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Drop the Baggage and Move On

Letting go of the past can be the first step toward living better in the present.

Carlos Castaneda said it. So did T.S. Eliot. In fact, a number of wise men and women of all persuasions and dispositions in all ages and cultures have said it. Personal history, that assemblage of memories and information that we call our past, can be an impediment rather than an advantage on the road toward greater freedom and joy.

We know that you, like us, have probably grown very fond and protective of your personal history. In fact, most of us are rather proud of it—both the positive and the not-so-positive aspects of it. We celebrate it, bemoan it, fret over it, exaggerate it and, in general, hold on to it for dear life, afraid that if it disappears so will we. At the same time, however, some part of our consciousness is aware that our personal history is also a kind of excess baggage that we lug around from moment to moment and relationship to relationship. While we say it defines who we are, in reality, many of us have the sneaking suspicion that it really only defines who we were—and not too accurately we might add—and therefore it bounds and limits who we want to become.

In many ways our personal history is like a collection of old duffel bags containing the relics and memories, the old debris and remnants of yesterday. We hold on to them in the mistaken belief that we will need them for our future. More often than not, of course, these relics and memories do not contain as much value as they do contain a lot of distortions, exaggerations, outright lies, and things we no longer have any real use for. So each time we pack and unpack them, each time we drag them into new relationships, new career opportunities, new activities and events, these distortions grow, these exaggerations increase, and as a result, our new relationships and movements become entangled and encumbered, our spontaneity becomes restricted, and the truth about who we are and the life we are leading becomes harder to discern. Of equal importance, this attachment and identification with the past clouds each of our present moments and keeps the sun of joy and discovery from shining in our lives.

Each time we pack or unpack these relics and the old stories we use to introduce ourselves to another person, we are inadvertently inflicting our flawed and at times untrue memory of past on to our innocent future.

Get to the Heart of the Tale

No one really cares about our summer in Maine or Malibu or Grosse Pointe or Brooklyn; or about our relationship with Harry, Josh, Mary, Sally or Chuck—at least not in the form of the story we are currently telling. The story tends to be inflated or exaggerated or understated. The story tends to be denuded and cleaned up. Most of the real feeling and frailty, the lessons and discoveries that we gained, often painfully, from the event, relationship or experience is filtered out in the interest of concise and polite communication.

Under these conditions, it is understandable that no one is all that interested. And that''s not because they are insensitive. It''s just that most of us are bored by our own stories and tired of carrying those old satchels around with us. Most of us know that the real fears and hurts have been covered by generalizations, distortions and deletions. Most of us know that many of our stories are not true, and even when they are, they do not speak to the true pains and confusions, the hopes, dreams and longings our souls have. These remain locked inside waiting for some special occasion or some perfectly safe relationship.

So you see most of us know that personal history by itself is not worth any more than yesterday''s newspaper, unless it is used as a means of debriefing what has occurred as soon after the occurrence as possible so we can identify our lessons learned. In this way our personal history becomes a way for us to learn from our mistakes, to redefine our strategies and to capitalize on our opportunities.

Personal history is also valuable if it is used as a form of feedback, if it assists us in adjusting and calibrating our behavior and reviewing and refining our strategy, and if it becomes a means by which we can change those aspects of our thoughts, words and actions that did not prove successful or satisfying in the past. In this way, personal history becomes a living and vital thing, a source for learning and growth. Otherwise it is just that old calcified, petrified stuff of memory, so full of distortion it bears little or no resemblance to actuality.

By comparison, not one past moment of personal history is as important as this breath. And this one. And this one. Not one thing is as significant as this moment. It is an unblemished opportunity in which we can express a kindness, challenge a belief, share an intimacy, alter or initiate an action, examine a point of view, come to an understanding, share our love and express our gratitude.

Declare Your Past Complete

So right here and now, declare your past complete. Or at the very least, give it a rest. Literally, as if you were closing a book you had just finished, close the covers on your personal history. There will be plenty of time, if you insist, when you find yourself less mobile or less engaged in the world, to open the covers of your book of the past, to reflect and review and consider. There may be moments in the quiet of the night or early in the morning when you choose to open the book to review and learn or to reexperience some of the tender and precious moments you have lived. But do not spend so much of your precious life energy on your personal history. Do not make it a substitute for living in the here and now. Do not pay attention to personal history when there is the opportunity to live fully in this present moment.

The Astounding Power of Now

By comparison, if we want to move beyond pretense, preoccupation and limitation of personal history we need only focus on what is actually happening in this "now." Nothing more, nothing less. If we are present, life will take care of itself and of us. This one extraordinary commitment to be present will eliminate all the comparisons about the way it was or the way it was supposed to be. It will also free us from carrying around all of those duffel bags with our old personal history.

So your task is to stay present. Don''t waste time worrying about what happened or what might or might not happen. Stay connected to each moment, and let each moment lead to the next. You will be so busy, so full and so alive that you will not have time to worry. And what you do not like about this moment you can change or accept or allow or become. This is the mystery. This is the magic. This is the wonder. Here and now. Always and forever. Here and now.

This article appeared in the June 2002 issue of Personal Journaling.

George A. and Sedena C. Cappannelli are the authors of Say Yes to Change.

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