In difficult times it is so easy to time travel. I don’t mean with an actual time machine; I mean with your mind. When you are sitting with loss and grief, you might wish that you were anyplace else. Because right here, right now, it’s painful. And there were times in the past that were not painful. And you believe that, eventually, at some future point, it will not be painful. And so you time travel: you spend your time revisiting happy memories; or you daydream about a future filled with love and laughter. Perhaps your future will hold love and laughter, but how do you get there? If you don’t dwell in the now, then you cannot properly acknowledge your difficult feelings. While the future is not guaranteed, if it does arrive, it will not be joyful if you have not dealt with your pain. If you spend today in the right way, you can have an auspicious day, as the Buddha describes in the Bhaddekaratta Sutta (MN 131):
You shouldn’t chase after the past.
or place expectations on the future.
What is past?
is left behind.
The future is as yet unreached.
Whatever quality is present.
you clearly see right there,
Not taken in,
that’s how you develop the heart.
what should be done today,
There is no bargaining
with Mortality & his mighty horde.
Whoever lives thus ardently,
both day & night,
has truly had an auspicious day:
so says the Peaceful Sage.
By reflecting on this passage, you are reminded that dwelling on the past or fixating on the future only leads to suffering. Instead, you can focus on the present moment and embrace the practice of letting go. Feel the rising and falling of the difficult emotions. There is nothing in the past for you. You do not need to engage in chasing after the past, as the Buddha describes below:
And how, monks, does one chase after the past? One gets carried away with the delight of ‘In the past I had such a form (body)’ . . . ‘In the past I had such a feeling’ . . . ‘In the past I had such a perception’ . . . ‘In the past I had such a thought-fabrication’ . . . ‘In the past I had such a consciousness.’ This is called chasing after the past.
Likewise, you do not need to place expectations on the future like this:
And how does one place expectations on the future? One gets carried away with the delight of ‘In the future I might have such a form (body)’ . . . ‘In the future I might have such a feeling’ . . . ‘In the future I might have such a perception’ . . . ‘In the future I might have such a thought-fabrication’ . . . ‘In the future I might have such a consciousness.’ This is called placing expectations on the future.
Overly anticipating the future and becoming attached to specific outcomes contribute to your suffering. If you want to look forward to a future without suffering, then look to today. And this too must be handled in the right way. The sutta also discusses what “not taken in” means. To have that auspicious day is not just about not chasing the past or the future, it is also about a proper mindset in the present. The Buddha describes one who is not taken in:
And how is one not taken in with regard to present qualities? There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones who has seen the noble ones, is versed in the teachings of the noble ones, is well-trained in the teachings of the noble ones, does not see form as self, or self as possessing form, or form as in self, or self as in form.
It is not just to be in the present moment with your feelings. I am drawing on this idea to make a certain point. In times of difficulty and loss, do not look backward or forward. It is tempting to want to take yourself far away from this painful moment in time. You need to be in the present moment in the right way. Drawing on the Dhamma and working with an understanding that these feelings are not you. You will be confronted by your past, and you are facing your future. But do not squander what you have—and what you have is now. Right now, right in front of you, this is your practice. And, in the overall spirit of Death Dhamma, “Who knows, maybe tomorrow death will come.”