Beautiful sunlight through cloudsCan we ever really start over?

Sometimes it seems like the past is weighing us down, and much as we’d like to, we can’t ever be free of the trauma, pain, errors, and regrets of the past.

It’s a common expression: You can’t change the past.

But on a psycho-spiritual level, we may be able to do just that.

Right now we are counting down through time towards the Jewish New Year, which is a time of reflection, prayerful meditation, effort and change, as well as great spiritual joy. Our tradition’s mystics tell us it is a time of starting over.

The mystics also have an understanding of time and space that in some ways aligns with modern physics. In the mystical tradition, time and space were recognized as fluid constructs, actually Creations in their own right.

Because the Creator is beyond time and space, and indeed, created time and space, there is no past or future, or here or there from the Creator’s perspective. Everything just IS. All at once.

So what does this have to do with us?

From this we learn that time, which becomes more and more significant to us as we mature, is really: pastpresentfuture. We can begin to recognize that the importance of time for human beings is more about decision making and defining ourselves rather than time travel through the Universe.

Time gives us permission to be and to change.

Also, we can understand that what we do in the present affects in some way not only the future but also the past, since everything is “happening” at once.

On a more mundane level, the mystics teach some techniques for transforming the past and starting over. Here’s one:


This is not to say stuff or repress, but to rather allow the healing of forgetting to help the painful parts of the past fade away. Is this possible?

When speaking with holocaust survivors, we found that many people, while speaking about the trauma they suffered, relived it with all the painful, negative emotions it engendered. Even 70 years later. One man we interviewed blamed himself for his parents’ deaths and buried himself in his self-hatred. He turned the anger inwards and occasionally, outwards. The trauma was nearly as fresh in his 90s as it was in his 20s; as we spoke, he cried, openly. His story made us cry, too.*

Yet, some people seemed to remember good (!) things about the war, even recalling positive things about being a prisoner in a concentration camp. One woman remembered moments of caring and sharing. She had lost several sisters in the camp, but one sister remained alive with her. This sustained her faith and hope, and she focused on the fact she had to remain alive to help care for her sister.

The bad faded away, as if the person remembering the horrors was only an observer, not a victim. She wasn’t repressing, she genuinely only remembered the positive aspects. She viewed her sister’s survival as a gift from God.

Of course, there is no one correct way to handle pain, grief or regret. But forgetting may be one of the keys we can use to unlock the door to healing.

Is forgetting pain an inborn talent or can it be cultivated?

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov says forgetting is a great gift that we can all learn to do. Selectively forgetting painful events is a possibility and a good choice in some personal circumstances.

For most of us, this means first processing the past by talking about it with a therapist, spiritual adviser, or close friend. For others, it means thinking about the past, writing about it, or using visual arts, music or dance to process it.

Whether what we need to heal was caused by our actions, such as a deed we regret doing, or was a situation where we were acted upon, by processing the past first, really trying to understand it and come to a place of insight and acceptance, we can indeed transform the past and start over.

There are other keys to starting over…coming soon.

*The experience of trauma can be embedded so deeply and be felt so powerfully that even with effort, it can take many, many years to work through the grief, pain, and loss. Each of us is an individual, and naturally we have different ways in which we deal with suffering. We can try and respect each individual for wherever they’re holding and not judge or condemn.

* We will often need to make reparations and ask for forgiveness for things we’ve done that have caused harm.