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Breaking Free from the Prison of Your Past

Have you ever felt frustrated or annoyed while waiting in line and thinking something like, “What are they doing? They should have a better system for this”. I certainly have! It seems like the situation is creating our frustration but what if it isn’t? I experienced a situation like this not long ago that really got me thinking.

My Mom and I were selling my Dad’s old work van that he used for over 18 years of service calls in his appliance repair business. His van was very well used so we decided to sell it to the scrap metal guy for $300. However, a friend of a friend caught wind and reached out to say he would like to buy it. We were happy knowing someone would make use of the van rather than it being crushed for scrap. For over a year the van had been parked and it was a mess, inside and out! Much to my surprise though, once I inflated a flat tire and jumped the battery, not only did it start but it drove quite well. After taking it for a test spin, I parked it in our driveway. Shortly after Mom pulled out the wet vac and started to vacuum the carpets. Immediately I thought, “What are you doing, this guy knows the van was slated for the scrap yard, why would you vacuum it?”. So I asked Mom about her reason for vacuuming. She said she wanted to clean the van because she saw mouse droppings in it. In my mind, this was an even bigger reason NOT to clean it!

In this situation, it seems my frustration is because of Mom’s behaviour, while in fact I’m feeling frustrated because of my attachment to my thoughts. Realizing what is actually creating my unpleasurable feeling is the fundamental first step if I want to find some level of inner peace. The next step is letting go. Whether letting go of thoughts, possessions or even people, it is imperative to know it’s an inside job that can only be done by you.

I realized at that moment with Mom I was attached to my thoughts and had some choices; I could realize at that moment with Mom I was attached to my thoughts and had some choices; I could continue to build my story with all the reasons why cleaning the van is a waste of time and effort, or I could pause, turn my attention inward and self inquire with the intention of loosening my attachments to the thoughts. In Bryon Katie’s book “Loving What Is” she offers four questions, which she calls “The Work“. Her questions help people look at their thoughts, take ownership of their reactions and discover ways thoughts are untrue.

“A thought is harmless unless we believe it. It’s not our thoughts but our attachment to our thoughts that cause suffering”. – Byron Katie.

Bryon Katie says “attachment to a thought means believing that it’s true, without inquiring”. Most people know the first step is becoming aware that you are holding on to something. What I’ve noticed from doing the work of different spiritual teachers over the years is letting go, be it thoughts, possessions or people, can be very difficult. In some rare cases, a person can drop their attachment to a thought or belief fairly easily, however, most of the time loosening our attachment to our thoughts is quite difficult. Why?

It depends on your level of attachment. The greater the significance you put on the thought, the more difficult it will be to let it go. Our most ingrained thoughts and beliefs are typically connected to moments in the past that heavily impacted us. Whether it was a traumatic moment or a common situation you experienced with a lot of repetition, your nervous system stored it in order to help you in the future.

I’ve learned there are a number of factors that determine one’s ability to surrender their thoughts.

  • How ingrained or habitual the thoughts are

  • If the thoughts are connected to core wounds or trauma

  • How strongly a person associates who they are with the thought

All of these have a profound impact on one’s ability to detach from thoughts. For example, a person who has developed a habit of thinking negatively will have a difficult time switching to positive or simply even letting go of the negative thoughts because they’ve trained their brain to mostly process information a certain way, and breaking out of that mental rut can be tough.

“As soon as there is meaning, there is attachment.” – Nisargadatta

Your thoughts are not random, underneath every thought is a meaning you’ve created, and embedded in that meaning is a belief built from past experiences that, consciously or unconsciously, you’ve attached to. You can be a prisoner trapped in the emotions of your past. Every experience you liked or disliked, that helped or hurt you, had an emotional impact that has been stored in your nervous system. Essentially you are programmed to avoid re-experiencing situations that brought you pain or seeking out experiences that will bring pleasure. Your system becomes hyper-vigilant as it scans for possible threats that might touch a core wound. The strength of your attachment is directly proportional to the mental or emotional importance you’ve given the experience. This creates a sense of “right and wrong”, where you project what you think “should be” on top of what IS. We can not truly engage life’s moments when we are locked in the stories and emotions of our past.

Growing up I watched Dad always look for shortcuts, the easiest way to complete things. Cutting corners to save time and effort was prioritized over accuracy and quality. “Time is money”, and “It’s good enough” were ingrained in me. That conditioning from my childhood locked in, not because it was a trauma but because of the repetitiveness of the experience. As a little boy desiring to be like Dad, it was inevitable I would adopt many of his behaviours. What feelings did I have trapped in me? I felt insignificant and not competent. My child's mind coded these experiences as “time and money were more important than me”. So, I learned to discount my feelings and focus on productivity. Bless Dad’s big heart as he was doing his best to teach me what he believed would set me up for success in life.

When the benefits of keeping your thoughts and beliefs outweigh the costs, letting go will be problematic. In the situation with Mom, where I was in judgment and thinking, ”she shouldn’t vacuum the van”, it brought me a sense of righteousness. Being right can feel powerful. If I had been feeling powerless at that time, the feeling of righteousness would have outweighed the cost of disconnection and detaching from my thoughts would have been challenging. As it happened I felt solid enough to look at my thoughts, understand where they were coming from, and loosen their grip on me. I was able to choose the relationship with Mom, over being right.

Carl Jung wisely pointed out, “what we resist persists”. Many people get caught when they wrong their thoughts. Turning to self-criticism creates a cycle of hiding, repressing or denying aspects of ourselves. This exacerbates the situation because it forces the problem underground into the subconscious instead of allowing it to be expressed or compassionately understanding it and being present with it. Jung would refer to resisting or repressing as creating the “Shadow”. It is important to remember, we are always doing the best we can with the skills and information we possess at that moment.

Letting go doesn’t mean you are rid of the thoughts or that they will never return. Thoughts will come back again, except next time your attachment to them will be weaker. Letting go is a practice of uncovering the thoughts or beliefs that bring frustration, anger and fear – thoughts that take you out of balance. Exploring what’s hidden underneath your thoughts will uncover trapped feelings from impactful past experiences. Connecting with the feelings allows the younger you to feel acknowledged and understood, and loosens the grip of attachment. When you lovingly embrace your past pain it begins to dissolve and this for me has created a wonderful sense of freedom.

Jeff Brown


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