The past is for learning

April 26th 2024

This is something the Dalai Lama does to reduce anxiety and stress.


We can’t change the past.  But we can learn from it.

And that learning can then stop the future from being a repeat of the past.

A big source of anxiety is being trapped in the past.  I see this as an anchor that literally keeps you from moving on. And the stress of you pulling against that anchor is draining.

Here is an exercise that, whilst used therapeutically, is one that was discussed in a great book that I have been reading and one the Dalai Lama uses himself.  And if it is good enough for him…..

The exercise

Think about an incident in the past that you have struggled to move on from – but at this starting point, don’t choose the worst ever things that happened or highly traumatic events.

Write this event down on a piece of paper and then start listing all of the positive things that the experience has given you that you could not have appreciated at the time.

And it is literally no more than that – looking back with what we call hindsight – the knowledge and wisdom you have now that you did not have then – and seeing things through a different lens.

This serves a number of purposes:

– it helps you forgive people from the past – perhaps yourself, perhaps others, because they are not the people they are now.  And when you forgive, you release yourself from that past

– it helps you see that you have different resources and knowledge now meaning you are able to make different decisions, perhaps better decisions

– you can start to see how ‘ every cloud…’ In every negative situation there is positive to be found.  And when you focus on the positive, the negative weakens.

My experience

Many years ago I lived in a violent relationship.  He had eroded my self confidence so much over time that I thought I was deserving of his cruelty. It came to a head when he nearly put me in hospital and I became truly frightened for my life.
However, I lived in his home and did not have the resources to live alone.  By leaving him, I was effectively making myself homeless.

By doing this exercise, the positives I have gained from this experience are:

– by having had my self confidence eroded so far, I was like a blank sheet of paper to write a new one.  I did literally re-invent myself

– when you are knocked to your knees and you get up, being knocked down again is never as scary because you know you can get up

– I have never allowed any man, or person to treat me like this again.  It has given me the confidence to challenge any wrong and stand up for myself as I will not allow someone to ever control me in that way again.

– I truly believe that it is BECAUSE of this experience that I have the 24 year old marriage I have, the lifestyle I enjoy.

And I can truly say that I am grateful for that experience because 3 years in hell have given me many many years of sunshine since.


In the book, The Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama talks of how he used this to see the positives out of being exiled by the Chinese from his beloved Tibet.

He talks of how that experience has given him access to powerful people, how he now lives in a home that is much lighter and brighter – his list is a long one.  So from the pain and anguish of having to flee for his life, leave people he has never seen since, he can focus on the positives he has BECAUSE of that trauma.

And so what about you?

Are you now brave enough to do this?  Start with something less intense from your past to get the feel for how it works and then you can turn to those things that have been the most difficult.

This is one of those things that you can pick up and put down, don’t expect all the answers to come the first time you pick your pen up.

And then keep this work accessible.  Perhaps treat yourself to a lovely notebook that you can write in and keep it beside your bed.  Seeing it daily and knowing what is inside can also serve as a great reminder that whatever happens in the future, something good will come out of it, you just have to look for it!

Caroline Cavanagh is an anxiety specialist  and hypnotherapist in Salisbury, Wiltshire.  She is an author and professional speaker and would love to talk to you if you would like to know more about her work

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