“Don’t let yesterday use up too much of today,” says a Cherokee Indian Proverb. The people who seem to know the most about being happy say that one must let go of the past and the future, and live in the present. For a few years now, I have been practicing living this advice. Practicing, because sometimes I can do it, and sometimes I can’t. And the more I practice, the better I get.
But practice isn’t the only way that I get better. Every once in a while, I have an insight that deepens my understanding, and helps me take a little leap forward. I had such an insight a few days ago. It had to do with how dwelling in the past hurts the present and the future.
We’ve had some lovely weather in San Francisco recently. My favorite kind: blue skies, sunny, and warm. To celebrate it, I decided to go for a run in the sun.
The run was a bit of a big deal for me. I have been running almost exclusively on a treadmill for at least a year now. Running on a treadmill to me feels different from running outdoors. Mostly because I don’t have to think while I’m on a treadmill. I set my speed and time, and go. When I want to change something about my run, I push a few buttons and voila, my run changes. And I always know exactly how I’m doing.
Running outdoors is different. There is a little more thinking involved. I have to have some semblance of a path, and try to stay on it; both for safety, and so that I know how long my run is. I have to set a pace and try to keep it up. I have to keep track of time. I have to adjust for gradient changes, and wind direction. And I have to watch for objects in my path. It’s not a big deal, but it is different. And after having run exclusively on the treadmill for a while, I found myself wondering whether I could do it. Nevertheless, I picked a loop in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and started.
The path was unfamiliar since I had never run it before. And I tried to overcome the relative “newness” of running outdoors again. About twenty minutes into my run, I wondered how much of the loop I had covered. I started to envision my run up to that point. I mentally retraced my steps to where I had begun. I saw myself run by the conservatory of flowers. And across the bridge. I saw myself stretch by a green bench. And find my way back to the loop when I took a wrong turn. I saw myself approach the lake and the boat house. And run past them onto the muddy little path that I was on now. Then, I tried to guesstimate how long all of that felt.
In the midst of this, I suddenly I realized that my pace had slowed down considerably. And that I was barely running anymore. So, I quickly brought myself back to where I was in time, and picked up my pace. But something about that incident kept me going back to it.
As I reflected upon what had happened, I realized why my pace had slowed down. I felt like I had been running with a weight tied to one of my ankles. And it was dragging me back, preventing me from moving forward.
Something in me said that my thoughts had been the weight dragging me back. My thoughts about my run. My thoughts about the past. My past. When I realized that I had slowed down, I had let go of the past, and come back into the present. And as soon as I did, I was able to move forward again.
To me, it was a wonderful insight into how the past holds us back. And yet, it disturbed me. Did it mean that my past had no significance at all; that it was completely irrelevant?
Life is now.
The answer that I found was two fold. I found that as far as the difficult parts were concerned, my past was relevant only insofar as it held me back. Like an injury that needed to heal before I could move on. Once healed, that piece of my past was irrelevant. As for the beautiful parts: I could never live them again. If I tried to, my past would hold me back like a weight on my ankle. I had enjoyed them while they were in my present. The only thing I could do, was to carry the good feelings I had about them in my heart. And allow those feelings to propel my present forward.
Because, as Eckhart Tolle says, “[l]ife is now. There was never a time when your life was not now, nor will there ever be.” And if I want to run forward freely, I have to let my past stay there.