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You Don’t Need to Fix the Past in Order to Have a New Future

Past in the Sand

Note: The winners for this giveaway have been chosen! They are:

  • Dianna
  • Michael Maher
  • Kathleen B
  • Yusuf Stoptagginmeanyhow Sulei
  • Aparna

“The future is completely open, and we are writing it moment to moment.” ~Pema Chodron

My family recently drove from Michigan to North Carolina—twenty hours roundtrip. To entertain themselves, my five-year-old daughter Willow taught my three-year-old son Miller to play rock-paper-scissors in the backseat.

Miller learned the hand signals and got the overall concept pretty quickly, but he had a hard time with the fast speed of the game. Willow narrated, “Rock-paper-scissors…go! Okay, next round!” But Miller wanted to linger.

When he chose paper and Willow chose scissors, he’d see her scissors and quickly try to change to rock so that he could win the round.

Or if he chose rock and she chose scissors, he’d want to stop and hang out in his win for a while. He’d celebrate, gloat, and become frustrated when she was already on to the next round.

My husband and I tried to explain to Miller that it was a quick game with no time to hold on to what was already done. There’s also no need to hold on—each round brings a brand new chance to win or lose.

While we tried to teach him that it made more sense to leave the past behind and look toward the next round, his let-it-go-and-move-on wasn’t up to par compared to his older sister’s.

Miller turned rock-paper-scissors into a slow, thought-heavy emotional roller coaster, where every move felt important and meaningful. What could have been a fun and easy game was not very fun for him.

It was clear to see how Miller was getting in his own way. And then it hit me that I—and most people I know—do the same thing in our adult lives. We innocently get in our own way as we focus on what we don’t like and try to make it better when it would be far easier to leave the past behind and look toward the “next round.”

Life is always moving through us—nothing is permanent. New thought and emotion flow through us constantly, creating our rotating and fluid experience of life.

Sometimes we stay out of the way and let our experience flow. Willow was staying out of the way as she played rock-paper-scissors (and she was having a great time, I might add). And sometimes we’re more like Miller, innocently blocking the easy flow of life with our opinions, judgments, and disapproval. We don’t pick up and move on as much as we focus on righting what is already over.

In hindsight, I can see how I’ve dammed up my own flow of experience at times in my life, especially when I was struggling with things I wanted to change.

When I was facing a confusing and uncontrollable binge eating habit, for example, I thought what I was supposed to do was to examine it, analyze it, talk about it, and focus on it with a whole lot of emotion and energy until I made it go away.

But more often than not, that created more suffering. It left me even more convinced that my habit was a serious problem that I needed to solve, and it left me feeling hopeless because I didn’t know how to solve it.

Of course, there’s a lot to be said for understanding ourselves and our experiences in a new way and taking action where action is needed. Those are absolutely necessary. But keeping our “problem” under a constant microscope, trying to use our intellect to solve it as if it’s a crossword puzzle, is not the way to freedom.

If new thought, emotion, and insight are always flowing through us like a river, doesn’t it make sense to look upstream at what’s coming next, especially when we’re experiencing something we don’t like? It’s just like we told Miller in rock-paper-scissors: if you don’t like what happened in this round, let it go and look toward the next round.

But we forget this when it comes to the big things in life, don’t we? It seems responsible, necessary, or adult-like to hold the problem tightly until we fix it.

If our moment-to-moment experience of life is like a river rushing through us, our “fix-it” attempts are the equivalent of standing in the middle of the river, filling a bucket with the water that has already flowed past and carrying that bucket with us everywhere we go.

We obstruct the momentum of the river and analyze that old, familiar “problem” water to death, not realizing that if we only turned and looked upstream we’d have an excellent chance of seeing something new and different.

Looking upstream we might see with fresh eyes—looking downstream, we’re just looking at more of what we already know.

With regard to my binge eating habit, I realized that my best chance for change would come from letting go of everything I thought I knew and being open to fresh, new insights and ideas. Not carrying around the past or analyzing the problem; instead, being open and unencumbered.

As I began to see my habit-related thoughts and behaviors as things flowing by me that I didn’t need to grab ahold of, they passed by more easily. Each and every day I found myself less in the way, realizing that I was very separate from those unwanted thoughts and urges.

When my habit-related experience looked more like leaves floating on the surface of the river than like gigantic boulders, life took on a new feeling of ease. I saw that I could gently dodge some of what was coming down the river rather than stop and fight with or fix it. The healthy “me” was more visible than ever.

Not staring at your problems is not ignoring or denying the issue any more than Willow was ignoring or denying the previous rock-paper-scissors round when she easily moved on. Take note of how your experience feels. When life—which really is very game-like—feels like a difficult, not fun, emotional rollercoaster, you’re holding on to something, innocently getting in your own way.

Maybe even the bigger issues in life really aren’t so different than rock-paper-scissors—you get what you get, but you don’t have to stay there and try to change the last round. Let life flow and as you do, the healthy, clear, peaceful version of yourself will be more visible than ever too.

NOTE: Amy has generously offered to give five copies of her new book, The Little Book of Big Change: The No-Willpower Approach to Breaking Any Habit. Leave a comment on the post for a chance to win! You can enter until midnight, PST, on Friday, February 5th.

Past in the sand image via Shutterstock

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Announcement: Tired of feeling stuck? Learn to let go of the past and create a life you love with the Tiny Buddha course!
  • S Geo

    i want a copy of the book 🙂

  • Lavanya Sripad B

    Hi Amy,
    Very meaningful writing 🙂 Thanks a lot for this article. I loved it.

  • Crystal MacLeod

    I really related to this post. I’m trying very hard to let things in the past stay in the past. I will be carrying the reference of the river in my mind to stay on track. Great read, thanks for this!

  • Anna Y.

    Rock, Paper, Scissors, I’ll try and keep that in mind the next time I am re-hashing the past in my mind!

  • Nancy C.

    Great read & message. Trying to change/continue to savour something that’s already happened is quite inhibiting. It keeps you spinning in circles (aka stuck). This really came in handy for me today. Thanks for posting!

  • Tripp Jones

    Great Read! I often see friends who spend too much time trying to ‘fix’ their past, and often overlooking that time could be better spent looking forward to a brighter future! MOVE FORWARD!!! The best is yet to come!

  • V

    Moving on is always where I get stuck. Great river reference .

  • Patricia

    Every day the slate is wiped clean from the day before. Yesterday is over and done, so work on today.

  • Daniil Molodkov

    I think more often than not I tend to regress into a victim mode, forget that I always have some sort of control over my actions. You can’t stop your emotions from bubbling up but you can change the way you deal with them. Point is, dwelling on the past when the future is right in front of you is hurtful to everyone involved in your future. Let the past have it’s own happy end and enjoy the adventure ahead instead. It is a blessing to have been reminded of that, TinyBuddha always comes with the right messages at right times.

  • Heidi Rodriguez

    This post was awesome! It was a great reminder for my overanalytical analysis paralysis brain 🙂

  • Yoo-Jin

    Thank you for this article. It came for me at a perfect time.

  • Dianna

    Great article! Thank you!

  • Andrea

    It’s called rumination, and I’m excellent at it! My soon to be ex-husband started every day with a new slate. I didn’t like this from a “justice” point of view. I couldn’t stand that he went on with his life, unencumbered by his mistakes, without “paying” for his hurtful behavior toward me from the day before. I finally realized it is not my place to judge him, his behavior, or his life journey. When I gave up trying to find the answers to our problems in the bucket of water I was carrying in a river, I was freed to look to the future. I didn’t like it when he used this technique, but I loved it when I did.

  • Nancy

    Oh, how I wish my husband would practice this concept! He is obsessed with the past, and in particular, past mistakes- mine, that is. He is unable/unwilling to live in the present, and it colors everything and renders us unable (as a couple and as a family) to move forward. He is always willing to sweep his “transgressions” under the rug, but a “wrong” tone of voice, an opinion he does not share, a behavior he does not like, all become etched in stone and he refuses to let them go. I can honestly say that it has almost completely destroyed our marriage and family, and I don’t see a path forward for us if he cannot learn to look for the good and stop harping on things that truly ruin many interactions and prevent any growth.

  • netc23

    I love the title of this post “You Don’t Need to Fix the Past in Order to Have a New Future” very thought provoking.

  • Brightpaw

    Insight comes from everywhere if we let it

  • Stacey C

    This is a very insightful article. It hit home with me. It seems that when I do not let go of the behavior that makes me hang on to the errs of my past, I just get stuck in that pit. It truly hurts me more than anyone else. Thanks for a reminder that I deserve to wake up with a clean slate each day.

  • Suman

    A real eye opener….

  • LLyons

    Amy, thanks for your article, it is just what I needed to read. I’m realizing that my past is causing me pain and regret, but the future frightens me. I’m trying to live more in the present, to get joy in every moment. Your article has given me another POV that I’ll use as I move upstream!

  • Yusuf Stoptagginmeanyhow Sulei

    Great message…I love it.

  • Harlene

    This is exactly what I needed to read at this point in my life as I’m going through a slow yet powerful transformation within myself. Great article!

  • Pam Thomas Parker

    Wow. I so needed this message, today especially. I have been struggling so much lately with being stuck and not letting go. I would love to read more in Amy’s book.

  • jaz

    Wow! What an interesting perspective! I too am a binge eater and it seems that as I get older it only gets HARDER to fight (I’ve pretty much given up at this point). I keep thinking if only I could figure out the WHY I could stop – but that hasn’t worked for me yet. Very interested in taking a new direction with this fight! Thanks so much for your insight!

  • Diane Maloney

    What about staying with the feeling in order to heal the past, where does that fit in?

  • My thought exactly – I think that little mantra will surface in my awareness when difficulty arises. 🙂

  • Lisa Kelly

    Hi Amy, I enjoyed your article. Sometimes to begin change, we just have to begin, no big fanfare, no discussion or analysis, just make that one tiny step to start,and then the next step is easier. It is so much easier to build on small steps than fixating making one enormous change…..little streams become big rivers.

  • Gretchen B.

    This was such an on-target and thought provoking article. I know I’ll keep re-reading it. Would love to read her entire book…

  • Suzanne M

    I love the imagery with the river/water. It’s so simple but Powerful! Imagine not having to carry around our past. What a relief!

  • Sandra Chamberlain

    A good read and great perspective on carrying the bucket of river water around, made me think! 🙂

  • David Pace

    Great post! Can’t wait to read the whole book!!

  • ablackm2

    Great article. I struggle with this a lot – focusing too much on problems etc. It becomes a habit in itself. Would love a chance to read the book!

  • mahima

    really loved the post. Gave me a lot to think about. Waiting to read the book. Good luck for it 🙂

  • Nina

    Beautiful article!

  • lv2terp

    LOVE LOVE this!!!! Thank you for the simple yet awesome analogy, sharing your epiphany and insight! Wonderful points to ponder, thank you! 🙂

  • Brent Mast

    Nice article. I obsess over past mistakes.

  • Lily

    And just like that, I am healing. Thank you!

  • Lily

    Would love to read more

  • Nicki01

    My favorite quote from this article
    ” Life is always moving through us—nothing is permanent. New thought and emotion flow through us constantly, creating our rotating and fluid experience of life.”
    Loved how you compared the rock ,paper, scissors game. Makes so much sense about how some of us handle the emotional aspect of letting go. Very helpful thanks Amy

  • Bel

    Thank you ! I really needed to be reminded of this today. I realised I’m my own worst enemy, trying to analyse instead of accepting. Hold lightly and love deeply. Note to self – think less feel more. X

  • Melanie

    For more than 2 years now (since being diagnosed with a sleep disorder), I have struggled to get myself on a regular sleep schedule. This post presents a new way to look at my “problem”, and now I can’t wait to read the whole book! Habits are SO hard to change! THANK YOU!

  • Jenny

    After years of struggling with abuse and the aftermath, I am now in the journey towards true recovery and happiness. I love using my journey to help others and can’t wait to read this book to continue my healing!

  • melthemean

    A very insightful (and helpful) article at this time in my life; learning to recognize and deal with my anxiety is a step in the right direction towards a more peaceful mind and I’m thankful for articles such as yours.

  • Jan Foote

    I found this very true in my “younger-go-get-it done-now” phase. As I have gotten older (but not old!!), I find the ability to see things as they are and let them play out rather than get wound up especially when there really isn’t anything I can do that is helpful and productive and to acknowledge what has happened is done. Very freeing!!

  • renata

    I think I really needed to read this right now…This is so true

  • ZenLes

    I finally recognized last week that I was getting in my own way of healing by over intellectualizing my problems. It has been refreshing to begin this journey of letting. Thanka for this post; just what I needed. Look forward to reading your book.

  • sarah POLOWSKI

    I, too, struggle with very unhealthy habits and would love to read this book! Great article!

  • Anita

    What am inspiring article!!! My son (9) is consumed by the way he gets frustrated daily events. He gets angry and has already decided he has anger management problems. He has talked about wishing he was dead because he hates who he is and how his actions hurt those around him. He has severe anxiety issues regarding seeing his father who left 4.5 years ago and appears to have feelings that have manifested into something that to our way of thinking is completely out of proportion. I will definitely be using the idea of events being leaves on a river flowing past and that holding on to the emotions, particularly negative ones, is not helping him. As a visual learner, I think this could really help
    Thank you!!!!!!!!!!!

  • sakhiwe nduneni

    What an amazing article, I have been with this guy for a year now, 8 months in the relationship I found out that he actually had a girlfriend that he was serious about and that crushed me. So i decided that I must make him love me because I loved him more than anything I have never felt like this before, but that did not work, I realized that the more I tried to make it work, the more things became difficult and complicated. So i decided to let him go, if it is meant to be, we will be together again. Thank you, now I know for sure that I have made the right decision.

  • Nomad

    Thank you. What a beautiful illustration. I have been fighting lately, wrestling with fear and hurt based what I think I know, carrying that water around and compromising joy rather than letting the river flow on. Your words are well timed and so healing. Today I am going to look up stream and live.

  • Rance

    This was a good reminder of something that I try to remember with intermittent success: Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Letting go seems to be the strategy to deal with both. Thanks.

  • Bashayer A

    Great chance on my path of mindfulness! Thank you and may the odds be ever in my favor. 🙂 xx

  • Matthew Morrisson

    Great post! I read this blog a lot, and this one stands out among the better ones I’ve seen. Thanks for sharing!

  • ak_laura

    Good words. It makes sense to focus on your strengths.

  • Brooke

    Love this, I struggle with always overanalyzing every little thing I want to be different or to change and this would be a great practice for me to focus on!

  • Daniela Do Carmo

    o/ <3

  • Michael Maher

    Thank you for sharing your insights, Dr. Johnson, and the copies of your book!

  • Aparna

    Hi everyone,

    I have an eating disorder. I have reached a point ( recently) where I choose to be happy as opposed to thin ( and hungry perennially). It’s a big deal and each meal counts in making this decision consciously. I want to let you of the control food has over me. Reading this book, I feel, would help me in my journey.

  • Kelsey

    I love this post. I still struggle with knowing when to “take action” with an issue and when to simply let go. At times, letting go always felt like I was actively blocking out the problem, but I’ve realized the difference is aversion: wishing a difficulty would go away is completely different than just LETTING it flow through us, without judgement. By having this “river of leaves” mindset, I feel like we can truly leave the trivial issues behind us, but take with us lessons to learn and grow. Thanks for your insight, Dr. Johnson

  • Cheryl Willsie

    I enjoyed this article as well. It is so easy to get stuck in the past trying to analyze “mistakes” we have made and look at them from every possible angle with the hope that if we fully understand why said “mistake” occurred, we can prevent it from happening again. Of course this is impossible and overanalyzinng the whys in life can drive us crazy. I have been trying to observe things as they happen and if something doesn’t turn out the way I’ve hoped, there is usually a lesson to be learned. Then I thank the universe for giving me the opportunity to learn this lesson and move on. In an ideal world anyway, by hey I’m still trying 🙂

  • Kathleen B

    Hi, I really enjoyed this article too and everyone’s posts. Being stuck in the past can be so painful and yet so hard to get out of. I struggled for years trying to figure out how to make the alcoholic in my life stop drinking and see how he was destroying his own life and the people’s that loved him. It was a futile effort but one that I stayed with for a very long time. Putting it under the “microscope”, trying to analyze it and see if I could figure out how to fix it – that’s what I did. I wanted to figure out if there was something I was doing that I could change and help this person stop drinking. When I finally realized there was nothing I could do for him, and that I needed to focus on my own life and learn how to accept this situation. As anyone who has loved someone with an addiction will probably say, you just have get out of the way. Of course, easier said than done. I looked “upstream” to find my way through this and get a healthy perspective. Get out of his way – that’s what I was told. When I did, my relationship changed with this person but the drinking never stopped. I was to get to a place where I remembered who he REALLY was and get back the love that I had for him. The love was always there but I had lost touch with it. He was my dad – he deserved everything good that I could give him of myself. For me, that was loving him, trying to understand his battle and remembering that he was as a child of God. The day he looked me in the eyes with tears running down his face and admitted he was an alcoholic for the first time in his life was one of the most special and loving moments we shared. It was so easy and wonderful to tell him how much I loved him. I was so full of love at that moment, I can still feel it to this day. It’s been almost six years since he died, and I miss him everyday. I’m so filled with gratitude that I was able to stop trying to fix my dad. It wasn’t my job to begin with – thank goodness there is someone bigger than me for that. With blessings,

  • Janet

    Great reminder to let the past stay in the past and let go.

  • Gail Cookson

    I’ve been stuck for so many decades! I could really use this practice!!

  • almond

    Great post emphasizing the noble truth. Impermanence can be a hard concept to grasp and understand outside of the written word.

  • Caroline Murchison

    I can’t believe I’ve just read this – it’s like you wrote it for me! I’m eight months on from finding out about my husband’s affair and stuck at a turning point with many options of how to recover and heal and how to move on. I had never looked at it from a perspective of that round is over, let it go without trying to change it, let life flow and move onto the next round. I have been constantly told to get over it. But without the belief or vision of entering a “new round” and being open to the possibilities of a wonderful new round I have been stuck. You have really struck a chord with me and I have just written all this in my journal so I can re-read it as I need to for inspiration, thank you.

  • Sheri

    Thank you for this article. I have just recently begun a journey to wellness after going through an emotional breakdown last year. I have been doing a lot of inner work and have been drawn to the word “surrender” to help me. i have begun reading great books to help me to understand what it means to let it go. As I face new challenges, I an now aware that I need to feel the feelings as they come up and then let them go. In the past I have always tried to fix the problem and to find a solution. I now know that keeps me in the struggle. I have noticed that those people who know about my struggles keep checking in with me asking me how I am. and I am so afraid to go back to that place that I am also always checking it to see how I am. This is the same thing. I am staying in my grief and reliving it instead of feeling the feelings and then letting it go. By constantly checking in I am going back to that place. Similar to your son. I was holding on to the last round (my breakdown) and not moving to the next round (or the place I am working towards). I realized that if keep going back to that spot. I will never move forward. I am getting stronger each day and am enjoying the journey. I have a long way to go but every day every hour and every moment are opportunities for me to let it go and then move on to my next move. Thank you for sharing your wisdom!

  • Judy Lehman

    thank you!

  • Maya Alarcon

    It’s interesting how the universe keeps sending me signs that at this point are basically screaming “LET GO!!” I couldn’t have read this at a more appropriate time. Thank you!

  • Lisa

    I find I sadly try to fight or fix and linger on mistakes my children make daily, a hard and horrible habit to break but needs to stop and change to help us all to learn that living as a little person is about exactly that learning to move on, looking forward with fresh eyes and learning from the moment not lingering in the past…. Your short words hit a tuneful chord!
    Many thanks! xx

  • Doug

    Wow… This was really eye-opening. The river analogy is perfect. Even with experiencing new and good things upstream, I still struggle at times with fixating on the old water in the bucket. Seeing you address it so clearly here helps me a lot. What a great way to envision this, and to keep me committed to staying in the flow and moving towards the future. Thanks so much for sharing this.