As children in the physical world, one as yet unexplored, on occasion we may have moved our hands toward a hot oven. If we were being watched over carefully, an adult would stop us and say “No! Hot!” If we were not being watched, we would touch the hot oven door, burn our hands, scream and cry. But with no adult to know what had happened to cause us to cry, we may have been comforted or not. We may not have been told not to touch the oven when it was on.
Our next encounter with the oven door may be with no burn attached. Several times we touched the oven door with no consequences. Then again, that terrible hot pain. Eventually we would learn the difference between oven on and oven off. This is a more complex understanding. Eventually we learn not to go to explore places that cause us physical harm. In the case of relationships that cause us harm, this may take a lifetime to learn.
Within our own minds and hearts, however, we have no parent who watches over us and warns us of possible dangers. And so we return to the painful memories of the past, or frightening visions of the future. We return to a time in our childhood where we played with toy cars or doll houses, and we are filled with a sensation that causes us to buy a car or put in a bid on a house. These may change our lives for the better and so we conclude that it is alright to venture backward or forward in time, within our minds and hearts.
Unfortunately, sometimes the past or future is like a very hot oven. We extend our thoughts to its door and lean on it, again and again, feeling the searing pain of a bad and hurtful memory, but without realizing that the pain will not always go away by fiddling with the oven dial as we keep our hand on the door. In our minds we go back to a past memory and experience the great pain of it, a parent’s words of rejection, a tragic incident, a try and a miss, and we allow that pain to seep into our hearts and weigh us down like gathering rocks from an ocean floor. We may take this pain to the person who may have caused it, or to a friend who cares, or to a therapist, or to God or the angels. We keep diving into it, allowing it to burn us, as we attempt to understand and resolve or redefine this pain. Meanwhile, we are being burned again and again and again.
We have simply not yet learned, in a kind of spiritual infancy, not to go there. My father, a lovely man who was a painter and an inventor and who loved beauty and saw it in everything, once said to me as I argued with my mother about something, “If you don’t like it, go!” That was the long and the short of his tolerance for emotional problems. This hurt me deeply, and whenever I think of it, I feel the pain of his indifference toward me. If I became a problem, “there’s the door.” But recently I understood this on another level. In a sense, his inability to deal with emotional situations was being used to teach me something much deeper. If there is pain in a memory, we can learn not to go there. It is that simple. We can be in the process of learning not to go there, not to rock the loose tooth to see if it is still painful, rather than re-visiting the situation endlessly.
I am reminded of a story I once heard. It is about hunters who went to a village in Africa. They befriended the people of the small village and asked for a lay of the land. One of the tribesmen explained to them that there was a small lake to the north, another village to the west, and mountains to the east, and a family of man eating tigers to the south. The tigers had once killed a member of their tribe, and so they never went to the south. The hunters were fed and treated with great respect and given a place to stay the night. In the morning the hunters left the village. They returned to the village that afternoon and spoke to the villagers. They explained that in gratitude for the villager’s hospitality they had traveled south, found the man eating tigers and killed them so that now the villagers were free to go to the south as it was safe for them.
When the tribes people understood what the hunters had done, they began to scream in panic and run, hiding under bushes and behind trees in terror. The hunters finally were able to talk with them and ask the villagers what was wrong. A villager explained saying, “Before we knew where all the evil was, and so we never went there. But now, the evil could be anywhere!”
In our own minds and hearts we know where the pain is. We can eventually teach ourselves simply not to go there. Perhaps a therapist could teach us to respect ourselves, after this self respect has been mutilated by experiences of our youth. But perhaps we should set a time limit on exploring the pain of our past and fears for our future. Perhaps a goal should be, when we have gathered enough self respect through introspection of any kind, resolving the issue of trusting in who we are, we should begin the next step of learning not to go where the pain lives. Perhaps peace of mind is that simple. It may be that human beings, many of us, have not learned not to keep going to the hot stove door and touching it to see if it is still hot. Maybe being an adult is knowing not to go where it hurts. Perhaps maturity is about being okay with the understanding that, when emotions grip us from nowhere, it is because we have traveled back to the past or to the fears of a future, and the pain that we feel is not actually from the details of the experience. The pain we are feeling may be meant to teach us to not go there anymore, the pain may mean ‘No! Don’t time travel! Stay where you are! That is where the happiness you are looking for is’. Whenever we trade where we are for where we were or may one day be, we feel eventual pain. To ‘long for’ is just as painful as to’ once have had.’ The treasure and the peace of being we are always seeking can only be found in the mundanely unexciting situations of whatsoever is right before us, and our real choice is to stay present, rather than return to the past or create a worst case scenario vision of a future and then enter it with our consciousness and become emotionally trapped. Our bodies respond to this entrapment as if it were true.
Nature sometimes hides her greatest treasures behind a veil of boredom. Our ability to choose not to succumb to the temptation of travelling to memories of the past as if they are real, or create inescapable scenarios of an imagined future and then enter them, but to simply not go there, is the true meaning of free will. Free will does not mean license to do as we please. Free will is the freedom to interpret our life’s experiences as positive and good if we please, and to refrain from cashing in the existing moment for a different moment that does not exist. In this way, we may actually miss our entire life, moment for moment, by swapping reality for non-existing possibilities. We are free to remain here, where all things are always possible in actuality.
Above Painting (Detail) and article by:
Ross G. Drago
Paint Rag Magazine
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