Should we carry our past with us or just throw it away?
The Ten of Wands shows a person plodding along, carrying a large bundle of sticks. The, “sticks,” are wands, the suit of the Tarot that represents ideas, so he’s actually carrying a massive number of ideas.
If we take a little closer look at the card we notice a few odd things about it. First, he’s not at all carrying the sticks the way that we’d expect. If we pick up a big old honker of a load of sticks, we’d throw them over our shoulder, right? Instead, he’s carrying them in front of himself, with his head pressed into the bundle.
Second, the sticks are all crossed up at the bottom and going in different directions at the top. If someone asked us to lug a large pile of sticks across the yard, we’d probably throw a rope around them and tie them together, not carry them in a loose, unwieldy mess.
Third, he’s definitely not watching where he’s going. His head is tilted down, as if he’s watching each step he’s taking, rather than keeping his eyes on his destination.
So just by looking at the face of the card, we can deduce quite a few things about it. This guy is probably an intellectual, or at least someone who thinks a great deal, because he has many, many ideas that he’s carrying around. His ideas don’t really, “fit,” together, and they’ve become quite a burden for him. In fact, he’s so involved with carrying his ideas that he really has no idea where he’s going. He’s so lost in his ideas that he has no perspective on his life.
The Australian Buddhist monk, Ajahn Brahm, tells a funny story about sticks. When he was a novice monk he was strolling through the forest with his teacher, the head monk at the monastery where he was studying. The master suddenly picked up a stick from the forest floor and asked, “How heavy is this stick, Ajahn Brahm?” And then he threw it away and asked, “How heavy is it now?”
The point, of course, is that something is, “heavy,” only when we hold on to it. It’s the act of PICKING IT UP AND CARRYING IT that makes it heavy. We don’t look at a stick on the ground and say, “Oh, crap, that’s heavy.” We only say it when we try to pick it up. It’s our act of grasping something that makes it seem heavy, not the thing itself.
Human beings are natural storytellers. We all reflexively try to make sense out of our lives and weave the events we experience into a coherent, sensible narrative. We have an innate drive to try to make sense out of what happens to us and so we’re constantly reviewing our pasts and rearranging the puzzle pieces of our lives into some sort of a rational structure.
We don’t just say, “Well, I lost my fucking mind and decided to quit my job, leave my husband, and move to Montana to grow dental floss. Just for no particular reason.” Instead, we say, “After several years of marriage I felt a yearning for solitude and spiritual growth that could only be satisfied by disconnecting from social obligations that had become increasingly mundane.”
That feels ever so much better.
We need to feel that it all makes sense, somehow.
From a Buddhist perspective, constantly trying to make sense out of our pasts is tantamount to picking up that stick. It only becomes heavy, it only becomes a burden, when we grasp it and carry it around with us. In fact, Ajahn Brahm actually recommends writing, “this is my past,” on a stick and throwing it as far away as we can. Just let it go. When we’re not carrying it, it’s not heavy.
Now, modern psychology has a different take on it. Therapists tell us that it IS important to try to make sense out of what’s happened to us and to strive for a sense of meaningfulness in our lives. Bottom lining it, that’s why we go to therapists: because our lives aren’t making any sense and we need someone to help us sort it all out.
I suspect that for most of us, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. If we wake up one morning and have no past, we may have suffered a psychotic break. Or, in the case of people like Eckhart Tolle, perhaps we’ve had a massive revelation, a huge psychic shift that made us realize how absurd our previous thinking was.
For those of us who are neither psychotics nor enlightened spiritual masters, though, just tossing our pasts out the window isn’t an option. It seems we can’t just NOT think about it.
Which brings us to that tired, but still valid, word: closure.
We think of closure as having worked through a problem or a process in life until we’ve made sense of it, until it fits logically into our coherent narrative of what our lives mean. If we go through a divorce, for instance, we may go to a therapist and try to figure out why it happened. What was our role in the relationship breaking apart? What was our spouses role? What did we do wrong? What did we do right? What can we learn from it to make our future relationships better? Eventually, when we’ve talked through all of those issues, we start to achieve closure and we’re ready to move on from it. We haven’t necessarily thrown the stick away, but we’ve made it a hell of a lot lighter to carry.
There are other issues, though, that we can never seem to make any sense out of.
– If you were badly abused as a child, that doesn’t make any sense. You didn’t do anything to deserve it and there’s no logical or emotional reason it should have happened to you.
-If you’re an open and loving person and you got chewed up and spit out by a malignant narcissist, that doesn’t make any sense. You didn’t ask for it, you didn’t deserve it, and it shouldn’t have happened.
-If the new boss from hell fires you from your dream job because he’s a sexist or a sadist, that doesn’t make any sense. You were a great employee, there’s no justice in it, and it shouldn’t have happened.
So there’s a kind of a subclass of experiences that we all have that we could call, “doesn’t make any sense,” experiences. Those are the experiences that get really, “sticky.” Those are the experiences that we pick up and carry with us. We go over and over and over them, trying to figure them out, trying to make them somehow fit into our narratives, our story. But they never do.
“Doesn’t make any sense,” experiences are the ones that are most likely to wound us spiritually and emotionally. They keep us stuck. They keep us wounded. They keep us living in pain.
Oddly, though, they’re also the experiences that are easiest to let go of, if we think of them in the right way. If we’ve honestly, sincerely, conscientiously tried to figure them out and we can’t do it, we can just say, “Well, fuck it. This doesn’t make any sense.” And then we can put that experience in a nice, “doesn’t make any sense,” box, tie a brightly colored, “doesn’t make any sense,” ribbon around it, and toss it in the nearest river.
Maybe we’re not enlightened or smart enough to throw all of our, “sticks,” away, but we can throw some of them away. We can consciously choose which parts are valuable and which parts are worthless. We can drop some of the burden and make it a little easier to move forward in our lives.
And that’s a good start.