We are all confronted by our past at one point or another. Even when we’re not, there are persistent reminders of the past… The real trick is to let them be, without engaging, without getting mired. But easier said than done.

I seem to be having a lot of conversations on this topic lately–with strangers, with friends, and most certainly with myself. A near-stranger asked me for advice about someone he’d dated a while back and thought was out of his life for good. Then, a friend confided that her relationship was crumbling, making her question the choices she’d made that led her to that point; and another friend, being constantly reminded of his past and his choices by an ex-spouse and their child. No longer together yet never quite severed, the ties linger painfully…

I am reminded of my own past frequently enough. No longer a “Mrs.,” I still get letters addressed to me that way, and it makes me wince in pain almost every time. The smartest thing is, of course, to let the pain go, and yet somehow it is not so easy.

I am also reminded of my past at times of stress, when I find myself reaching for a tried-and-true habit, that which is neither nourishing nor healthy, no longer serves a purpose, yet would be so easy to follow. I am grateful that I have the self-awareness necessary to keep me from going down that path, but the mere appearance of that vestige can bring the past into the present.

What is it that brings us–them–coming back? Most of the time, it is seemingly random. Other times, though, someone from our past reappears, unexpectedly and disruptively, and it is precipitated by whatever is going on in the other person’s life, and has nothing to do with me, my stranger, or my friend. An important distinction, I realize…

So what are we to do? How do we disengage from that which can keep us from moving forward? I know what works for me: taking a deep, conscious breath while becoming aware that the chances are, nothing is happening right now–only my thoughts running wildly. If there are other people involved, asking, probing, wanting, then my breath allows me to separate their desire to engage from my need to keep things moving.

I have to accept that I have no control over when, why, or how the reminders of my (or someone else’s) past will pop up, so I better brace myself for the inevitability of it. Armed with the awareness of my breath, I can watch the past arise, abide, and dissolve. Keep it moving, brush it away, let it go. Repeat as necessary, and soon enough I find myself free from the past… until the next time.