A Magician’s Guide To Overcoming Your Past

This is an excerpt from Derren Brown‘s insightful new book: “Happy“.

Living Now
Past, present and future.

We generally feel defined by our past. Our past, however, is a story that we tell ourselves in the present. We create it every day when we accept the narratives we have developed about who we are and why we are who we are. “I’m like this because this happened to me” is a common refrain in the modern world, where familiar fragments of psychoanalysis and flatulent bubbles of self-help advice have drifted into our popular culture. On the one hand it is a narrative, and on the other hand it is true. We are indeed governed here and there by little clusters of responses within our personality that leap into action whenever a situation in the present resembles one in the past that caused this defensive stockpile.

A father repeatedly treated us dismissively as a child and now we have a particular pocket of activity within ourselves that is ready to feel miserable and self-justifying whenever a male authority figure does the same. We learnt to deal with a parent’s flying rages by rising to anger ourselves first and meeting them on their own terms, and now we become incensed too quickly at frustrating situations in adulthood. Any number of situations, or even mere looks or turns of phrase can fling us back without any room for rational appraisal to those times when we suffered. Now feels like then, and without any conscious involvement on our part, the past and present pictures are compared and a close-enough match is found. Our unconscious selves, eager to protect us and working by analogy, set in motion the defence pattern we learnt as a child, and, although it feels reasonable to us when we are in its grips, it is of course a gross overreaction to what’s happening to us as an adult in the present.

Our scripts are indeed written in our histories, but whatever our backgrounds, and however traumatic our pasts, the key to overcoming them is to stop telling ourselves the same unhelpful story today, to consciously own what has remained unconscious and therefore governed us, and to regain authorship ourselves. Some people never achieve this; others manage to do so through years of careful psychoanalysis, some through brief therapies or the sting of a sudden, shattering, shuddering revelation. It is the story we recreate and live out for ourselves every day that not only defines our past but also defines us, and stories are things we can change. The first step is to seek a perspective that allows us to see the story for what it is.

Naturally, our ability to adopt a new viewpoint – let alone what answers we find when we do – varies from person to person. Hence having a suitable figure such as a therapist or clear-minded friend or support group gently suggest alternative viewpoints can be very helpful. This book aims to point us to the work of some people who have rigorously thought through what it is to live well. Without gaining something of a detached vantage point and identifying our stories for what they are, we will still remain prey to our deep-seated beliefs about who we are and how the world must work, mistake them for concrete reality and inflict them upon our loved ones and everyone else.

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Whatever the past is, it has been and gone. If there are things you need to face in your past because they refuse to let you go, realise at least that they grip you not because they control you (they no longer exist), but because of the narrative they’ve left you with. You can’t change what happened, but you can gain a little distance from it by reassessing your story about it. If certain behaviours from your partner or significant people routinely bother you and bring out the worst in you, ask yourself what their behaviour reminds you of from your past. Where were you made to feel the same? Identify where anxiety is rooted and, in doing so, realise that you do not need to hold the person in the present accountable for something a particularly sensitive area of your personality is triggering. This man is not your father, this woman is not your mother; they may do this or that in the same way that your mum or dad did, but they have nothing to do with the actions of your parents. Your parents’ behaviours were caused by their own clusters and frustrations, which in turn can be traced back to their own parents’ points of brokenness. A fuller and happier life is going to involve recognising these clusters that still so over-eagerly leap into action and slowly allowing them to absolve their power.

One way to do that, having recognised the process for what it is, is to consciously note the way your unconscious machinations bring these old patterns to the fore, and then, where you can, quietly smile at them. Be grateful to your unconscious for looking out for you, while also acknowledging that it’s being hilariously over-sensitive. Each time you gently deny it its power by nipping it in the bud through your own amusement, and practise instead a new response (that may not at first come naturally but which encourages a richer and more sympathetic world-view), you break these old neural connections and form a new pathway. Vincent Deary in his book on change, How We Are, talks about how pedestrians in his local park tended to avoid a provided path and instead cut across the grass to reach the shops. Eventually, a new path was formed by the repeated use of this shortcut. Buddhists talk of thoughts acting like drips of water on the brain: as the same thought is repeated over time, the resulting rivulet is fortified to etch a free-flowing new stream in the mind. Perhaps above all, by bringing an unconscious process into the light of conscious attention, we undo its power. It is those parts of us which we are unaware that have us most firmly in their clutches.

The present moment, on the other hand, can be a more productive place to focus our attention. The here and now, we have seen, rarely contains problems; it is released from the tyranny of our imposing narratives. We might feel bad about events in the past or dread those yet to come, but rarely in the present – rarely right now – do we find ourselves in the middle of a serious difficulty. Right now we can gain some perspective by stepping back from our feelings and recognising that they are not us. Right now we can undo some of the grip of the past by recognising the patterns that rule over us. For those who find it difficult to switch off concerns about the past and the future, and who therefore suffer from anxiety (which often feeds off one or the other), any number of books are available teaching mindfulness meditation, an effective means of bringing one’s focus back to the here and now. The practice aims to return your awareness to a standpoint between your thoughts, rather than where it normally is: caught up in their maelstrom. For the anxiously disposed, learning to simply ‘be’ in the present moment without trying to fix everything is a way of sidestepping the tyranny of anxieties created by the phantoms of the past and future.

Neuroscientist and author Sam Harris describes a greater engagement with the present moment as the antidote to a fear of death. When we are focused non-judgementally on the present, we do not fret about growing old and dying. We are also freed from any obsessions with what we are trying to achieve in the future, and are likely to find that things around us become more compelling. The regrets of the dying point us repeatedly to the importance of the here and now. Despite the therapeutic value of learning to engage with the narrative-free present, we can remember it comes to pass within the context of a contingent future. As storytelling, project-forming beings, we would deny our humanity if we dis-regarded the yet-to-come, which, containing our eventual death, provides the circumference to our circle. But to be released from the grip of it, and to be more awake to opportunity and change where they help us, we will need to gently increase our attention to the present.

In Derren Brown‘s new book “Happy” he draws upon ancient philosophy from Socrates to Freud to Today, Stoic based psychological techniques and a general observation of life to explore profound ways to think differently and be Happy. If you have enjoyed this short excerpt I would highly recommend that you seek out this gem of a book and make sure it gets the appreciation it deserves.

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