Sometimes we receive very powerful, inescapable messages from life. For me, an event that occurred far away forced me to face the truth of the unpredictability and impermanence of everything, even the people and things we treasure the most.
In Costa Rica, an unexpected event changed the lives of over 300 people. One afternoon in January 2009, an earthquake shook the region, destroying homes, the factory known as El Angel, where they worked, and the roads that linked them with the outside world. It rained, the rivers raged, and the ensuing mudslides caused even more damage. The epicenter of this catastrophic event occurred in the middle of a Community of Cafh, high in the mountains of central Costa Rica. To learn more about this event, click here.
For the members of the Community who owned and ran the factory and who had been the economic and spiritual support of hundreds of individuals and families, it was the destruction of 30 years of effort, love and devotion. What had been their lives and work, as well as the livelihood of their 300 employees, disappeared into the earth in a mere 40 seconds. It became part of the past. They could not turn back the clock-it was a new reality. For awhile it felt as if everything had been lost. But as they were airlifted with only the clothes they wore and a small bag of possessions, they were actually taking with them a treasure that even an earthquake couldn't destroy. They were taking with them the experiences of the past that could help them rebuild their lives and contribute to the well-being of those who worked for them.
Isn't this a beautiful spiritual teaching-one we wouldn't invite, that came without being chosen? The experiences of the past are something that nothing can take from us. They outlive difficulties, catastrophes, sickness, and perhaps even death. How can we make good use of these experiences? I have found that it is important to reexamine them once the crisis has passed, after I have been able to establish some distance and gain greater perspective. This helps me to learn. Don't I always have a choice about how to think and act in the events of my life? Can't I choose to act wisely? The same experiences which could be used as a rich resource in living in the present and finding direction toward the kind of future that I want can also stand in the way of unfolding the possibilities in my life.
Let me give you an example from my life. As I was growing up, many possibilities seemed to be open to me. I had the advantages of an education, a secure family environment, and material circumstances that provided freedom from want and promoted growth. But at the time I was unaware of how being a woman could limit my possibilities. Although opportunities were opening up for women and there were many who had the drive and passion necessary to break into male-dominated professions, subtle cultural and family pressures affected my choices. There were certain things that were expected of me: getting married and having children, choosing a career in a woman's sphere, and staying in my place. And so when I chose, I chose what was expected, what was safe, and where I felt I belonged.
That is now in the past. I can look back today and learn from my choices. I can learn to use this experience to inform my decisions in the future by understanding the context of my decisions and taking responsibility for the choices I have made. Would it make any sense for me to blame my parents? Would it help to blame the male-dominated society of the time? If I want this experience to help me, I must not blame anyone for it. That would be to take away any power I have to choose today. And I feel today more empowered than ever to make authentic choices in every aspect of my life.
When I look back at this experience, I can see that the past is always with me, because it is the choices I made in the past that bring me to this present moment. There are some experiences in the past that are not as obvious as this one, but that perhaps have even more influence. I wonder why, when someone asks me where I am from, I tell them where I spent the first 18 years of my life, even though I have lived in my present home twice as long as that. It seems that the first years of life have a big effect on forming one's identity and a life view. But things change: circumstances, culture, mores and values, knowledge, and ways of doing things. Do I allow myself to change with them or am I trapped in the past? Isn't it up to me to be conscious and to use the past to help me, instead of being attached to understandings that are no longer relevant?
If I explore my past and its impact on me, I begin to understand that the experiences I remember most clearly are the ones that affected me emotionally. Emotions glue experiences to the memory, but they can also get in the way of understanding and learning from what happened.
When my two best friends ganged up on me, made fun of me and excluded me from their group, it was painful. For a while, the pain of rejection was my overriding memory, and as long as this was the case, I didn't learn. As long as I dwelled on the pain and was bitter, this experience remained a part of the past that could perhaps limit my choices in the present moment. When I look back at this experience with the distance of time, and hopefully a bit of wisdom, I see that it helped me to become more resilient and to recognize my own individuality and strength. It also helped me to know how I relate to others, my fears and limitations. Am I afraid to get close to others? Do I withhold my affections or choose friends I can control?
When I was able to put aside the pain, I could start to understand and therefore to learn. I saw that whatever motives my friends were acting from, they were coming from a place of ignorance, not meanness. I also learned how important it is to feel accepted and liked. I realized that I can also cause others to suffer when I exclude them. This understanding can inform the decisions I make today. This knowledge can lead me to examine my prejudices and feelings of superiority. This can be as simple as sharing information or asking others for their opinion.
Think of your first memory. Most probably it is has informed subsequent choices and shaped the direction you have taken. Thinking back on it can still be useful. Now the emotions can be observed and not relived, intentions can be identified and accepted, and frustrations and fears acknowledged.
My first memory evokes the painful helplessness of a child as well as a desire to help. I was about three years old, visiting my grandmother at her summer cottage. She was dressing for dinner and sent me for a walk with a babysitter, Mary. The smells of the sea and the honeysuckle and the light of the setting sun are still vivid in my mind. As I examined the honeysuckle, Mary sat on a wooden fence. The fence suddenly broke under her weight and she fell. She was an older woman and could not get up. "Go and get your grandmother," she urged. I ran to the cottage and found my grandmother in her bedroom dressing. I tried to explain my distress and the need to help Mary. She did not understand me. "You are supposed to be with Mary. Go find Mary," she said, dismissing me. Although I felt small, inadequate and ignored, I still felt the responsibility to help, to do something. This was important. I ran back to find Mary and offer her any help I could. Luckily, she had gotten herself up while I was gone, and all was well.
Sometimes today I feel a similar helplessness, as well as a responsibility to help. I can still feel I am being ignored and that I cannot do anything. However, I am careful not to allow this feeling of being ignored to inform my discernment of a situation. If I am not paying attention, I find myself reacting when things don't go the way I want and thinking, "Nobody listens to me." This is not a helpful reaction. Being aware of my previous experiences, I can look for ways to make my request clearer. I can seek more information so that I can understand what is best for all. I can respond appropriately, without fueling the emotions of frustration and anger associated with this feeling of helplessness. I have learned the lesson from the past to do whatever I can and to keep trying.
There is another helpful lesson I learned from making peace with the past. The past can be a restraining and rigid companion, as well as a source of learning. If I am not aware of its influence on me, I may hold onto what I learned in the past although circumstances and people have changed. Once when cooking with my mother and religiously fulfilling one of her cooking techniques, she responded: "But I gave that up years ago!" What my mother was able to improve upon and refine, I was stubbornly sticking to. How many preconceived ideas do I allow to influence my outlook and my behavior? My past is very subjective and limited to what I filtered with my understanding and memory. Taking this into consideration, I can reexamine my ideas and ways of doing things and reflect on them objectively in order to free myself from their unconscious influence. The past cannot be changed, but ideas and understanding from the past can be changed.
All these are lessons from the past-the past I want to make peace with and to learn from, not a past that can predetermine my reactions and limit my choices. As time passes, the past is always being created. It has the potential to enrich the present experience, or to limit it within a long rehearsed reaction. How I allow the past to influence my present is up to me and my relationship with it. And this is a very important step on the lifelong spiritual journey.
What is your experience examining and learning from your past? What insights have you had, what experiences trigger useful memories for you to work on? I hope you will ask yourself these questions (and many others) as you explore who you are on the path of nurturing a conscious and meaningful life.
Other articles in the series "The Peace of a Meaningful Life" by Diana Autumn are My Wake-Up Call, Finding the Way, Step by Step with Silence, Getting Guidance, Taming the Beast, Reining in the Mind: Who's really in charge?, Gaining Inner Strength: Learning to Choose, and Engaging the Executive: The Affective Meditation.