Why Your Past Regrets Will Not Help You

A monk’s response to a murderer’s confession

Matilda Swinney
Sep 23, 2020 · 6 min read
Photo by Quinten de Graaf on Unsplash

I laid on the wooden floor. The heat was lighter today, like a gentle duvet wrapped around me. I had reached a state of peace I never thought I would. From day one, I wanted to escape. I was sure silent meditation retreats were for fools. Who even thought of the idea?

But, it was day eight now and I had transformed. Time had a new meaning. Seconds were slower. My focus had switched from worrying to watching lines of ants marching by, and the ripple of wind in the leaves.

The daily meditation class had finished but I was still meditating. I had gone from hating it, to smugly extending the classes with extra meditations for myself.

As I laid there, a conversation drifted over to my awaiting ears. I should have been deep in a meditation, deaf to any external noises. But, instead I found myself straining to hear every word of those hushed voices.

It sounded like a man and the monk who had lead our meditation class. The man was talking at great speed, as if the relief of sharing was crashing over him in a wave of release. As he talked I began to decipher his words.

“If you have done the worst thing in the world. Worse than anyone could ever imagine, beyond the normal worries of people’s lives, how do you carry on living with yourself? How do you cope with each second of pain?” the man asked, struggling with his final questions.

He sounded beyond tears. It was as if the darkest part of his soul had been dragged up into the Thai sunshine and wasn’t ready yet to see the light. There was a great silence as we both waited for the monk to respond. I wondered if they knew I was lying within earshot of their conversation.

What has gone before you no longer exists

When the monk replied, his voice was soft. I realised as he spoke, that I had expected him to be shocked. I was both intrigued and horrified. This man had definitely killed someone or tortured them. And I had expected the monk to be deeply shocked too.

Instead, he was gentle, slow and calm. He expressed no obvious reaction in the tone of his voice, “the past is a collection of our memories, of the films we have created of each memory since. It does not exist. It never existed as you remember it. By recalling specific moments of your life everyday, you live in a fantasy inside your mind.”

I stopped to think. My thoughts and recollections of the past, definitely felt real but I understood exactly what he was saying. My memories were a fantasy inside my head, a film I had made up to entertain myself. Who knew if I had even remembered them correctly?

“We think the people we see in our minds are real but it is part of our cinema. It is not your son, or your father, mother or friend. It is a projected image you have made for yourself.”

The monk’s Thai accent made his words even more beautiful. I was hit with a sudden eureka moment. I, more than anyone, lived inside my head. I constantly replayed past events. I had never stopped to realise just how irrelevant the images inside my head were.

I took them as accurate events , which were useful to replay. But, my memory was probably totally distorted. How many times do a group of people all recall the same memory in completely different ways?

The feelings which influence your life so greatly do not exist

“But what do I do when I feel doom? Sometimes a pressing anxiety fills me and-” The man stopped talking. It was as if he couldn’t express fully what he wanted to say. He fell silent.

The monk waited for several beats before replying.

“Your brain attaches emotion to the physical feeling. Observe each one, break down the feeling, where is it in your body? Is it tight, is it a wave, does it press on your heart? Feel it. Do not worry or judge it.”

Sometimes you have to hear advice from the right person. Perhaps, it’s the timing in your life, the delivery of the person or the amount you respect them, but it just clicks. And that’s what happened. It clicked. The monks words sunk in. I lay in my blanket of warmth, feeling like I could cry.

Just thinking about anxiety made me anxious, but I let the emotion run through me, I analysed it’s physical attributes and I found the anxiety evaporated. Something strange was happening and it wasn’t even the end of my enlightening experience yet. The monk and the man were still talking.

You are refusing to live in your own reality

“You can see the water in front of you now. You can see the blue of the sky. Or you can watch the cinema of your mind and choose to see nothing.”

I gulped guiltily. His words had to be aimed at me. How many times had I walked home from work and not seen one part of the city around me? How many times had I been so lost in my own thoughts, I had failed to notice the blue sky above me?

I was living a life of regret, worry and embarrassment because I was deeply caught up in my own mind. But, the truth was, what had happened in my life was over. There was no going back now, so there was no point in reliving an inaccurate version of it everyday.

And essentially, the advice was the same, no matter if your regret was a bad relationship or a murder. A murder was a pretty heavy regret to have in your heart, sure, but the monk was straight forward with his words. The advice was the same.

“You can choose the present moment, or you can choose to stay locked in the past.”

No matter how terrible what this man had done was, it was over. He couldn’t turn back time. And sadly, his redemption wouldn’t help anyone. All he could do was commit to the present moment and move forward.

No amount of guilt or sadness, will make the past feel better

All you can do is learn from your mistakes, and embrace the moments around you, before they too turn into memories and add to the distorted film showings inside the cinema of your head.

The “past’ and the “future” don’t exist. They are just words to frame and give understanding to the present moment. The “past”? When it was happening it was a present moment. At the time the past was happening, it was the now. Even when you look back on the past and remember it, you’re still doing it right here, right now. You’re not visualizing a past moment, you’re visualizing your memory of that moment, right here, right now.”

So, the only thing which is true is the present moment. And you must stick to it. Learn to throw away the thoughts inside your head because they will not help you. Regretting the past or predicting the future, is not an indication of anything apart from the number of precious seconds you are missing of the present moment.

No matter your past, allow yourself to be fully present. Practice everyday. Give in to what you can see around you, and the emotions you are feeling now, the way you are breathing, the feel of the chair beneath you or the wooden table below your elbows. Let any thoughts of the past and future drift away.

Your life is too precious to spend it living alone in the cinema of your mind.

ILLUMINATION-Curated

ILLUMINATION-Curated hosts outstanding stories of advanced writers covering 100+ topics.

Matilda Swinney

Written by

Sex, life & mental health | P.S I Love You | Mind Cafe | Find out how to go from 0 to $1k on Medium with my free six-day writing course pages.matildaswinney.com

ILLUMINATION-Curated

Outstanding stories objectively and diligently selected by 40+ senior editors on ILLUMINATION

Matilda Swinney

Written by

Sex, life & mental health | P.S I Love You | Mind Cafe | Find out how to go from 0 to $1k on Medium with my free six-day writing course pages.matildaswinney.com

ILLUMINATION-Curated

Outstanding stories objectively and diligently selected by 40+ senior editors on ILLUMINATION

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store