Blog Post No.155 (was 119)
Posted on 4th May 2017 (Originally posted on Saturday 21st February 2015)
Updated on 15th December 2021
Dr Jim’s Counselling Blog:
A counsellor blogs about ‘Living in the Present’… And Processing the Past!
Copyright © Jim Byrne, 2015-2021
A fly in my ointment
About one week ago, I got up, ate my breakfast, meditated and did my physical exercise, as normal. But something went wrong.
Just before I mediate, I am in the habit of reading some ‘thought for the day’ from a Zen source. On that occasion, I read a quote from Chögyam Trungpa.
This is what it said:
“…Once you begin to deal with a person’s whole case history, trying to make it relevant to the present, the person begins to feel that he has no escape, that his situation is hopeless, because he cannot undo his past. He feels trapped by his past with no way out. This kind of treatment is extremely unskilled. It is destructive because it hinders involvement with the creative aspect of what is happening now, what is here, right now…”
This quotation was concerning for me, because it seems to support Dr Albert Ellis’s advice to “forget the god-awful past” – which I have rejected several times in recent years, in various pieces of my writing.
Dealing with tensions and contradictions
As a principled practitioner and researcher, I therefore felt obliged to address this statement by Trungpa; to investigate it; to see how it is constructed; and to come to some kind of resolution of the tension between Trungpa/Ellis, on the one hand, and myself on the other.
I was very busy during that period, for perhaps the past two weeks – with much of my time going into editing my revised, fictionalized autobiographical story. (See Metal Dog – Long Road Home***)
Yesterday, I completed the current editing task, and today I wrote a little 29-page paper on the question of which is supportable: the suggestion of ‘forgetting the past’; or the suggestion of ‘processing the past’.
Please see: Personal history and the mind of the individual counselling client. The (frequent) importance of processing the past in counselling and therapy.***
In this little blog post, I want to take Trungpa’s quote apart to see what it is made of. Let us begin with the first element:
“…Once you begin to deal with a person’s whole case history, trying to make it relevant to the present, the person begins to feel that he has no escape, that his situation is hopeless, because he cannot undo his past. …”
This statement is:
(a) Not in line with my clinical experience. I could, given the time, write up lots of my client cases to show that many of my clients experienced dramatic levels of relief once they had finished processing some past, traumatic experience.
(b) Misleading. The second clause – “…trying to make (the past) relevant to the present…” – is not a therapeutic task that has ever been proposed by any of the major therapists that I have studied. This is either a misunderstanding or a red herring presented by Trungpa.
(c) Unsupported. Which person “begins to feel that he has no escape”? Certainly not any of the many individuals that I have helped to process their old traumas. They have a very specific form of escape.
(1) They find and confront the troublesome past experience; and, simultaneously:
(2) They find a way to re-frame that old experience, so it does not seem so daunting; painful; impossible to bear.
(3) Once they have digested/re-framed the old, troublesome experience, they can let it go, and move on with the rest of their lives.
See my paper on ‘Completing your experience of difficult events, perceptions and painful emotions’.
(e) Not about any known therapy. The process which Trungpa describes, which he says “is destructive” is not a process that corresponds to any form of psychotherapy that I have ever encountered. There is nothing to stop any client in CENT counselling from being in touch with the present moment, immediately before, and immediately after, their attempt to complete and re-frame an old experience.
An additional argument…
Trungpa goes on, in the next paragraph, to say: “As soon as we try to unravel the past, then we are involved with ambition and struggle in the present, not being able to accept the present moment as it is”.
Again, this does not correspond to my experience. Whenever I have worked on processing old childhood traumas, I was perfectly able to accept the present moment as it was. (I have been meditating since 1980, and striving to ‘live in the present’).
Let us look at one of my recent cases. It should be of interest to Trungpa that I worked with one woman who had a hugely traumatic family problem dating from her childhood (when aged about seven years onwards), which we reviewed, processed, and I helped her to reframe it – in just three sessions of 45 minutes of counselling. At the end of this process, she declared that she was ‘done’ – but that she would join a Meditation Group and continue to develop her sense of having been ‘washed clean’ by our therapy work together!
Certainly it is true (as Trungpa says) that processing the past involves struggles, but they are struggles that are well worth undertaking and completing, because they allow you to live more fully in the present when you have burned out the old hurts and pains in the (largely non-conscious) basement of your mind.
I have written an eBook on how to face up to traumatic memories of past experiences, and to process them, digest them, and burn them out, so they can be filed away in an inert file in long-term memory, from which they can cause you no further disturbance. Her are the details:
It may well be that every philosophy of life contains its strengths and weaknesses. Trungpa and Ellis are illustrations of that hybrid nature of philosophies of life.
So, by all means, try to live in the present moment; try to engage in ongoing mindfulness as you go about your day. But if you are troubled by emotional (or physical) symptoms which may be connected to childhood, or early adult life trauma, then by all means engage in the struggle that is required to process and re-frame those traumas, so you can free your energies for a more enjoyable life in the present moment.
That’s all for now.
Jim Byrne – Doctor of Counselling
 Chögyam Trungpa, The situation of nowness, in: Josh Baran, 365 Nirvana: Here and Now. Element/HarperColins. 2003.
 Byrne, J. (2011) Completing your experience of difficult events, perceptions and painful emotions. CENT Paper No.13. Hebden Bridge: The Institute for Cognitive Emotive Narrative Therapy. Available online: https://ecent-institute.org/e-cent-articles-and-papers/
 Byrne, J. (2009) A journey through models of mind. The story of my personal origins. CENT Paper No.4. Hebden Bridge: The Institute for CENT. Available online: https://ecent-institute.org/e-cent-articles-and-papers/
 Byrne, J. (2010) The Story of Relationship: Or coming to terms with my mother (and father). CENT Paper No.10. Hebden Bridge: The Institute for CENT. Available online: https://ecent-institute.org/e-cent-articles-and-papers/