Stepping Twice Into the River

I have a pesky habit of getting stuck in the past, of brooding over relationships and events, analyzing and wishing for a different outcome along the way. Sometimes, I find myself tête-à-tête with a particularly unsmooth shard from the past’s vast collection of broken glass and it becomes so unbearable, so beyond any acceptance or acknowledgement, that I have an overwhelming desire to do something, anything. As if doing is reflexively the right response. Clearly, it often is. We, beings, do a lot of doing after all and often the appropriate thing to do is act.  But that’s not the same as doing something, anything.  That burning desire to just do is really an inability to sit with things as they are. So before we know what, if anything, we can do, it’s often best to just be first.

When we reflect on the past, we can consider our actions and their consequences, or the actions of others and their consequences. Both may appear equally unbearable. In the reflection below, I will focus on the former.

In any reflection on doing, it’s useful to consider the question of karma. As I understand it, karma represents the consequences of our actions.  It’s not a simplistic notion of tit for tat. If I do something stupid, harmful or generally unskillful, it’s not that I will be punished for it at a later day. And if I do something wise, noble and skillful, it’s not that I will be rewarded for it at a later day (or better yet this afternoon). The universe is more subtle than that.  What really matters here is the effect on our heart.  Most of the time, we are not willing to really be present with the consequences of our actions.  Most of the time, we do not notice, or we dismiss our actions and their consequences as no big deal. But these unreckoned-with consequences show up somewhere in our subconscious, adding hardness to our soul and sometimes even the physical body. On the other hand, if we were to truly be present with the reality of making an unkind comment, or manipulating a loved one out of greed, or any number of hurtful and small actions we are capable of, that just might become truly unbearable and lead us to want to do something. But what if we could just stay with the unbearable, the rather-be-forgotten, the awkward, the object of our brooding, big or small?

Mark once called mindfulness a universal solvent and it is. If we can truly stay with the consequences of our actions, we will perhaps see in them nothing more than the drama of the human experience, the actors strutting and fretting their hour upon the stage, to borrow from Shakespeare. Or as Buddhists would say – the impersonal nature of experience. If we can see it, see it with our heart, the impossibility of it will dissolve and love and forgiveness will naturally enter the stage.

I’ve spent a good portion of my life analyzing the past. It’s less of a pastime nowadays but I still look back quite a bit. I often have a difficult time accepting what was. But I’m finally beginning to realize that this truly is a futile exercise. What an incredibly simple insight. It’s in the past? Oh, you mean I cannot go back and tweak it? Just a bit, just to see? And would I really want to??? What I’ve finally realized is that it makes no sense to put the myself of today into the reality that the myself of yesterday lived in. The myself of yesterday created a different reality than the myself of today would. And even given the exact same set of conditions, the myself of yesterday had a different capacity to see them and to respond to them. Or as Heraclitus put it centuries ago, you cannot step twice into the same river. For other waters are ever flowing.

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