The hindrance is only one:
attachment to the past.
If we pause to consider our “life story”, isn’t it somewhat like remembering a dream? We might wonder: did it even happen to us? In the shadow play of memory, attention hitches a ride on the “Way-back machine” of imagination and projects a self that never was, creating the illusion of time and personal continuity. Even the one who remembers is none other than the memory itself. Memory remembers, untouched by any actual someone who dreams that they possess it. Nevertheless, the memory of past disappointments, unfulfilled desires, and stubborn grudges traps energy, helping to create the sense of a person, and with that story comes the whole drama of “me and mine” that contributes to the chronic and pervasive sense of unhappiness which characterizes the average human resident of this realm.
Random, arbitrary, transitory, delightful, terrible, beautiful, horrifying, mysteriously charming or vaguely blurred non-binding modifications of consciousness — nobody is implicated, blamed, validated, honored, or confirmed by memory except the fictional character we may yet take ourselves to be. In reality, that character is a fabrication of emptiness. Memory is merely emptiness shrunk down, condensed, packaged and framed into a flickering picture, and all for the benefit of a passing fantasy chasing a mirage, already decaying before our eyes.
Garbed in an endless array of neural costumery, memory is an organizing principle for consciousness to reflect a sense of enduring individuation in its path towards self-awareness. All of our self-concepts are memory-based data retrieval programs fabricated by consciousness to support and maintain a streaming scheme of personal continuity in the face of incomprehensible chaos (the unknown source of itself), and so navigate the dependently originating objective world as if it were permanent, substantial, and real.
Memory requires a frame of reference. However, without resort to memory, what reference is there to frame? Without resort to memory, the whole story is snatched away, leaving us with “what is” – all that we have been running from into the schemes of escape and avoidance, or strategies of craving and clinging, that comprise our everyday experience of consciousness, along with its attendant boredom, doubt, stress, and dissatisfaction.
There is an aspect of our minds that functions like a storehouse in which the habitual tendencies and karmic imprints of past actions caused by our reactive emotions are all stored like seeds. When the right conditions arise, they germinate and manifest as circumstances and situations in our lives. If we have a habit of thinking in a particular pattern, positive or negative, then these tendencies will be triggered and provoked very easily, and recur and go on recurring.
With constant repetition our inclinations and habits become steadily more entrenched and reified, increasing and gathering power, even when we sleep. This is how they come to determine our life, our death, and our rebirth. It is also why our sufferings feel so real and personal, and why they end up ruling our lives if we are mindless and unaware of their power to negatively influence our life choices.
The karmic imprints or impulses, when activated, serve to create the illusion of a solid and enduring self, which exists just on edge of the storehouse consciousness where the karmic impressions reside. However, should we pause and inquire into the reality of this self-assumption, we might discover that our personal story has no inherent substance.
In other words, our most persistent sense of self is a creative though empty fiction, a projection of mind conditioned by prior dramas that were never resolved. Essentially, there are lingering desires seeking extinction, which we in our ignorance mistake as our actual identity.
As Sri Nisargadatta notes: “The person is a very small thing. Actually it is a composite, it cannot be said to exist by itself. Unperceived, it is just not there. It is but the shadow of the mind, the sum total of memories. Pure being is reflected in the mirror of the mind, as knowing. What is known takes the shape of a person, based on memory and habit. It is but a shadow, or a projection of the knower onto the screen of the mind.”
By first detaching from our chronic state of fixated identification with the body-mind-self, and shifting the emphasis of attention from the superficial and transient personal story to that of the silent ever-present witness, we can observe the arising of the impulse/thought energy to follow our habitual karmic tendencies, and so choose to no longer be an unconscious victim, at the mercy of uninspected forces. Such conscious recognition of the actual nature of our own thoughts and emotions allows one the internal freedom to choose a skillful response to life’s tests anytime we are present and mindfully aware. Ultimately, even the witness must go, since it is still a figment of duality’s illusion, but that’s skipping far ahead for most of us.
In any case, we are not living in the past, and so cannot become mindfully aware in the past. We can only become aware in the moment when the tendencies are arising, and it is only in this moment when we actually have the power to choose to indulge negative habit energies, or refrain from doing so. By our choice in the moment then, we determine our future. What we are currently is the result of our past choices, and if we want to see how we will be in the future, we need only observe the choices we are making in the moment now.
By seeing through and freeing ourselves from any fixated identity based on the bonds of memory, we can let go of the weight of clinging to the past and its obsolete programs. Why lug around that heavy baggage? If we stop to sincerely inquire of ourselves, we might find that we actually don’t need to keep doing that at all, and in fact it is a great relief to just let it all go.
By clearing our internal browser’s cache, so to speak, we are free once again to greet every moment as a blank canvas, fresh and ready for the full presence of what is real and true — right here, right now. Whatever that might be, we will no longer need to characterize or categorize it based on old memory filters and associations. In that way, we can become once more like little children, unbound from the stagnant accumulation of conditioned fantasies of interpretation on history that typically constitute our self-sense.
In the perception of a child, each moment is ever-new. Indeed, whether or not we are attaching memory-based associations to its appearance, or projecting future-based expectations and desires onto it, the same is true for us, regardless of our chronological age. In this regard, the only thing that actually remains constant in this life experience is the fact that it is always this moment. One fact remains unassailable, as our whole life unfolds within this moment: it’s always Now!
Nevertheless, when most people hear slogans like “Be here now”, they think that “the present” is only appearing for a short time — a moment — and so needs to be grasped onto, in order to avoid “missing it”. However, whatever happens to appear in the present moment is perhaps more accurately recognized as simply the manifestation of the present moment, a transient and non-binding expression or modification of Now, which can never be grasped or solidified.
Moreover, some believe that there is some special space called “the moment” that we can get in, as if it was a swimming pool. We are exhorted to “live in the moment”. However, there is actually no moment separate from ourselves — we are the moment, we cannot get into it, any more than a wave can get into the ocean.
As the brilliant mystic Meister Eckhart wrote: “There exists only the present instant, a Now which always and without end is itself new. There is no yesterday nor any tomorrow, but only Now, as it was a thousand years ago and as it will be a thousand years hence.”
Something arises in the space of Now momentarily and then disappears. Then something else appears and vanishes. What remains is a fundamental ground of Stillness – an open and transparent sky-like vastness — out of which everything seems to emerge and into which everything seems to dissolve. This “Stillness” is another name for our own pure Awareness, and as our vision clarifies even more, we realize that nothing is happening — no arising, no vanishing. There is no separation between awareness, stillness, and experience. It is all one seamless fabric of ungraspable mystery — empty and marvelous!
To verify this, we can inquire of ourselves: “What does it feel like to be what I truly am – to set aside the fleeting sensations of embodiment, to set aside the narrative of my personal history, to let go of all compulsive thinking and emotional reactivity, to surrender all memory associations, all hopeful or fearful speculative projections – what remains that is true, and what does that really feel like?”
What we can notice, when we turn attention back on itself, is a clear knowing space in which thought is appearing, our sense of self is arising, and all the phenomena of existence are busy forming into an apparent objective world. If we were able to then detach from all our habitual projections and conceptual fabrications, relaxing and resting instead as that simple knowing space, releasing the whole bundle of conditional identifications, then we would spontaneously appreciate ourselves as the radiant presence of Now — this brilliant and pristine awake Awareness – always present, always effulgent, ever-free of any limit or qualification, and far beyond the story of the separate and independent body-mind-self that we have habitually taken ourselves to be.
Consequently, when we realize what Now really is – this fundamental ground of our own Awareness in which everything inheres and has its being – then we can naturally resume the condition of our own primordial peace and innocence, without the need to manipulate outcomes or create some reason to be apprehensive about the appearance or disappearance of any circumstance, event, or person. In such realization, as Nisargadatta noted, “there is nothing to hold on to and nothing to forget. Everything is known, nothing is remembered.”
Moreover, to be truly present in the “here and now” does not mean that we never thoughtfully consider and learn from the past, nor does it mean that we need not plan responsibly for the future. As Thich Nhat Hanh notes: “The idea is simply not to allow yourself to get lost in regrets about the past or worries about the future. If you are firmly grounded in the present moment, the past can be an object of inquiry, the object of your mindfulness and concentration. You can attain many insights by looking into the past, but you are still grounded in the present moment.”
The only challenge about all of this comes when we begin to complicate — when we cling to and fixate on a time-bound identity. In that case, the three times of past, present, and future all become variations on a prison — a conceptual prison of our own design. In reality, we are timeless awareness, shining as the radiance of Source Itself, illuminating this all-inclusive moment Now with the divine light of open spacious Presence.
Those who see with their intelligence
That existence is like a mirage and an illusion
Are not corrupted by believing in
The extremes of before or after.