How Do We Let Go of the Past?

by Anthony “Sensei Tony” Stultz, author of The Three Principles of Oneness: How Embodying the Cosmic Perspective Can Liberate Your Life

Some years ago, I led a retreat at Hiroshima. To my surprise, the city of Hiroshima was a modern metropolis with only one sign of the atomic bombing that had occurred there on August 6th, 1945. The twisted remains of a building that looked like something from the science fiction film, The Planet of the Apes. As we began our day of reflection and offered incense and prayers, we all were somewhat dismayed to see busload after busload of Japanese school children running, laughing and playing in the park amongst the memorials in memory of those who had died there. Our expectation was that this would be a somber place of grieving, but it was just the opposite.

As the afternoon drew to a close, I went to the area where paper cranes at the Children’s Peace Monument were displayed. An elderly Japanese couple was there and I respectfully approached them. I asked how they felt about this place and about the playing children who seemed oblivious to the past. They very kindly responded, softly smiling, “We are very pleased to see what was once a place of death now is a place of children’s laughter.” I then asked how they personally felt about what had happened there. The man looked at the sky and said, “We brought this upon ourselves. It was our karma for the actions we had taken as a nation.” I have to admit that I was shocked by his answer. He saw this reaction and responded, “There is no point in dwelling on the past. Only the present moment exists. And what we do now is what creates the future, not what happened in the past.” I bowed deeply and thanked them for their wisdom.

When someone asks me how they can let go of the past, it is usually from the perspective of wanting to put a painful experience behind them. But this isn’t always true. Often it is just the opposite. Someone cannot let go of the past because they believe what happened in the past has to be held onto. And why do they believe this? Because they either believe that they were wronged and that someone must pay penance for the past event, or that they themselves were wrong and must be punished.

The Buddha Shakyamuni is recorded in the Sallatha scripture as saying that when we suffer it’s as though we have been struck by two arrows. One arrow that caused the pain and the second arrow of beliefs about what happened that creates the suffering. In essence, it’s not what has happened to us that matters, as much as what we believe about what happened. It is the very basis of Mindfulness: Our thoughts create our perception of what is real.

One of my wife’s favorite films is “Regarding Henry.” In it, a man suffers physical damage and retrograde amnesia after being shot in a convenience store hold up. The man who recovers is not the same man who was shot. He no longer has the beliefs and thoughts he had before the shooting, and thus he is a different man. In a sense, he is reborn, illustrating the power our beliefs and thoughts have over our perception of self and the world.

So what’s the compassionate action to take from these insights? From the Second Principle of Oneness, we learn that everything is constantly changing. Nothing is really ever the same; this law of the universe is the only way new things can come into being. The death of a star can bring about new worlds. If that’s the reality for the past in our universe, why not harmonize with nature and do the same? By letting go of the past, we can learn to create something new. Like a stream that is running down a hill, we can diverge its path and bring fresh healing waters into a new pasture of our life.

Anthony “Sensei Tony” Stultz is an ordained Buddhist minister and internationally recognized mindfulness expert as well as the author of The Three Principles of Oneness: How Embodying the Cosmic Perspective Can Liberate Your Life. He is also the spiritual director of The Dragonfly Sangha and founder of the Blue Lotus School of Mindfulness Arts.
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