4 Step Guide to Letting Go of the Past

March 31, 2017 Updated: March 31, 2017
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Whether we’re aware of it or not, many of us are constantly struggling with the past, in many ways. 

Our struggle might be related to mistakes we’ve made that we regret or that make us feel bad about ourselves. Or we may be holding on to anger about something done to us or frustration about how things have turned out.

In fact, it’s just a bit of unpleasantness, nothing to panic about.

We may also have stories we tell ourselves about what happened that make us feel sad, depressed, angry, or hurt. Maybe we can’t stop thinking about these past events—they just keep replaying in our minds. 

But what if we could just let go of the past and be present with the unfolding moment instead? What if we could unburden ourselves? What if we could see that holding on to the past is hurting us, and see letting go as an act of self-care?

(Chepko Danil Vitalevich/Shutterstock)
Breathe in your difficulty, and breathe out compassion. (Chepko Danil Vitalevich/Shutterstock)

It can be done, though it isn’t always easy. Here’s the practice I recommend, in four steps:

Step 1: See the Story That’s Hurting You

In the present moment, you have some kind of pain or difficulty: anger, frustration, disappointment, regret, sadness, or hurt.

Notice this difficulty, and see that it’s caused by whatever “story” you are telling yourself about what happened. You might insist that this pain is caused by what happened (not by the story in your head), but what happened is over. It’s gone. The pain is still here right now, and it’s caused by the continuous thoughts you have about the situation.

Note that “story” doesn’t mean “false story.” It also doesn’t mean “true story.” The word “story” in this context doesn’t imply good or bad, false or true, or any other kind of judgment. It’s simply a process that’s happening inside your head. The process looks something like this:

  • You’re remembering what happened.
  • You have a perspective or judgment about the event that puts you as the injured party.
  • This causes an emotion in you.

So just notice what story you have, without judgment of it or of yourself. It’s natural to have a story, but just see that it’s there. And see that it’s causing you difficulty, frustration, or pain.

Step 2: Stay With the Physical Feeling

Next, you want to turn from the story in your head to the feeling that’s in your body. This is the physical feeling: It could be a tightness in your chest, a hollowness, a shooting pain, an ache in your heart, an energy that radiates from your solar plexus, or many other variations.

Practice turning and facing this physical feeling—pushing your attention out of your head and toward your body. Usually, we try to avoid these painful feelings. Now, stay and face them with courage.

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Explore the feeling with curiosity: What does it feel like? Where is it located? Does it change? If this becomes unbearable, do it in small doses, in a way that feels manageable. It can get intense if the feelings have been intense.

Most of the time, we see that it’s not the end of the world, that we can bear it. In fact, it’s just a bit of unpleasantness, nothing to panic about.

Stay with it and be gentle, friendly, and welcoming. Embrace the feeling like you would a good friend. You’re becoming comfortable with discomfort, and it is the path of bravery.

Step 3: Breathe Out, Letting Go

Breathe in your difficulty, and breathe out compassion. This is a Tibetan Buddhist practice called tonglen: Breathe in the difficult feeling, and breathe out the feeling of relief and liberation from that difficulty.

You can breathe in not only your own pain, but also the pain of others:

  • If you’re feeling frustration, breathe in all of the frustration of the world—then breathe out peace.
  • If you’re feeling sadness, breathe in all of the sadness of the world—then breathe out happiness.
  • If you’re feeling regret, breathe in all of the regret of the world—then breathe out joy and gratitude.

Do this for a minute or so, imagining the pain of those around you coming in with each breath, and a feeling of peace radiating out to them as you breathe out.

You can practice this every day, and it can work wonders. Instead of running from your difficult feeling, you’re embracing it, and letting yourself absorb it. And you’re doing it for others as well, which gets you out of a self-centered mode and into an other-focused mode.

As you do this, you’re starting to let go of your pain or difficulty.

Step 4: Turn Toward the Present

When you feel that you’ve let go, instead of getting caught up in your story again, turn and see what’s right here, right now. What do you see? Can you appreciate all or some of it? Can you be grateful for something in front of you right now?

This step is important because when we’re stuck on something that happened in the past, we’re not paying attention to right now. We’re not appreciating the moment in front of us. We can’t; our minds are filled up with the past.

So when we start to let go of the past, we have emptied our cups and allowed them to be filled up with the present. We should then find gratitude for what’s here, instead of worrying about what isn’t.

As we do that, we’ve transformed our struggle into a moment of joy.

Leo Babauta is the author of six books and the writer of “Zen Habits,” a blog with over 2 million subscribers. Visit ZenHabits.net