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PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE – BECOMING – by Robert Tolz
Between the past and the future lies the present, the perpetually moving moment that links the two. We will not be able to completely engage in the process of becoming in the present moment unless we free ourselves from clinging to the past – the known – and transcend our fear of the future – the unknown.
Sometimes we cling to the past; sometimes it clings to us. We may be unaware that we are tied to the past unless someone points out what they have observed in us, like pointing to a piece of paper that we did not know had become stuck to the bottom of our shoe.
Two factors that may tend to counteract the force of becoming and pressure us back into the past are excessive remembering and excessive forgetting. Excessive forgetfulness is connected to a state of ignorance, while excessive remembering is tied to a state of insecurity. These forces act like a stiff gale that prevents our forward progress while walking down the street.
An example of excessive forgetfulness is repeating a pattern of behavior over and over again without realizing that we do so. We do not realize that what we are doing is similar to what we have done before. We fool ourselves into thinking we are traveling the straight and narrow path when an aerial snapshot would show that we are merely walking in circles.
Oscar Wilde wrote, “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.” But if we keep making the same mistakes, what is the value of that experience? Experience often comes from bad judgment. With sufficient consciousness, good judgment can arise from experience.
An example of excessive remembering is allowing the pain of an unhappy experience to unnecessarily alter our behavior, making us overly reluctant to step forward for fear of repeating a past pain. The adage “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is certainly true but, if taken to an extreme, this wisdom can become a crippling hindrance to our becoming.
Mark Twain once observed, “We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it – and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again-and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.”
Another avenue of excessive remembering is failure to acknowledge changed circumstances. For instance, we may open an umbrella to protect ourselves from a downpour and then obliviously continue to hold it over our heads long after the rain has passed. Or, if we experience the epiphany of a realization about how things work in life and reduce that realization to a doctrine through which we try to force all subsequent experiences, we may wind up discounting or dismissing all that fails to fit our preconceptions. Our over-generalizations and conclusions about life become hardened dogma that clash with life as it really is. We may wind up defending these ideas and virtually worshipping them. Is this really productive? In Mark Twain’s words, “Sacred cows make the best hamburger.”
Although excessive forgetfulness and excessive remembering may appear to be opposites, they are merely two sides of the same coin and produce quite similar results. Both align us almost magnetically with the past and disrupt our process of becoming. It cannot be denied that the past shapes us-our childhood experiences, the cultural milieu which surrounds us-just as pruning shears and wires shape a bonsai tree. But if we resign ourselves forever to that shape and allow it to limit our future, we are not free.
A useful tactic to use when we are excessively forgetful is to develop our capacity to remember. Similarly, when we excessively remember, it is useful to learn to forget. Each of us may have a different tendency towards one or the other excess, but it is more likely that we are composed of a mixed bag. We excessively forget some things while excessively remembering others. The obvious implication is that we need to develop our powers of discernment to determine the true nature of our behavioral patterns and apply the appropriate remedy.
Our attachments to the past figure strongly in how we relate to the future.
Excessive remembering and forgetting are certainly not the only forces that tend to tie us to the past. Other ways to look at this include our search for security and our fear of pain, both of which are closely related. Both tend to prevent us from moving into the future, from becoming, just as two magnets configured in a certain way will repel each other rather than attract.
It is not rare for children to latch on to some belonging to give them a feeling of security-a blanket, a doll, a rubber ducky. As we mature, the items may change, but we may continue to rely for security on things which are external to our core being-our self-image, our possessions, and the number of people we count as friends, to name a few.
It is imperative that we assess whether the things on which we rely for security help us in our process of becoming, or whether they get in our way.
Sesame Street’s Ernie loves his rubber ducky. In a memorable routine from the television program, he wants to learn to play the saxophone. The problem is that every time he picks up the sax to try to make music, he hears a squeaking noise. Perplexed, he seeks advice from bandleader Mr. Hoots, who promises him, “I’ll teach ya how to blow the sax. I think I dig your problem. It’s rubber and it quacks.” What Ernie has been completely oblivious to is the fact that he is still holding on to his rubber ducky when he tries to play the saxophone. “What good are flying fingers,” Mr. Hoots queries, “if they’re wrapped around a duck?”
Mr. Hoots’s ultimate advice to Ernie is “Put down the ducky,” a lesson not only for children.
Our reluctance to let go of supports emanates from a fear of falling, a fear of pain, for the instinct of self-preservation urges us to believe that we will fall without our supports. And if we fall, will we not hit the ground hard?
Skydivers report an experience of exhilaration from falling out of airplanes, a possibility that seems insane to the vast majority of the human population. But imagine what happens when a novice jumps out of a plane the very first time, with only a parachute for support. In the first moments, the sensation of falling is likely to cause great fear, maybe even something akin to panic. But as the first few moments turn into seconds, perhaps one no longer feels a sense of falling. Instead, maybe the feeling is one of either floating or flying. It is good to remember that experienced skydivers do not fear falling; they fear only sudden stops.
Imagine being in orbit around Earth in a state of free fall. It is a common mistake to think that objects float freely in Earth orbit because there is no gravity. In actuality objects in orbit are continuously falling because of the force of gravity. What prevents them from crashing to Earth is that they are high enough and moving fast enough that the Earth’s curvature continuously falls away beneath them at the same rate that the objects themselves are falling. After an astronaut passes the first disorienting experience of free fall-similar, no doubt, to the feeling that amusement park visitors obtain when dropping down the steep side of a rollercoaster-the sensation must certainly be one of floating or flying.
Could the experience of skydivers and astronauts teach us something? If anything, it is that relinquishing supports does not necessarily lead to a stumble that causes pain. It is possible to examine our various supports to determine which are necessary and which interfere with our process of becoming. Which ones form our fundamental foundation and which ones will squeak when we try to play the saxophone? To what degree can our lives be simplified so that we can live freely in a state of suspension instead of in a state of holding on for dear life?
Fear can be a great anti -motivator. We fear falling. We fear change and uncertainty. We fear the unknown. All of this diminishes our process of becoming, for if we are to unfold we must necessarily pass through unknown and uncertain territory. Always striving for security and certainty is the antithesis to unfolding. As Alan Watts thought, there is wisdom to insecurity. Certainly, imagining that we can avoid uncertainty is an illusion. It is more likely that we will find ultimate security in whatever we can identify as truly permanent and eternal, as opposed to our temporary supports. Indeed, if we’re looking for security, we can find it in uncertainty, for it will always be there for us.
If we can attain a sense of equilibrium in the face of these uncertainties of life, then we will more readily let go of the past and look forward to attaining our possibilities. When we are no longer imprisoned in the dualities of past and future and the avoidance of pain and attraction to gratification, the present becomes more expansive, and it is in the present that the process of becoming truly occurs.