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Leave the Past Behind? Not Necessarily

The practice of mindfulness asks that we focus our awareness on the present moment, leaving the past behind. But is that always the best option? If you're experiencing an inner "nag," or in a situation that seems to be stuck on replay, the universe just might be telling you something.

Years ago, when my life was out of balance, and sleep was a privilege I rarely afforded myself, staying rooted in the here-and-now wasn’t simply difficult; it was downright laughable. My mind would either race with endless to-do lists for a future I wasn’t sure I wanted, or just seize up, like a computer in desperate need of a reboot.

Despite my attempts to cling to the present as a potential gateway to inner peace, I seemed to always end up disconnected and discontented. So, one night, I decided to break the rules. I decided to stop white-knuckling the present and drift backwards, into the past.

Yes, the past: that scary, forbidden place where all the younger, thinner versions of yourself float around with glossy hair and toothy smiles. It's horrifying. But I had an old friend there that I needed to find. Truth be told, I had ditched her years ago, promising I'd come back – and judging by my escalating neurosis, her patience was running out.

She was my childhood dream.

I hadn't allowed myself to reestablish that relationship before. In fact, during particularly late nights of drafting proposals and scarfing M&Ms, I’d sometimes feel her creep up on me, to which I’d promptly shove her back down with more M&Ms. I had long convinced myself that stuffing her away was all part of my spiritual practice of "staying present." But, as I later learned, staying present shouldn't be used to avoid the past.

When I reconnected with my friend that night, the pain of acknowledging that she still existed broke something inside of me that triggered an onset of tears (accompanied by their friend, the fetal position). I had traded my dream for a more stable option, only to turn out more unstable than I ever could have feared.

After hours of sobs, chokes, and punches to my innocent pillow, though, we finally made amends. And I was able to finally experience what I had long been searching for: peace. In the end, a trip to the past was just what I needed to heal in the present.

One of my favorite spiritual teachers, Pema Chodron, said, "Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know." I think my childhood dream was trying to tell me that through soft whispers, slight tugs, and eventually, manic screams. After all, just because I had spent years refusing she existed, didn't mean she wasn't there.

These days, instead of running away from my dream, I find myself running toward her. Our relationship is a little different now, but then again, so are we. One of us isn't stuck in the past and the other in the future. Instead, we've resolved to meet somewhere very comfortably in the middle.

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