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Transforming the three times

By L. B.

The words past, present, and future in yellow neon.
We need to look at these three times and acknowledge their effect in order to transcend the suffering they hold. (Photo by fosco lucarelli)

The past, the present and the future are hard topics for me to write about because all three times hold such misery and suffering for me. However, I recognize the need to look at these three times and acknowledge their effect on me and others in order to transcend the suffering they have held for me and others.

As a person who has been incarcerated for over 25 years, the past is a time from which I could rarely escape. In the past I frequently suffered severe guilt, anxiety, remorse, and hatred, and thinking about the past makes these emotions arise in me today too. Rarely did I find happiness in the past. Rarer still did I find much reason to leave.

Having come to prison at seventeen and a half years of age, I found myself little prepared for the loneliness, fear, and betrayal I felt the moment that I realized I was alone with hundreds of other young men who sought only to make themselves happy by making everyone else around them miserable.

My days were spent acting out my frustration with the surroundings by assaulting others. My nights would be spent crying in despair at all the pain in my childhood. It seemed that when my “present” was disagreeable, I would turn to my past. Even though my past was painful, it was familiar and I knew what to expect. I’m sure I felt comfortable with that as opposed to the unfamiliar pain and suffering of the “present.”

Because I kept returning to the past, I became stuck in a self-destructive cycle that kept me from making changes in my future. I thereby kept reliving and committing the same mistakes over and over again. Even today, there are seeds of that cycle of self-sabotage and negative emotions that I have not let go of. These keep me in the realm of suffering.

Even though there are residues of the negative beliefs and thought patterns that continue my cyclic existence, I do not want to give you the impression that all is woe for me and that I live in constant pain and suffering.

In my present there are many opportunities to live and experience the Dharma and to cultivate compassion and loving kindness, which will erase those negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions involved in reliving misfortune and pain. I might add that practicing Dharma, letting go of negative feelings, and cultivating positive ones can only be accomplished in the present, for it is only in the here and now that we exist.

One of the main components that increase our pain and suffering is attachment. I find that when I hang onto a memory of happiness in the past, or even look at a moment of happiness in the present and try to compare it to one in the past, that I rob myself of any happiness. This comes from hanging onto and comparing that moment to another.

It is only through acceptance of our happiness at any given time and not wishing it to last or comparing it to another time that we truly experience it and enjoy it in that moment. If we don’t just experience it for just what it is, it stops being our happiness and starts being our attachment.

There is a Sanskrit proverb that says,

Yesterday is but a dream; tomorrow is but a vision. But today well-lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope. Look well, therefore, to this day.

This pretty much sums up what I am trying to get across in that when we live well in the present, we transform our past suffering and bring hope to our future by not being attached to the present, but by simply living it.

When incarcerated, almost every person I have met lives either in the past or in the future. For some, the past holds memories of happier times so they live there in their minds, only going through the paces of their day-to-day existence in prison, unaware that they are adding to their suffering as soon as their “present” becomes the past. Their potential happiness is replaced with the suffering of their trying to hide in the past and ignore their present.

Then there are those who live only for the future, believing that once they get out of prison, life will be great, things will be easier, and they will be happy. They convince themselves that by imagining things are going to be better this time around, they will be better people, better parents and members of society once they are released. They tell themselves that those things will automatically become true and that they’ll easily have the traits they imagine having. We deceive ourselves with this type of thinking because the here and now is only one place that we can make the changes necessary for us to be better people. The only time to create the happiness we seek is the present moment.

By living in the present moment, we can truly be alive and transform our suffering into understanding by looking deeply into their causes and making the changes necessary to produce happiness. One of the ways to do this is by recognizing that neither past or future is something to be held onto or to escape into because as soon as we try ignore our present and to live in the past or future, our suffering doubles.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that even if our present is painful, taking good care of it will transform our past. Similarly, if we take good care of the present and thus transform our past, we will know how to deal appropriately with our future. In addition, we will be a lot happier now.

Peace to you!

Incarcerated people

Many incarcerated people from all over the United States correspond with Venerable Thubten Chodron and monastics from Sravasti Abbey. They offer great insights into how they are applying the Dharma and striving to be of benefit to themselves and others in even the most difficult of situations.