How to be Free of the Past (no matter how near or how distant)

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how to let go of the past. (picture courtesy of pixabay)

What We Bring With Us…

I’m re-reading Behind the Scenes at the Museum, by Kate Atkinson and I paused when I got to this quote,

Patricia embraces me on the station platform. ‘The past is what you leave behind in life, Ruby,’ she says with the smile of a reincarnated lama.

‘Nonsense, Patricia,’ I tell her as I climb on board my train. ‘The past’s what you take with you.’

I love this. It echoes what I see to be true — that the past isn’t something in past time, it’s what we bring with us, what we live into, what we recall and experience, in the present moment.

What is Memory?

Mostly we call those things memories, and we use the word as if that memory is a fixed thing — we are remembering something in the same way that we might look at an historical artefact — there is a reality to the object, the place or the person and we are looking at something we have brought with us from a previous encounter.

What if it doesn’t quite work like that?

What if the memory is more like coming across a box of photographs taken by impartial (or partial!) observers? Like a friend’s wedding I attended where she asked people to take pictures and post them on a social media app — as many perspectives as there were images.

What if memory is like that? What if there is no fixed state or existence of a memory? What if it’s more like picking up a set of coloured filters and focusing them on an object or a person or a time? We are not then re-membering something, we are newly creating an experience each time we look.

The fact that we attach that ‘memory’ to yesterday’s difficult conversation with a colleague, a moment from childhood, the thought of a loved one, or the vision of a perfect place and moment in time is perfectly understandable, but it isn’t real.

Guardians of ‘the Past’

We all have our keepsakes, our souvenirs, books, photographs, clothes, objects of something beyond their usefulness or beauty. Often their function is to respect and honour the memories of our own story and the stories of those around us — both individually and as a society.

We do it as a mark of love, of respect, of honour for a life well-lived, or a reminder of unspeakable, unrepeatable cruelty inflicted.

I hold onto, and love, my son’s favourite baby slippers, not because the slippers mean anything, but because they ignite, in me, a sense of love. It looks to me as if the love is coming from the slippers, and that it’s directed towards him and, sometimes it looks as if it’s a bittersweet love, the passing of that time in our lives when I was a young mum and he was a beautiful baby.

What is remembered is a figment, a loose strand of code, like watching a long-forgotten movie.

The love I experience is felt in the moment I experience it. It’s there whether I look at the slippers, or not, and the love isn’t lost if I misplace them, or if they decay and I throw them away (as happened with a batch of same son’s baby hair).

I can preserve and even display those relics, but when I look at them, are they tying me to an old story, or giving me freedom of mind in the present?

What We Leave Behind…

It’s a radical idea perhaps, but what if there is no such thing as the past?

At least, there may be actual things, like the dirty dishes I didn’t wash from supper last night, but my recollection of how the food was, of how good the conversation was, are all being created now, as I look at that moment in chronological time anew. I might look again, later today and see something different.

The past is not a fixed experience; it’s something that is in constant motion, that is lived live, created anew every day.

If that statement is true, then what an opportunity we have to always refresh what we think is true about ourselves and about others.

If that statement is true then life is an infinite set of blank pages. Pages that we are filling with invisible ink moment by moment — it looks like we’re writing something meaningful and then… the words vanish.

…Creates the Ultimate Freedom

How would we live if each day was a fresh start? Would we rather create connected, engaged interactions with those around us? Would we write about the infinite potential in the people around us and nurture the beauty in each new story we created?

Or would we write about the heaviness of something ‘remembered’? Would we continue to analyse previously experienced emotional pain: the argument with our partner, the badly cooked dinner, the loss of a valued client, the remembered fluffing of an important presentation? If we didn’t enjoy the horror movie the first time around, why would we watch it again?

Maybe it’s possible to see that there isn’t as much fixedness as we assume. Memories occur to us as they occur to us, but they have no more substance than a dream and, when they next return, they may be different.

Maybe it’s possible to leave it all behind, to truly be free of our past? Free of the chokehold of memory? What if it were easier to see that remembering is not the same as re-living?

Because… maybe none of it really happened the way we think it did.

With love,



Cathy Presland supports leaders, change-makers and organisations who want to make a difference with what they do. She has over two decades of experience in government and international organisations and more than ten years experience as leadership coach and consultant. Read more and download free courses here.

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