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  • Writer's pictureAntti Vanhanen

The Role of Our Past in How We Experience Life

For most people - including many psychologists - the human mind largely remains a mystery.

After years of spiritual inquiry, here's how how the human mind seems to work in my view:

  1. We have an experience.

  2. We tell ourselves a story about it.

  3. That story becomes a belief “This is what happens/it feels like when X happens”.

  4. Each time we face the same thing or situation, we become more likely to default to our belief instead of being open to experiencing it again.

Each belief is ultimately a thought that we have accepted as reality. Beliefs are shortcuts to help us make sense of the world faster, to assign meaning to things so we don’t have to explore them anew each time.

What we miss is that our experience isn’t the result of the outside world but rather something that springs from within that gets assigned to an outer circumstance.

So when we stick to our momentary experience as representative of all future experiences, we miss out on all the different ways in which we could experience the same thing.

And because we almost never question our beliefs, our beliefs slowly but surely replace our actual moment to moment experience of reality to become our new reality.

To illustrate what I mean by this, imagine you have have a panic attack while preparing to give a speech to a large audience. You’ve never had a panic attack before.

In this example, the panic attack is your experience.

The story is that the panic attack was caused by having to perform in front of a large audience.

Thus, a series of beliefs is born that a) you don’t do well in front of crowds, b) that too much pressure and attention on you will trigger a panic attack, and c) that you will have to be in control of your circumstances in order to feel okay.

Now, every time you reference this belief, it becomes more real than before.

Soon, the panic attack can be triggered just by thinking about performing in front of an audience.

This happens because every time we reference our memory (belief) about something rather than being open to experiencing it as if for the first time, we retreat further away from the real, fluid world of experience into the mental world of concepts and ideas.

These static beliefs become our world without us ever noticing it, and they prevent us from experiencing the same things again, because we are usually unwilling or unable to look past our past experiences.

All of us have accumulated thousands upon thousands of beliefs about life that range from:

  • The seemingly insignificant (“chocolate tastes good”, “flowers are pretty”, “waking up is hard”)

  • To the more serious (“making money requires hard work”, “people are selfish and untrustworthy”, “men are cheaters”)

  • To the personal (“I’m not good at math”, “I’m at my best in small groups”, “I lack self-discipline”)

The more we view the world through the prism of beliefs, the more static our world appears, because beliefs - unlike the actual world - are static.

The irony of our quest for refuge from a fluid and ever-changing world in seemingly static and solid beliefs is that it only serves to give us more of the same as what we've had before.

The more we view the world through our beliefs, the more we get that of which we have already been getting in life, because beliefs are a self-reinforcing mechanism.

For instance, if you believe people to be selfish, you will find all the evidence you could ever want in the world around you (because that’s where your attention will naturally flow).

This further reinforces the validity of your belief that people are selfish, and the more solid they will appear until they no longer feel like opinions or preferences, but start to look like reality itself.

Over time, you become ever more distrustful and isolated of others.

Said another way, a belief is a self-fulfilling prophecy, because you will always see evidence to support your beliefs, and the more the world will look that way.

This is why so many people struggle to break from their past.

Yet life is so much more dynamic and fluid than static beliefs.

If you are willing to overlook your beliefs for a moment and simply consult your own experience, you will instantly realise that chocolate doesn’t always taste good, waking up isn’t always hard, money isn’t always hard to come by, people aren’t always selfish, and we don’t lack self-discipline all the time.

As such our beliefs are like photographs, still shots of an always moving world.

Isn’t it absurd to think that one picture could possibly capture even a single day, a person, or an event?

If so, how can a belief possibly capture reality as it really is?

Quite simply, it can’t. Whatever beliefs you hold, they are akin to trying to make sense of the world using nothing but photographs.

Finally, I would like to point out the most insidious, yet overlooked, belief of all: that of ourselves.

Whatever you think you are or however you try to define yourself (smart, stupid, pretty, ugly, hardworking, lazy, introvert, extrovert, positive, negative, attractive, ugly, etc), you are never going to fit into the mould of your definition, because you are a dynamic, fluid expression of life yourself.

Who you think yourself to be is a static limitation of the infiniteness that you really are. The human vessel that you are has been designed to experience every possible feeling under the sun. It’s what it was made for.

Your real self - your deeper self - is beyond limitation. You are like the sea - you contain every experience from calmness to storm. You can be soft and malleable, or you can crash down with thunderous force.

The more willing you are to look beyond your memories and beliefs and approach each day and moment like a beginner, the more you will see things as new and fresh, free from the contamination of all your past thinking.

The result of this is that everything becomes more alive and you find more opportunities to connect, create, and enjoy each moment.

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