the preliminaries step 5: working with negative past

Step 0: Start Fresh
Step 1: Watch Your Breath
Step 2: Call Your Teacher
Step 3: Take Refuge
Step 4: See How We're All in This Together
Step 5: Work With the Negative Past

Oh, regret. I have done a lot of stupid things in my life. Some of these things have led directly to pain. (Fall off bike --> break tooth. Ouch. Pain.)


But pain and suffering are two different things and suffering is the one that we have the most power over.  (Fall off bike --> break tooth --> Decide that my life is over at 25 and that I will never be successful or find someone to love me. Proceed to act out my role in the crappily scripted tragedy that I just made up. Whoa. That's suffering.)


We do our best to make fewer mistakes and feel less pain, but having some of those sprinkled into life seems to be part of the deal. Suffering is different because it is caused by the way we think about the mistakes and the pain.  I didn't realize this until I had been meditating for a while, but it is possible to experience pain without suffering, and it is possible to experience suffering without pain. This post is a study on what the mind does with regretful memories and how much we can mitigate suffering if we start to understand how this process works.


As always, my test subject is my own mind. When I go into storytelling mode around a regret, I begin to have a warped relationship with the memory of the event. Because I believe that a past event (something I cannot change) is the source of my suffering, instead of my thinking in the present moment (something that I absolutely can change) I often attempt to manipulate my relationship to the past event.


Here are some of my favorite manipulation tactics. Sometimes I relentlessly cling to a single tactic. Sometimes I get creative and mix and match!


Tactic 1: Burial. I sense that I am not proud of some thing I have done and I immediately bury the memory down somewhere deep in my subconscious. This is done in an attempt to "protect" myself and it would be all well and good if it actually worked. But burial does not take away the event's power to influence my behavior, it just puts that power out of the light of day, out of the reach of reason. And this is a much more dangerous place for regret to live, for from the shadows it can sabotage my happiness without me being aware.


Whether it takes 5 seconds or 5 months or 5 decades, the burial is followed by the inevitable sniffing out the buried goods. When another person's words or actions, or some life event, begin to poke at that place where this memory is hidden, its influence begins to show itself. I tend to grow uncomfortable and experience any range of strange emotions. If I'm being mature about things (big IF!) Then I might recognize my own buried regret to be at the root of this uncomfortable experience, own it, and properly attend to it. More likely, I will proceed to tactic 2 or 3...


Tactic 2: Distracting from the stinky truth. If I begin to smell the rotten regret I buried down but I am still not willing to own it, I begin pulling out different techniques to move the attention away from it. I might avoid anything to do with that event by hunkering down with some good mind-numbing habits. I might attack those who remind me of my regret, attempting to fling the attention onto their mistakes or negative qualities. I might develop a pattern of running fast and far, leaving relationships, jobs, situations, in a cloud of raw emotion and specious reasoning. But wherever I go, it turns out that I bring the stink with me, so the cycle just continues. 


Tactic 3: Unhealthy obsession with the regret. When confronted with the regret I might pull out the most convoluted tactic of all. I pick it up, squeeze it, and refuse to let go. I go over and over the scenario, weaving stories, making judgements, assigning blame and attaching my identity to it. I replay the scenario not just in my mind, but in my life, projecting it onto my present and future. I imagine that everyone else is also obsessed with my negative event, that they are constantly judging me for it. All of my interactions become flavored by the regret--sometimes making me seem explosive or defensive, sometimes pathetic or unworthy, but always making me less than a joy to be around.


Pulling the regret close is the flip-side of burying it, but it is no less deluded and leads to suffering just as surely. The truth is, I'm not pulling close the actual event, as it happened, in and of itself--that would actually lead to forgiveness and healing. I'm pulling close my regret about it, the false judgements and invented stories that I created and attached to the thing that happend.


The answer to this whole issue is NOT to stop making mistakes or to run away from all pain. Trying to do that will just lead to more delusion, which always leads to more suffering. The answer is to learn to see what your mind does in response to the mistakes and pain. Meditation creates space for noticing the story-making, the shaming and blaming of self and others. For seeing that all of this deluding is what's causes suffering. And seeing that the story-making and the resultant suffering is all optional!


Step 5 of the Preliminaries gives us tools for interacting with the past event in a new way. It teaches us how to pull a regret out from the shadows, own it, learn from it, neutralize its negative ramifications, and move on happier, wiser and kinder. 


Here's how you do it. 


Think of something that you regret. When you first begin doing this practice you might be working on a backlog of unfortunate actions, but eventually things will clear up and you will start focusing on the thing you're least proud of from the past 24 hour period. 


Remember how we called our teacher a few steps back? Well the teacher is here and he or she is going to help you with this step. Calmly, without a whole bunch of wincing, hand-wringing or commentary, show the teacher what you have done. 


Ask the teacher to help you see the the mistake for what it is, prior to any labels you have put on it, more fundamentally than any stories you have woven around it. Your teacher is wise, which means that he or she has already accepted that flaws are human and forgivable, so a real teacher is the least likely type of person to freak out, judge you or punish you. He or she just wants to help you back to the truth.


Now think of a positive action that you could carry out which would counter-act the negative thing. We feel so crummy when we fuck up because we fear that we have knocked the world out of balance so that it now leans toward negativity. Doing something positive, in turn, can help us feel centered again. 


Make a promise, before your teacher, who really represents your highest self, to perform a balancing action. This does not need to be a grand gesture, just a thoughtful one that you will actually do. So if you were careless, be caring with something in your day. If you were harsh, be gentle. If you grabbed from someone, take a moment to give.


Try it. Let me know how it goes.