Mind & Body

Chasing a Better Past

We can't relive a past experience, but we can create a present one
TIMEDecember 10, 2021

I’ve been on countless spiritual retreats in my life: days, weekends, weeks, and 10-day stretches during which I sat in meditation, listened to spiritual teachings, and took long walks without distraction (other than my own mind). I almost always come home from retreat with a sense of peace and deep well-being, an overall calmness and even joy.

Post-retreat, when I return home to my family, work, and the rest of modern life, everything picks up right where it left off (sometimes it even picks up on the drive home). The world I reenter hasn’t changed because I’ve changed. The dog still needs to go out, the bills still need to be paid, the children still need what they need; people still say and do things I think they shouldn’t say and do. Life, in all its forms, is still happening.

But the truth is, following a retreat, the world has changed—because I’ve changed. Because I have a different lens through which I’m seeing my world, I am more able to live the challenges of life without feeling particularly challenged or stressed. After a week of sitting quietly and dropping out of thoughts for eight hours a day, I feel different in my own skin. I feel at peace.

A few weeks (and sometimes months) later, that feeling of peace wanes, and despite my own daily spiritual practice, the deep and unshakable post-retreat calm slips away. While it’s true that with each retreat I gain a bit of spiritual ground and perhaps lose a little bit of ego, and so the place where I land after the bliss has faded is in fact more joyful … still, a few months later, I’ve lost touch with the wholeness and well-being that was so delicious and present when I first broke my silence.

As more time passes, I start wanting that feeling back, longing for the joy I had when I first came home—the post-retreat bliss. My subtle intention then becomes to get back there, and recreate that experience I know so well. And furthermore, to recreate the me that can access that joy.

The truth is, we all do this in different ways. Maybe for you it’s about getting back to that feeling of being madly in love with your partner like you were when you were first dating. Or perhaps it’s about getting back to that sense of possibility you felt when you graduated from high school or college. Maybe it’s wanting to recreate the motivation to exercise you felt when you ran your first marathon.

Regardless of what our thing is that we want to get back to, many of us live in a constant state of trying to get back to some other state of feeling, one that we have a memory of but that is no longer here now.

But the reality is, always chasing another experience—an experience other than the one happening—is exhausting. Over time I’ve discovered this: If peace is what I want, trying to get back to a previous state of peace will not get me there. Peace now doesn’t involve the past or the future; it can only come from giving up my resistance to whatever experience and feeling is here in this moment. Any sense of peace I experience going forward can only come from saying “yes” to this moment now—whether it’s peaceful or not.

Whatever feeling state we experienced in the past is over; it was lived to its conclusion. That incarnation of reality; that incarnation of who we were when we lived it, the one we’re chasing, has passed. If we want to feel a certain way now—in love, motivated, hopeful, blissful, or any other state—we have to start from where we are. We have to arrive here and work with what’s true now.

All those spiritual retreats I’ve attended have come and gone, as have the joyful states I experienced in their wake. The truth is, I don’t know if I will get to live those feelings again. Probably I will, in one form or another, but all that’s a what if, not a what is. What I do know is this: When I let my experience be what it is, let myself be who I am, and not demand that it or I be something better, amazingly, I feel better. Paradoxically, I feel the very peace I was chasing.

Try it for yourself: Just say “yes” to the present moment, no matter what it contains. Lean into it, relax with it, give up on turning it or you into anything or anyone else. See what experience blooms.

Nancy Colier
Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, public speaker, workshop leader, and author of "Can't Stop Thinking: How to Let Go of Anxiety and Free Yourself from Obsessive Rumination" and “The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World.” For more information, visit NancyColier.com