Back to the now

We say we cannot change our past, but can change our future. I would like to challenge this concept by flipping it around: We can change our past but cannot change our future.

 We can change our past

What is our “past”? It is the collection of our memories. When our mind travels back in time, we think we simply pull out a scene out of our memory archive, and replay it in our brain. But what actually goes on is the reconstruction of our memory by combining basic memory “elements” according to the imprints a process probably similar to recreating a castle using lego blocks. If we just store a set of memory in our inner vault so we can take it out intact any time, we wouldn’t be having the Rashomon effect where everybody recalls an incident differently, depending on his point of view. Or we wouldn’t be adding Photoshop effects on our own memories over the years, assuring that the past always look gorgeous.

We do change our past, in fact always, because of these “errors” creeping inside our memory reconstruction process. There should be an instruction manual that accompanies every set of memory, but who reads the user manual anyhow? (As a technical writer I know what I am talking about 🙂 Therefore, the past is changeable—in fact, it should be more difficult, if not impossible, to keep it unchanged.

But we cannot change our future

Hold on, I know that the future always changes. What I mean here is that we cannot know HOW the future is going to change. “Changing the future” implies that there is a standard set of future on one hand and there is an alternative version of it with one or two different parameters. We expect we can switch among multiple futures with minor (but crucial) differences, as depicted in The Butterfly Effect or Fringe. But that is wishful thinking, because (1) there are too many entangled parameters at any moment and (2) there is no such thing as a “different future.” There has always been, and always be, one set of future, which is happening right here, right now.

In fact, there is no such thing as a “future,” at least in a tangible form. The only future we can ever conceive is what happens a fragment of second after this exact moment, and therefore, the future is the present moment. Since the future essentially does not exist, it is impossible to change it. I do not say that we cannot change anything; in fact, we are changing ourselves and the world we live in constantly. I would rather say that what we are changing is the present, not the future.

Back to the present

We change our past but not our future. When we subconsciously change our past ( = reconstruct our memories in different ways), we do so to fit our history better to our present reality. We reduce our traumatic effects to lead a happier future or add more colors to our childhood/first love/adventures in the later stage of our life to prepare for a peaceful ending. The past exists for the present moment. And as I have explained previously, the future is nothing but the upcoming present. Therefore, everything always comes back to the present moment.

I used to think that the term “focus on the present” only meant that the present is more important than the past or the future. The real message behind this timeless mantra should be that there is no such thing as past or future: There is only present, therefore stop looking at something does not exist. Focus on what you have now, which is…the now.