“Without the faculty of forgetting,” Wrote E. M. Cioran while reflecting on the painful nature of being alive, “our past would weigh so heavily on our present that we should not have the strength to confront another moment, still less to live through it.”
Forgetting, this innate capacity of our mind, mostly regarded as a hindrance, has a healing potential when it comes to all the painful memories that keep haunting our mind. If only we could utilize it at will, how much lighter our life would be? If we could wipe the board of our memory of all the heartrending scribbles that prevent us from writing a new story of our life. Most of the time, however, this is a luxury we can’t afford. And so we live through all the painful memories that keep us from moving forward and making a meaningful change.
There is, however, another way of going about it, which lies in the art of living in the present moment, the ability to cultivate mindful awareness. This ability to be alive and present comes afresh in the Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm, a book by renowned Zen master and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh.
In the chapter called “Don’t Fear the Past,” he offers a simple yet profound analogy of memory as a film that keeps replaying in our minds. Here’s how he puts it:
From your seat in the audience, you look up at the screen. There is a story; there are people on the screen interacting with each other. And down there in the audience, you cry. You experience what’s happening on the screen as real, and that’s why you shed real tears and feel real emotions. The suffering is real; the tears are real.
But a moment of mindful awareness can make all the difference. It can allow us to see through this illusion and realize that at this moment, we are safe and that phantoms from the past can’t hurt us. Thich Nhat Hanh, continues:
But when you come up to touch the screen; you don’t see any real people. It’s nothing but flickering light. (…) When we recognize that we have a habit of replaying old events and reacting to new events as if they were the old ones, we can begin to notice when that habit energy comes up. We can then gently remind ourselves that we have another choice. We can Look at the moment as it is, a fresh moment, and leave the past for a time when we can look at it compassionately.