Updated: Nov 6, 2021
Here is a spiritual and practical question I’ve been sitting with lately: what is a proper relationship with the past?
We are just coming off of Thanksgiving break and heading into Advent season for me, Hanukkah and other holidays for friends of other traditions—and there seems an inevitable churning up of memories of prior holidays that were better, sweeter, fuller. The Ghost of Christmas Past comes haunting us.
I have noticed a tendency in my yoga students, whether in their 40s or 70s, to point out (sometimes to complain) that their body no longer has the flexibility, balance, or strength of their youth.
I am enjoying my life in central Florida more and more, but as I open to the beauty around me, I also feel a sort of loss for the beautiful places I used to call home: Washington, DC; Louisville, KY; Oxford, England. I miss certain people, certain shops and restaurants, some that no longer even exist. I definitely miss the streets I used to walk, the buildings, the trees, the rivers…
But on the spiritual path, we are taught that mindfulness and presence are essential—staying in the present moment is the path to the divine and to serenity. If we indulge in homesickness, for example, we miss the beauty and the essence of the place we have right now.
So, what I am wondering is: can we still reminisce, enjoy, feel into and savor the good times in our past, without getting lost in delusion or ending up bitter about painful losses?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “nostalgia” as “wistful affection,” which I like, because the term “wistful” clearly denotes that the affection is for something no longer present. Webster’s calls nostalgia, “a bittersweet yearning for things of the past.” There is a website called The Nostalgia Machine. When you type in a year (I entered the year I turned 10 and started listening to pop radio), offers you a visual, clickable video playlist of all the top songs of that year. As I write this, Men at Work is singing “Who Can It Be Now?” But it makes me smile. I’m not wistful. It’s not bittersweet.
One of my favorite films is Midnight in Paris (Allen 2010), a fantasy where a contemporary writer (Owen Wilson) travels back in time to the Golden Age of American writers and artists in Paris in the 1920s, and hang out with Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein, Dali, and more. At first he is thrilled by the experience, but when a new friend waxes nostalgic for “La Belle Epoch,” they travel back to the 1890s, where she decides to stay and work with Degas and Gauguin, who themselves are nostalgic for the Renaissance.
Michael Chabon writes, “The nostalgia that I write about, that I study, that I feel, is the ache that arises from the consciousness of lost connection.”
I wonder if that consciousness might be itself an act of the spirit, and might lead us toward our Source, rather than away. Certainly, we cannot allow ourselves to live in the past (Owen Wilson’s character chooses to come back to his present, 2010), nor to be overcome by grief or homesickness, any more than it would serve us to live solely for some projected future. But the conclusion I am coming to lately is that our feelings—including our feelings about the past (and the future)—show us what is important to us. And once we sort out what is important to us, what our deepest values are, we can move forward, to build a life that expresses and preserves those values. Perhaps this holiday season we can learn something from our nostalgia…