If you had your life to live over, what decisions from the past would you like to do over? Would you choose a different partner or family, or find a new way to handle things better with that childhood bully who picked on you? Psychologists tell us that we can often trace our least desirable patterns of behavior to telling events in the past, where we made up our minds as a child does, without wisdom or experience. Such snap decisions often set a mold for unfavorable behavior patterns like anger or insecurity, that still get activated today. But if we revisit such decisions and mentally redo them as we would choose to act now, we can free ourselves from such patterns and become the person we want to be. So if you are caught in negative patterns like anger, frustration, procrastination, or always giving into others, try this strategy of tracing it back into the past to some key incident that typifies this pattern. Then resolve to redo the incident in your mind. Here is how to proceed:
- 1. Choose the pattern you want to change: Say that you want to get a handle on your anger, or start standing up for yourself rather than always kind of blending into some shade of what others want of you. In all such work, of course, it is helpful to have the help and guidance of your therapist, your twelve step group, or a dedicated circle of friends. In my case, I was always that person in the group who mediated arguments and helped bring peace. In the process, I forgot who I am (if I ever knew) and what I truly want. How much easier to make others feel better; you get a whole lot more credit for it, in fact you are downright popular. Sooner or later, though, those who have lost themselves pay dearly for that loss, for they cannot love; and the same can be said for those who get angry and act thoughtlessly, or those who can never live up to their personal commitments. In all such negative behaviors, it is time to trace them back to that event in the past where they began.
- Find the event: To give an example, a friend who once played high school football always complained he was prone to imitate celebrities in what he wore and how he spoke, rather than being himself. Reflecting on where this all might have begun, he remembered how he once saw a play in the Superbowl which he thought the coolest ever. A runner, pursued by would-be tacklers, faked so convincingly to the right that, when he instead went to the left, there was an open field and he ran for a touchdown. So the next game when he had the ball, my friend decided he would be equally as cool, so he tried that same fake. But it didn't work out like in the pros; he felt a sharp, tearing pain in his knee and fell to the ground. Carried off the field on a stretcher, he has had a new knee operation every decade and nothing has made the pain go away. My friend saw in this painful incident the beginning of his lifelong tendency to imitate celebrities rather than act for himself. But now he wanted to reclaim his own life, so he decided to do something about it.
- Redo the action from the past: When the pain caused by an old pattern just gets too great and you have found the event where it all began, recreate the scene in your mind and redo the incident now. Whether it is that time we let the bully beat up on us rather than telling our parents, or when we cheated on a math test and had to sit in shame at the back of the classroom, bring it back and decide to act in a new way. In my friend's case, he took himself back mentally in time to the key play. But now, seeing it all as an adult, he decided in his imagination not to fake, but just run with all his speed. Just as in this new willful action my friend was spared both his accident and his tendency to copy celebrities, all of us can find a pivotal event back in our past that typifies the behavior we want to say goodbye to. It might not be pain-free to bring it back, but try it; you will be glad to have the chance to decide differently as an adult. Try also beginning a spiritual practice, such as that of passage meditation described on my website, to support you in your trials. Then you will begin to taste the freedom that is the very most precious in this life: to be the person we want to be.
Dr. Stephen Ruppenthal is the author of The Path of Direct Awakening: Passages for Meditation.. He is also the co-author of Eknath Easwaran's edition of The Dhammapada and the author of Keats and Zen. He has taught meditation and courses on Han Shan at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University. Dr. Ruppenthal is an international workshop leader in passage meditation and in courses for those looking for end of life spiritual care and for the spiritual step component of twelve step programs. Visit Stephen's work at