Our thoughts and reactions to what happens in day to day life, in the present, are mostly a product of what has gone before. Discover why that happens and you get to transform the way you see yourself.
Imagine the milk shelf in a well run supermarket. All the milk containers have a use-by date on them. The milk is on sale until the use-by date and then any containers remaining on the shelf are removed and thrown out and the shelf is restocked. The milk on sale is aways fresh.
Now if things don’t work so efficiently, instead of the old containers being removed they get pushed to the back of the shelf to make way for the new stock. After some time the milk which is old and now out of sight goes off and begins to smell. And if something isn’t done to rectify it the smell of the old milk informs the new milk with the same impression of being off to a passing buyer. To them new milk is the same as old. Better shop elsewhere!
Past experience in the present moment
The way we see the world is very much informed by past experience in a similar way. We have stored away thousands and thousands of impressions all of them originally with the purpose of being useful at the time. And because they appeared useful then, well why not store them away for a rainy day when, if a similar situation occurs, well then we’ll know what to do. So in this way present actions are actually being informed and therefore controlled by our past and not by the immediacy and spontaneity of the present moment (with all that implies about freedom of choice!)
Many examples happen every day, usually small enough for sure, so they pass by apparently workable and so unnoticed, until the occasional big one comes along and we are caught unawares because the system isn’t adequate, and it breaks down. The smelly old milk at the back is informing too much the fresh milk at the front of the shelf.
An example in personal relationships
Take personal relationships. Ever heard it said, 'You know I’m not so-and-so (the name of partner's previous relationship), you’re behaving just as if I’m him/her, not as if I’m me'. To get right to the point, if you feel that a trust has been broken then the sense of betrayal is stored away to be there ready for comparison at a future date in a similar situation.
Keep in mind that appearances are very deceptive because it is not the action that is important but the intention behind the action that is the deciding factor in the long run. That’s where the confusion arises because the past experience tells it like this, but the intention behind what brought about the present experience, while seeming the same, may be entirely different, with an entirely different outcome waiting to happen. But we get in there and stir it up and eventually probably get the outcome we most fear, thus fulfilling our deepest suspicions, when in fact the new situation is not like that at all. The smelly old milk at the back is informing too much the fresh milk at the front.
Basis of a good relationship
Good relationships recognise this and with a high level of trust each partner puts up to some extent with the pain of sometimes being unfairly accused, and each helps the other to recognise and overcome these instinctive reactions. Good relationships are built around that. The ability of one partner to trust the other enough to put an issue out there, to be observed honestly and accurately, and the ability of the other partner to accept the trust and look at the issue without judgment, with the possibility maybe of seeing it more accurately and so offer support, advice or guidance. And it’s a two way process, each supporting the other in turn. It needs strength and trust in the intention to do this when the old milk gets really smelly.
Everything had a good original intention
Keep in mind that everything stored away had a good intention at the moment the first reaction took place. But as soon as it passes that reaction is now a memory which is anchored in an ever-receding past. Too much attention (to the point of obsession?) to anything stored in this way drags us always out of the present moment where the wisdom of the ages says our own wisdom lies, and back into a past which, though useful once, is now way past its use-by date. That smelly old milk at the back… etc etc
How to get out of it
I know that as a concept this is not new, but it doesn’t answer the question, how do we get out of expecting different results while trying to deal with similar situations in the same old way? You have to get out of the influence of the past and back to the present moment. This is the first rule, the golden rule. And it requires understanding and a particular kind of discipline. The understanding part is, when the past does crowd into the mind and does cloud the issue, you have to let it do that in a controlled way. If the past comes into the present just let it be part of the present while it’s there, and let it go when it passes.
But, big but… you also have to retain something of yourself anchored in the present, which can observe closely and minutely every detail of thought, emotion and sensation, but dis-identifies with the experience just enough to let it play out so it shows itself - to observe but not analyse. And that we call awareness. The crowding of the mind is okay, it will happen, it has to happen. You can’t avoid the smell of old milk until you have got rid of it. And to get rid of it you have to get up close to it. This is how it’s done. And the discipline part is finding a level of trust, which you may not be able or willing to accord to others or even to yourself, but which you hold onto as a pact with yourself at any cost, of self observation, as a constant, that this will see accurately when perfected. That’s what we practise.
It doesn’t stop there
When you have a reaction in the present moment, practice and insight often reveals that it’s a trigger for an older experience stored away to prevent the pain of just such a similar one from happening. Then there are two ways to look at it: To be hurt and upset that this has happened again when you find the defence mechanism doesn’t work satisfactorily; or, accept the present experience and recognise it as the catalyst that finds and exposes the earlier experience - the hurt behind the hurt - in such a way that makes it possible to turn your attention to and find the resolution of both experiences.
Because the present one is predicated to a large extent on the previous one. And it would not have been possible to go back further and deeper without the present experience acting as a trigger and catalyst. What might at first be taken as an unpleasant experience to avoid becomes its opposite, an opportunity to move on. It’s an evolutionary process. No-one said evolution stops with the physical nature; and no-one said that evolution is not painful sometimes.
And there is a third stage
These older experiences are buried deep in our early life. We were very vulnerable then and we would have been taking on influence at an unbelievable and sometimes unmanageable rate. Even then when you are able to get back to that in your practice it doesn't stop there.
When you get to the resolution of what you might call the original experience (the smelly old milk at the back) closer observation will eventually show in a very delicate way that it is not the influence or the experience itself which is ultimately the cause of later suffering but the individual nature that was subjected to and possibly overwhelmed by it at the time, and the choices it unconsciously made.
When it gets to that point, in a manner of speaking we have a choice: to see events as out of control things that happen to us, taking credit when things go well and blaming anything else when things go wrong; or to see everything as a catalyst for self observation and self-learning regardless of how trying or testing they may be.
And sooner or later you get a sense that it’s not so random as it appears, that there is purpose in what we have to go through. I don’t know if this is clear, but in the end at this refined level ultimately there is nothing permanent attached to cause and effect. This is our entry into understanding karma, which is another matter for another time.
The practical view in meditation
There is a short practical answer to all this that bypasses all the thinking it through, though you may have to, to accept it: Take one hundred percent responsibility for the effect on you of every experience (at least in your meditation practice). Ultimately the original cause of pain lies there and resolution and ultimately freedom lie there too.
But it ain’t easy
It takes a certain commitment to get started and frankly speaking it’s very difficult to maintain, particularly in the pace of modern life and its outrageous expectations. Because, there is an absolute relationship between the level of awareness and depth of observation on the one hand and a successful and convincing outcome on the other.
You have to go deeper inside to get to where the original influences lie stored, hidden from everyday sight. It is no use thinking it through over and over with the same kind of mind that made the original assumption. It needs a different kind of mind, a deeper mind, a quiet mind. If not, often, as with many things that are most valuable, we end up 'proving’ to ourselves that it doesn’t work, but that’s not because the system itself doesn’t work, but because we don’t get in deep enough so it has never been tried or developed accurately enough. You have to invest in it to give it a chance.
But if you can get there and maintain it for some time and observe yourself accurately the rewards are profound. There will be moments when this can be quite a surprise even a shock to the system. Long held thoughts, ideas and beliefs can crumble away right in front of you. So, understanding and discipline. But see it through and priorities rearrange, and life becomes a journey of self discovery. You do get to know yourself, and the more we realise mistaken concepts the closer we come to the truth of our own natural state, nearer to who we are rather than a bundle of impressions with all their consequences.
We do not fool ourselves
This is the foundation of meditation practice as we know and actually experience it. It is not bliss, though it may occasionally be blissful; it is not spacing out and thinking this is it; it is not concentration forced upon yourself, while the mind is still outside of itself. If you can just sit for some time, go inside and watch yourself quietly and accurately; if you can practise mantra and realise mantra as the force that frees these limiting qualities of mind; if you can see and experience the relationship between cause and effect in thought and behaviour, everything cannot but be revealed in its time.
Say again, it’s not easy to face yourself. I’d rather do it in solitude, or with a group of like-minded people over a chosen period of time, like five, seven or nine days given over exclusively to learning and practising just that. After all what is the point of developing all the skills you can and having all the knowledge on earth if you don’t know yourself?