Changing the past

When Sensei Berry visited Seattle a few weeks ago, he posed an interesting question to us: “Can you change the past?”

The immediate answer that came to my mind (and, I’m sure, to most everyone else) was: “No, you can’t.” After all, consider this classic zen story (if you are familiar with this story, please excuse my paraphrasing):

Two monks were travelling back home from a long journey. Along the way, they had to traverse a river. The river was relatively swift, but easy enough for them to cross. However, when they got to the river they noticed a young woman who was also trying to cross, but the river was too swift for her to manage. Although the monks’ order was strict in regards to no contact with women, the elder monk showed no hesitation in lifting the woman and carrying her across the river.

The younger monk was stunned, and remained so for the duration of the journey. When at least their temple came into view, the young monk finally had the courage to exclaim: “Master, our order states that we must never have contact with women, yet you carried that woman across the riverbank!”

The elder monk turned and said simply: “I left her at the other side of the river. Do you carry her still?”

The meaning of this story seemed clear: the past is the past, and dwelling upon it does little good.

When Sensei Berry, then, posed his question to us, more than one of us said that you cannot change the past. And, if anyone is like me, there might have been some smugness in thinking we had the “right” answer. Imagine my surprise then, when Sensei Berry said emphatically:

“Of course you can change the past!”

That statement got my attention, to say the least. You can change the past? How? Aikido is powerful, but it doesn’t give you the ability to alter time, does it?

Sensei Berry continued (and, again, I paraphrase): “Each day you have the opportunity to grow. When you grow, you change how you look at your life. When you change how you look at your life, you change your life. This is because the only time that exists is now.”

I’ve thought about this a lot since the seminar. You see, one of my bad habits is to berate myself for things I’ve done in the past. To say that I am an extremely harsh critic of my own actions would be an understatement. There are memories of my junior high and high school years that, to this day, bring me pain when I think of them. Nothing unusual–in fact, I would say my experiences growing up were almost numbingly typical. What has been atypical is my difficulty in recognizing that everyone makes mistakes, and no one goes through life with the knowledge of knowing exactly what to do or exactly what to say. Changing how I deal with my past has been a pivotal part of my Aikido training… and I feel I’ve made some progress. But one thing I had always said to myself: “The past is the past, I cannot change it.”

After some thought, I admit that my previous thinking was too limited, and that Sensei Berry is right. The only time that matters is now. Therefore, what we think of as the past is really our current perception of past actions. When I change my perception, I in essence change my past actions! How I live and think suddenly moves from being a linear process to a spherical one; with myself in the now, standing in the middle, and my perception and thoughts radiating outward towards what we term the future and the past. This is hard to envision, but I hope this makes some sense.

Going back to the story of the two monks: I said it seemed that the story was telling me that the past was unchangeable and not worth dwelling upon. I think I was wrong. The story is more closely aligned with Sensei Berry’s statement: there is only the now, the present. What happens when we let that simple thought guide our actions?

3 thoughts on “Changing the past

  1. What you do NOW creates a future past, thus changing it. When you live in the NOW, and even when you don’t, you are creating, adding on and building your past. You are always adding to your past. So in actuality, you are changing your past. I talk about this idea and more in my book, “Stepping Off the Mat.”

    Life is fascinating, is it not? And strange when we really look.

  2. One of the main tenets of Zen is present moment awareness. Perceptions can be changed, which brings us back to another principle of Zen – nothing stays the same.

  3. Sensei Berry: You express this idea far better than I! It is a concept that, especially given my own personal tendencies, has really sent me for a loop. I’ll be dwelling on this new perspective for quite some time!

    I am nearly finished reading “Stepping Off the Mat.” Reading it has been a great experience; although I normally read quite quickly, I am deliberating slowing myself down so I can really enjoy what you have written.

    John: Thanks for stopping by! My understanding of Zen is quite limited, but I’m familiar with the tenets you mentioned. Some of these ideas can be very difficult to wrap my brain around… but I continue to try.

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