhat suspect. Why on earth should we want to make sense of what happens to us anyway? Exactly why is this business of ‘fitting everything into our patented story of what it all means’ a good thing? And what the hell does ‘making sense’ mean anyway?

 

 

‘Making sense’ generally means laying stuff to rest, putting it to bed, by assigning meaning to what has happened to us in such a way that we don’t have to be questioning it any more. If I know what it means, then that’s the end of the matter! When I make sense of stuff what I’m doing is fitting it into my very limited scheme of understanding the world, or to put it another way, I am expressing it in the language of absolutes. The ‘personal narrative’ is all about absolutes, in other words and absolutes trap us. In Carse’s terms, when I makes sense of the world I subsume it within whatever ‘finite game’ I am playing. If something happens to me that causes me pain I feel that it is necessary for me to put some meaning on it because if I don’t it goes around and around in my head until it drives me daft – “Why me?” is the classic question that we ask ourselves. This is a question that has no answer, and so we are obliged to go on asking it – unable to tolerate the lack of a satisfactory answer. If I can fit the discomforting event into my personal narrative so that it makes sense then I can lay the question to rest. The same is true for gratifying stuff that happens to me but somehow this type of eventuality doesn’t seem to cause the same time of anguished questioning! I generally feel that it is only right that I should be the recipient of good fortune and so I don’t give it much thought…

 

 

This gives us a clue as to what it is that lies at the heart of this business of the personal narrative – and this of course oughtn’t really to come as a surprise. What lies at the heart of the heart of the personal narrative is the ‘self-concept’, the ‘me’! Now it is an essential peculiarity of the self that it automatically assumes that it deserves good fortune rather than bad. It automatically assumes that it is entitled to ‘get whatever it wants’. The mechanical mental reflex that we call ‘the self’ has a sense of entitlement with regard to all the good things in the world, we might say! This statement isn’t particularly hard to prove – if for example you keep doing favours for people it is a matter of universal experience that the people you do favours for very quickly start taking this kindness of yours for granted. If on the other hand you were to suddenly cease with the favours, and say NO instead of YES, then it is pretty much guaranteed that this is not going to go down at all well. The chances are that you are going to find yourself very unpopular all of a sudden!

 

 

This is a well-known kind of a thing and it demonstrates very well the sense of automatic entitlement that is part of the self-concept’s very make-up. Another way to point at this essential characteristic of the conditioned self (which we don’t necessarily tend to focus on overmuch) is to look at the way in which once we get some random notion or whim that we want something or other then we feel hurt if we don’t get it, we feel stung if our desires in this matter aren’t straightaway met by the universe. This really just another way of saying that the mechanically-constituted sense of self automatically feels that it is at the centre of the universe, when the truth of the matter is that both it and its arbitrary whims or desires are entirely irrelevant, i.e. that they don’t actually matter a damn. This isn’t being mean to the conditioned self, it’s just an objectively accurate statement because no matter what the self wants, it gets offended if it doesn’t get it. The mechanically-constituted self picks a viewpoint and straightaway it gets to seem like the right one; this would be true for any viewpoint it choose  – this is so much the case that it doesn’t even seem to it that it has ‘made a choice’.

 

 

As we have said it is this sense of entitlement (this sense of unquestioned sense of centrality) which constitutes the ‘central organizing principle’ for the personal narrative – this is the key to the whole process of it, we might say. Another way of putting this is to say that the mechanical self starts off on the basis of a fixed and unquestionable set of ‘likes and dislikes’ and because these likes and dislikes are enshrined as absolutes they form the template around which our perception and understanding of the world is organized. Everything is thus arranged either into categories of ‘good or bad’, ‘favourable or unfavourable’, ‘advantageous or disadvantageous’ and slotted neatly into the scheme of things. When stuff happens that agrees with the unquestionable bias which is the self then the bias (which is as we have said purely arbitrary) gets to feel validated – it gets to feel less arbitrary – and this confirmation translates into euphoria. The ‘taken-for-granted viewpoint’ has been agreed with by the outside world and as a result its essential ‘shakiness’ (or ‘instability’) becomes less visible, less apparent, less obvious, and this is what the conditioned or mechanical self wants most of all.

 

 

The opposite of this process of structure-validation would be where there is no confirmation from the world around us and as a result I get to experience the shakiness and arbitrariness of my fundamental position as a conditioned (i.e. ‘this but not that’) self more and more acutely, until I become aware that I could equally well have assumed any viewpoint, any set of biases, any set of ‘likes and dislikes’, and this is the point at which the conditioned self can no longer exist as such! I have to feel that ‘my way is the right way’ (that my views are the correct views) or else the defined position which is the conditioned self dissolves into infinite relativity – which is another way of saying that there is no more ‘self’ left in it! Self dissolves into selflessness. ‘Centre’ dissolves into centre-less-ness…

 

 

A self has to take it for granted that ‘it is right’ (i.e. that it is ‘entitled’) or else it looses the basic wherewithal to be a self – what kind of self doesn’t feel ‘specially deserving’, after all? What kind of a self doesn’t feel special? What kind of a rule doesn’t think that its way is the only way? It is of course true that conventional morality (which is a ‘mechanical’ or ‘rule-based’ sort of thing itself) seeks to correct this automatic sense of entitlement, this feeling of being ‘special’, but all this does is to reverse everything so that I ‘hang back’ rather than ‘pushing myself forward’, so that I take the last place in the queue rather than jostling to be first. I become deliberately ‘humble’ rather than ‘unthinkingly arrogant’ but this posturing on the part of the mechanical self is really no different to anything else that it does because it’s still seeking advantage for itself – it’s seeking advantage for itself by doing things the ‘right’ way, the ‘moral’ way. It is seeking advantage for itself by trying to be ‘unselfish’!

 

 

The ‘unsupported bias’ which is the everyday self has to keep on distorting everything so that it seems to it that it’s right, that it’s being validated by the outside world. This way of course it doesn’t feel like an unsupported bias at all – on the contrary, it feels as solid as a rock, as unshakable as a mountain. If I were to be for whatever reason unable to go on distorting things so that my underlying bias doesn’t seem like a bias (but rather seems like ‘the one and only correct way for things to be’!) then this would spell the utter disintegration of everything I know and am familiar with. The conditioned self would no longer be able to function as ‘the conditioned self’. The integrity of the game would be fatally ruptured. The bubble would burst!

 

 

When we talk (rather glibly, as it turns out) about ‘the importance of making sense of the world’, ‘the importance of me being able to make sense of everything that happens to me in terms of an ongoing and highly-consistent personal narrative’, then what we’re really talking about is the so-called ‘importance’ of being able to continue to distort everything so that it carries on supporting and confirming the central delusion of ‘who I think I am but I am not’. This is stating things rather baldly, but there is no other way to put it, seeing as how we are not this extraordinarily limited mind-created self that we are invested in so heavily and so unthinkingly. Not only is it the case that I am not this ‘self’ – it is also the case that there is absolutely no reason why I should have become so very heavily invested in thinking that I am! The whole thing is – as we keep saying – entirely random, entirely arbitrary, and so the endeavour that I am invested in is the on-going and ultimately doomed one of denying that it is arbitrary, denying that ‘it doesn’t really have to be this way’…

 

 

What I am denying when I play the game of the conditioned self is my own innate freedom not to have to be this self! I am saying that I really am this defined identify, when the truth is that I am not. I am saying that the limitations (or rules) I worship really are there, instead of being my own constructs. I am stubbornly denying (or ‘turning my back’) my own innate freedom not to have to play the game of being this particular conditioned or limited self – and this is of course the only way that the game of the conditioned or limited self can work!

 

 

When things don’t work out as I had planned then there is bitterness in this because the failure of things to fall into line with my likes and dislikes represents a fundamental (and unforgivable) insult to the conditioned self. This failure is an insult because it is saying that my likes and dislikes don’t matter, and I am heavily invested in thinking that they do. I can’t not think that they do because that would mean disidentifying with the arbitrary idea of myself that I am committed to believing in! This is the reason that I have to hang on to the bitterness, even though on the surface I might say (and believe) that I want to let go of it. I can’t really let go of my regrets, my disappointments, my grievances with fate, my unhappiness with regard to the way things worked out because that would mean letting go of myself, and this is the one thing that I most definitely don’t want to do! So the grievances, the resentments and bitterness and all the rest of it are a necessary price that I have to pay if I want to go on playing the game. We all pay lip-service to this idea of letting things go, but that’s all it is – it’s lip-service because whilst we do of course want to say good bye to the rottenness of all this negativity, we are nevertheless grimly committed to clinging to the root cause of it!

 

 

If it were the case that I felt that I was ready to let go of all of my history (both the events that I look back at with fondness and nostalgia and the events that still bring up negative feelings) then this would be a different matter. The trouble as always is that whilst I want to let go of all the ‘insults’ that the conditioned self has experienced over time, I want to hang on to the flattery. I want to be rid of the stuff that engenders dysphoria and I want to retain all the stuff that creates euphoria, and because I am locked in so thoroughly into this futile task (the task of separating pleasure and pain, the task of being a winner but not a loser) I’m never ever going get anywhere.

 

 

Everything I want is conditionalit is all conditional upon my ‘central delusion’ not being challenged!  I want to be happy just so long as my central delusion isn’t challenged. I want to be free just so long as my central delusion isn’t challenged. I want to be at peace just so long as my central delusion isn’t challenged. All of these things – no matter how much we think we genuinely want them – are only so much ‘window dressing’ because what we really want (and this unacknowledged desire necessarily excludes all the others) is to carry on believing that the illusion of the conditioned self isn’t an illusion…

 

 

When we hang onto the past, therefore, we’re not hanging onto the past at all. We’re hanging on to a manufactured version of the past; we’re hanging onto ‘the past’ as it supposedly happened to this ‘fictional identity’, to this person who never actually existed! We’re hanging on to a story which must inevitably be delusory since it relies entirely upon the ‘mind-created sense’ of self in order for it to mean anything at all. This arbitrary mental construct is the lynch-pin for the story if it goes then everything goes…

 

 

When we hang on to the past therefore, what we’re really hanging onto is ‘our story of ourselves’ and this also happens to be the very thing that effectively stops us from finding out who we really are!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 








Author: Nick Williams

Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.

(Visited 49 times, 1 visits today)

Leave a Comment