Mind the Spirit—Look Ahead, Not Behind

As a religious professional it’s always been important for me to share my own struggles with those who have come to me for assistance, so they know that I, too, deal with many of the same issues they are experiencing.

All of us, at one time or other, can find ourselves stuck and unable to move forward because we’re unable to let go of the emotional baggage we’ve accumulated over the years. Living in the past restricts our ability to have a future we would like—one filled with love and happiness.

I’m still finding it difficult to accept the fact that I’m no longer engaged with the world in the same way as I was pre-retirement. I keep wanting things to be how they were in various other periods of my life, times when I felt I had more agency and the ability, at any time, to create a different future for myself.

Ruminating on the slights that have been done to us, the mistakes we’ve made, and our perceived failures saddles us with a host of negative emotions that create an impediment to being fully present.

The past can be like a prison cell, in that we are locked in a confined space, unable to leave and venture out into the world.

For many people, being stuck in the past seems like a safer place than being in the here and now. It’s known as well as predictable. It’s also what restricts one’s prospects for a rewarding life and a better tomorrow.

In a well-known story from the Hebrew scriptures, God tells Lot, the nephew of Abraham, that he’s going to destroy the town in which Lot and his family have taken refuge. Right before this is to happen, two angels admonish Lot to take his family and “Flee for your life; do not look back or stop anywhere or else you will be consumed.” They take heed, but Lot’s wife stops and looks back. She’s turned into a pillar of salt.

Instead of looking ahead to what she was going toward, and perhaps fearful of what awaited her, she looks back at what was known and becomes immobilized. At times we all can be like Lot’s wife, attached to the past and apprehensive about the future.

All the emotional burdens we carry around with us causes suffering. It’s difficult to have a healthy relationship with a partner when we still have anger toward an ex. The shame and remorse we feel for having done something awful to another person becomes a barrier to making new friends. The unresolved grief we have over the death of a loved one overwhelms us with sadness.

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.” I think many of us can relate to that. We start identifying with our suffering—it becomes who we are and perhaps makes us feel unique. As long as we live with our suffering, we don’t have to face our fears of who we might be without it.

The Buddha taught that life is not ideal. It frequently fails to live up to our expectations. Our desires and preconceived notions about life often do not align with reality. The antidote for this is to practice nonattachment—to take actions while letting go of the results.

We must let go of the past and accept where we are right here, right now.

So, ask yourself: What obstacles are keeping you from living your best life? What are you holding onto that keeps pulling you back into the past? What’s weighing you down emotionally?

Look at your answers. What will it take for you to let go of these things?

It’s been my experience that to let go we must first accept everything that happened in the past. We then need to forgive ourselves for the part we played in these things, and then ask those we’ve hurt to forgive us.

Once we take these steps, we’ll feel a weight lifted from our shoulders. The past will just be the past. We’ll live in freedom and have a future filled with peace and joy.

Stephen Sinclair lives in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Earlier in his life he enjoyed a career in show business while working out of New York and Chicago. A career as an ordained Unitarian Universalist parish minister and a hospital chaplain followed. Most recently, he worked with the homeless and is a weekly volunteer visitor at the Monroe Correctional Complex.

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