That’s Men: Why the past has no reality whatsoever
The past doesn’t exist, a mediator once told me as I began to outline the list of wrongs that had been done to me by another party. He then went on to resolve the disagreement in short order.
I’ve heard the phrase a thousand times since but it never got farther than glancing off the surface of my mind.
Then the other night I was walking along James’s Street in Dublin when the phrase came winging into my mind again. This time it stuck.
The past doesn’t exist, I heard it say. No, really, it doesn’t. The whole idea felt liberating. I walked down by Kilmainham and came across an actor from a ghost-tour bus declaiming a version of the executions of the 1916 leaders that made the whole thing sound funny. That felt liberating too.
Moreover the executions, like the rest of the past, no longer exist. They’re just ideas in our heads.
Next morning in my inbox I found the following quote from an article by Katy Butler on Tricycle. com: “In a classic sutra, the Buddha had said that if someone shoots you in the foot, don’t pick up the bow and shoot yourself in the foot again.
“Don’t make your suffering worse by arguing with what’s so. That’s a second arrow. Accept pain. Don’t criticise yourself, or others, for feeling pain: that is a second arrow. Don’t regret what cannot be changed, or try to predict what cannot be known.”
Here was the same idea following me around from the night before, even though it seems like a long journey from the Buddha to a ghost bus in Kilmainham.
The here and now
Lots of us grew up with the cultural idea that we had suffered 800 years of oppression from the British and the least we could do was feel upset about it and, if at all possible, die for Ireland.
In reality, most people just wanted to live their lives in the here and now and let the past take care of itself. And that’s what the ghost-bus guys were doing: they were taking care of the here and now.
But what if you’re a victim of a past injustice? Do you just go on living with the effects? No. If you can do something that reduces the effects, that improves your life in the here and now or that prevents the same thing from happening to other people, go right ahead and do it.
Just don’t imagine that those past events are still happening anywhere outside your brain. They’re not. The past doesn’t exist.
Dark and scary places
I do a little counselling work and so have many things in common with a ghost bus. For example, while we both pick you up and drop you off at the starting point, we may take you to some dark and scary places on the way.
But by the time we’re finished, these places shouldn’t seem so dark and scary any more. That’s because neither of us is under any illusion that the past exists and we’re really taking you on a trip to the here and now.
If your past doesn’t exist, do you exist? Of course. Along the way you developed a multiplicity of patterns in your central nervous system and these add up to who you are right now.
But like the old soldier who regales family and friends again and again – and again and again – with yarns of his days in uniform, your story is all in the present because the past has no reality whatsoever.
Similarly, if you hurt me 20 years ago and I get a chance to punish you today, my motivation is in the present.
And, depending on the nature of the hurt and the form of the punishment, the law recognises my right to seek redress. But the law doesn’t pretend to heal the past, because the past no longer exists.
The bus, by the way, does the gravedigger ghost tour and you can find out more about it at http://bit.ly/gravedublin.
Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind – Mindfulness for Daily Living, is published by Veritas. His mindfulness newsletter is free by email.