How to Work with Past Memories in the Present
Not long ago someone asked me this question: How do you work with a challenging memory from the past that brings up emotion in the present?
I thought it was a very good question. First of all, it is important for us to recognize that these emotions are happening in the present. Whatever emotion we’re experiencing, it is happening at the present time. You’re feeling that intense emotion towards an object of some kind –– and that object could be a memory from the past. Or a feeling you had about something you experienced in the past.
The actual conditions or causes of that emotion could be related to the past or the future, it doesn’t matter. Thinking about the future can also sometimes bring up a lot of anxiety. But the key point when we’re talking about working with emotions is that whatever emotion we are experiencing now, it’s occurring in the present.
And so, in my experience and according to my understanding, even if the emotion we’re feeling has something to do with what happened in the past, it’s different from the emotions we experienced in the past towards that object or situation. It’s different, because now it’s been many years since that happened. Or maybe it’s been a few months, or whatever.
Every Moment of Emotion Is Unique
Whatever moment of emotion we’re experiencing now, is a unique one. It’s a unique moment of anger, or fear or what have you. So, we must treat it as unique. We must not treat this fresh moment of emotion as if it’s the same thing we felt before. That becomes a problem. Sometimes we may say, “Oh, this is the same emotion I had twenty years ago,” but that’s not the case. It’s not the same. It’s different.
Your mind, your mental constitution and your mental environment has changed. Your physical environment has also changed. The place where you’re having this emotion is different as well. It may even be a different season. Maybe the scary experience you’re recalling now originally happened 20 years ago on a snowy day in winter, and now you’re feeling fear in the summer. There’s a bright, sunny sky overhead and the weather is warm
Therefore we must treat our present emotions as being a present-time occurrence. I’m not a therapist, of course, so I cannot give you that kind of professional advice. But from my experience of working with my emotions, and from the point of view of the Buddhist teachings, I must say we need to treat it as a present, not as a past emotion. When you treat it as a present emotion, that changes the whole game. And when you see that emotion as the present, it’s not as heavy.
When you think, “I’ve had this for 20 years and it’s still here!” it’s very heavy. But instead, when you think, like, “Oh yes, I have this emotion coming up. I had a similar one before, and I’m having a similar one coming up now. But different! When you treat it that way, it has already become much lighter. And it’s much more manageable.
I must say, too, that there’s really no way you can treat the past emotions. Because they’re gone, you know. All you can do is work with how we feel about it now. That you can change. That you can treat. By changing your present feeling and emotions, you’re already transcending the emotions from the past.
How Mindful Gap Helps with Strong Emotions
People have told me that at such times it helps them to apply Mindful Gap which is Step 1 of the Emotional Rescue Method.
Basically, Mindful Gap involves allowing enough space around your emotions and yourself, so that you can have a sense of being able to get perspective on your emotions and on what’s happening around you. You have to take a moment to step back from that.
There’s an experience people sometimes have, I think it’s called vertigo, when you’re up in a high building, or at the edge of a cliff or something like that, where you have an impulse to move forward instead of back.
We usually do that in response to our emotions, like a kind of vertigo where you keep moving further and further forward as though jumping off the cliff. Maybe instinctually you know you should step back a little bit. Intellectually, maybe you know you should step back and take a moment to consider the situation, but instead we end up jumping forward and getting upset.
So Mindful Gap is a way of creating the strength and power to step back and allow enough space around you, and around your emotions, so that they don’t become so reactive.
Working with Strong Emotions About Past Events: An Exercise
1. Think of a somewhat unpleasant memory. Connect with your body and notice any emotion you may be feeling now. It doesn’t have to be a big emotion. It’s usually best to practice working with smaller annoyances first, then work up to the bigger ones.
2. As you connect with the anxiety, anger, or whatever emotion you’re feeling, remind yourself, “This emotion is a unique experience. It is happening in the present moment. I may be remembering something while feeling this emotion, but it is happening right here, right now.
3. Sit with that awareness for a few moments. What changes do you notice –– in your breath? Your body? Your mind?
4. If you found this exercise useful, consider how and where it might come in handy again.
This article is based on teachings given by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche during the online event, “A Conversation with Author Dzogchen Ponlop” in July 2021 hosted by Emotional Rescue Courses.