The Zen Buddhist Tradition That Shows Us Why We Need to Look Back to Move Forward

Satori​ (悟り) is a Japanese Buddhist term for “understanding”. In the Zen Buddhist tradition, Satori refers to the experience of Kenshō, a term used to explain “seeing into one’s true nature.” (Ken = “seeing,” and shō = “nature” or “essence.”) Thus, both Satori and Kenshō are commonly translated as part of enlightenment.

Society is a confusing thing, isn’t it? Although the idea that many people dwelling as one is a simple enough notion, at the heart of belonging to a shared community is an overwhelmingly complicated theoretical concept.

Anyone who has ever seen or been a part of one can unanimously state that a society is not merely about clusters of people living in the same road, district or country. No, it is about what those clusters of people represent – their shared beliefs. A mutual understanding is what binds us, but although those collective beliefs are strong now, it is almost certain that they will not be identical later. Time changes everything, as they say. Similarly so, that when we look back on our own lives (in spite of often being taught not to) we’ll see that – just like those beliefs – nothing stays the same.

Introspection isn’t always looked fondly upon, however. Living for the now is viewed as the more relaxed approach to life and anything that goes outside of those parameters is greeted with a wagging finger. As Lao Tzu once said:

“If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace you are living in the present.”

Lao Tzu

But what the plethora of motivational quotes out there neglect to mention is that not every minute living in the present is doozy (Nope, it doesn’t always feel like much of a “gift”) Which, ultimately, can make it increasingly tough to see whether the steps made on our journey so far are even taking us anywhere – Can we fully appreciate how far we’ve come if we just keep facing forwards?

So, despite the many #inspiringwords telling us not to do it (do your best to not Google them for at least 5-minutes..) I’m going to explain exactly why engaging with our inner-Hermit from time-to-time actually has the power to improve our self-perception, and how, from that understanding, it can create momentum again for voyaging toward our future goals.

Spoiler Alert! It’s all about the direction you choose to travel.

Be wise now.

Imagine your mind having one of those crisscross signposts (the one with all of the arrowed arms outstretched, telling you how many miles away everything is from that point) But, instead of just navigating where to go down memory lane, they also tell you exactly how those memories are emotionally associated, too.

Remember, we often judge ourselves far more harshly at the time of an event, so it’s worth noting that revisiting a memory can actually enable us to reassess our judgement with clearer vision.

Nevertheless, should you be willing to embark on this voyage, you must be ready to face it. This is starting to sound more and more like something from The Hobbit, isn’t it? But yes, similarly, this journey can be a treacherous one. So preparation and awareness is key. Therefore, when standing by the metaphorical crossroad signpost, your readiness to revisit those places must be evaluated too.

For instance, if the event happened too recently, your evaluation of it is unlikely to have changed much (a bit like how trends in society work, a change is more likely to be noted after a significant period of time) Likewise, there are some emotions that remain immutable, despite time passing by. This is usually because not enough events have occurred in-between to create any necessary shifts. Such as with a romantic relationship. Think about breaking up with someone without any proper closure, it is going to be a lot harder to let go of the associated emotion, especially if there has been no other romantic involvement thereafter.

Going back to the philosophy of Satori (the Japanese term for “understanding”) which is obtained after Kenshō (seeing one’s true essence) it makes sense to suggest that an understanding of the self is conducive to an understanding of the world around us. When we make sense of our experiences, we can make sense of ourselves, and all that the world beholds becomes a lot easier to comprehend.

This is why we need to look back. Even if the event itself was a negative one, it has to sometimes be re-explored. So that you can:

1) See how much things have changed since that time

2) Appreciate how much you’ve changed as an individual since then and

3) Acknowledge your past successes.

Big or small, use that knowledge to instill confidence in yourself. Even in this serendipitous life, there are patterns that can somewhat be predicted. And realise that, no matter what happens hereon-in, you have been strong enough to overcome those unfavourable moments from the past. This combination of steps creates enlightenment, and once you have that, the world is your oyster.

Of course, human disposition is a multifaceted one, compartmentalised with many different categories of experience (a bit like a movie store, where if your mind is Blockbusters, your varied experiences are what’s shelved by genre and bestsellers) So this trip down memory lane is something that you’ll probably have to do countless times in your life. Self-assurance may have been built from one reflection, but that doesn’t mean that it covers them all.

One last thing. Give yourself a break.

The past isn’t something you can rewrite. The path has been set, the story already published. However, the future is yours to pave or write (or whatever analogy best suits you) and although life will inevitably throw its curveballs, it’s up to you how you face them. That approach will be measured by how you measure yourself. People who see themselves in an optimistic light will approach anomalies intrepidly. People who see themselves negatively will, therefore, most probably run and hide. It is not about ability. Both people could be equally brilliant. It’s about self-perception.

So, once in a while, stop, take a look around, take it all in, and even if it’s still not where you want to be, look at all of the steps you’ve taken so far to get there. Perhaps they haven’t changed your life exponentially yet, but becoming appreciative of them all again will enable you to see yourself in a more positive light. Even in the toughest of times, an enlightened attitude will empower you to make more assured choices. So when the blurry – but opportunistic – crisscross signpost pointing its many arms towards the unknown future is faced, the next steps you’ll take towards it will be bold.

**TIP** Keep a diary, make a scrapbook, a portfolio, take photos, write an online blog (ahem) – do whatever you can to make this journey more 4D. It’ll help keep you motivated and also visually track how far you’ve come. After all, we can’t remember everything!

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