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  • Writer's pictureallenbroadman

Changing the Past

Updated: Jan 12, 2022

Yes, we can change our past

The distinction made between past, present, and future is nothing more than a persistent, stubborn illusion. - Albert Einstein

We absolutely can change our past. I don’t mean this in some sci-fi, mystical, or supernatural way. I mean it in the most concrete, practical way possible. Yes, we can change our past.

The reason we can change our past is that this thing we label “our past” does not have the external reality we imagine it to have. This “past” exists only in our memories and in our thoughts and feelings about those memories. There is no “past” outside or separate from all those thoughts and feelings. And those thoughts and feelings - all of them - exist in the present moment. Only in the present moment.

You might immediately object, “But wait, it happened! I was there! My family remembers it too! There’s video!” Sure, something happened. But it’s not happening now. Whatever “it” was that happened, whether it was last year, last week, or a second ago, it’s gone. Something similar might be happening now, but it’s not the same. No current moment could ever be the same as any prior moment because all of reality has moved on to something different. This moving-on happens at every possible level, from the movements of stars and planets, to passing clouds, or the mysterious changes of subatomic particles. The moving-on also includes what we perceive as our “inner” life – all our thoughts, feelings, thinking, or memories. All of it in motion at every possible level, in every possible way, all the time.

There is no past that is out there in the world to be touched, felt, or encountered in the way that you can pick up an apple to see, touch, and smell it right now. There is no “objective” past reality that can serve as a reference point. It doesn’t matter that there are history books or video recordings or all sorts of records about what we call the past – those records do not make the past real. Those records also only exist in the present – they are memories, but stored in writings, film, paintings, photos, or digital mediums. But a photograph of last year’s New Year’s Eve in Times Square is not the same as last year’s New Year’s Eve in Times Square. It is just another kind of memory, the tiniest sliver of what actually occurred.

Not only are such records just tiny slices, but they can never be your personal experience in any way at all. For example, I was directly across the street from the World Trade Center on 9/11 and lived through a long and difficult day filled with all kinds of experiences. But a video recording of people running through the streets or of the buildings falling is not the same as my personal experiences of that day or of anyone else’s.

Consider the totality of everyone’s experiences of 9/11, all over the world – it is enormous, beyond comprehension. Each sight, sound, touch, smell, thought, feeling, that every person had throughout the day and beyond, whether they were there in-person or watching on TV – all of that must be included together to even approach the totality of the experience as any kind of “objective” reality. That totality could never be captured by any set of records about the day, it’s literally impossible. It doesn’t matter how many records there are, or how detailed they are – it cannot capture the totality. None can even capture a single person’s direct experience because nobody else’s experience, and no record, can ever be the same as your own personal experience.

Imagine the fossil of a T-Rex. You might think this fossil is evidence of some past that exists outside of us, but that’s not how it is. A T-Rex fossil exists only in the present moment, it does not exist in the past. The fossil is an imprint on the present reality, a reality that exists only now and can only exist right now. This imprint has been forged through a very, very long series of actions and forces – cause and effect have worked for tens of millions of years so that the fossil is the way it is, here and now. But here and now is the only place and time you can touch and feel the fossil.

The T-Rex fossil is a window into the actions and forces which forged it, and we can examine the fossil and discover and infer all sorts of things about those forces – it allows us to imagine what the prior reality was like. But we should not get confused into believing that because the fossil is here now, that the past exists. The T-Rex does not walk the earth now, even though some walking T-Rex we imagine has left an imprint that we can touch, see, and feel today. Did that imagined T-Rex really exist? Certainly. But that living, walking T-Rex is totally and completely inaccessible to us, just like every other"past" moment is. Every force, over millions of years, that has anything to do with the creation of the T-Rex fossil, has come and gone, leaving behind only the imprint. Like a handprint made in a wet, sandy beach, the hand is gone but the print remains, showing us now that a hand was there before. But the hand in the sand is gone.

It is exactly the same with ourselves. We are the imprint that results from the forces that have shaped who and what we are as we exist this moment. But our past selves do not exist anymore than the T-Rex exists. Your ten-year-old self does not exist, even though there are memories of that younger you: photos, family stories, report cards, etc. You cannot talk to that former you, or take care of them, despite how much you might wish to go back and give them some advice. That former you doesn’t exist outside of you now. You are in part today’s you because of that ten-year-old – you couldn’t be you without them. But still, you can’t go back because there is no when or then to go back to.

So how can we change the past?

We change the past by changing the present. Since the past only exists with us, as us, here and now, if we change our current experience of memories and thinking and feelings about those memories, then the past is transformed, since those things are the past in the only sense that any past can exist. When our inner relationships to memories of what has happened to us are changed, the meanings and impacts of all those memories are transformed, and then our whole selves are transformed into someone different – someone with a “past” that has a new and updated significance.

This process may be familiar to people who have healed from traumatic experiences. Although the traumatic events may be remembered in exactly the same way that they have always been remembered, in changing our understanding of, and relationship to the memories, they take on different meanings and no longer impact us as much. Healing changes our "past” by changing our lived experience of it right now.

You might think this is cheating somehow. Maybe you feel that I said we can change the past but now I’m saying we can change our experience of the past. But it’s not a cheat. Our experience of memories right now is the only way our past can be considered as real. Other people’s experiences of the past are not our past, they are their past. Even the people who were with us at the same time and place for remembered events have a different experience, because the imprints left on them are not the same as those left on us. And those imprints have changed those other people in totally different ways from us.

There is something puzzling about the past. It’s not there. - Michael Stanford, 20th century British historian

So the question of changing the past becomes a question of how to change our relationship to our thoughts and feelings, in the present moment. There are so many ways that offer great potential. Meditation is one way, offering a way to break out of our clinging and aversions to the web of thoughts and stories we have weaved about ourselves and the people around us. For me personally, if I could only choose one way, I would choose meditation and Zen practice. That’s a reflection of how my life has been transformed by Zen - it’s left me with great confidence in the process, founded on my direct experience. I find it to be the most simple, direct, and effective method for personal change. But fortunately, we don’t have to choose only one way, we can do all sorts of things.

Psychotherapy is another way, which instead of breaking out of clinging and aversion, offers a way to untie mental-emotional knots by examining them closely and seeing how they got tied in the first place. It’s an invaluable process that helps us gain insight into our personal stories and conditioning. Although it doesn’t totally uproot that conditioning the way Zen practice can, the loosening of our knots can bring more ease to our relationships with family, romantic partners, friends, coworkers, and more. That ease changes our lives for the better, and can even reinforce and strengthen our meditative practices.

More intimacy with this body means more intimate living.

Body practices of all kinds can help too, such as qigong or yoga, and many more. If done mindfully, instead of athletically, they help us tune into the body, which in turn helps us see more clearly how thoughts and feelings exist with the body, and are carried and kept there, often in burdensome ways, as mysterious pains or resistances we don’t understand. Body work helps us become intimate with the body and we need that intimacy because all our direct experience takes place through this body, through all its senses of seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, and thinking and feeling. More intimacy with this body means more intimate living in every way.

This was a long blog post, if you’re still with me, thank you. This may all seem like a strange perspective on what the past is, and I hope it gives you something to consider, another way to understand past and present, and what change means. Working with sincerity and effort, to see more clearly who and what we are, and why, is a great gift we can give to ourselves, a gift of self-care that we all need. May we all have more time and opportunities to do such work in the upcoming year.


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