Yesterday I discussed weird and isolated tribes that have completely different perceptions of time from ours. We always put past behind us and we are always looking forward to the future while they place past and future in all possible directions – left, right, front, east, west, towards the door etc.
The most interesting one, for me, was Aymara people of South America who put the past in front of them, in front of their eyes. If makes sense, if you think of it – past is known, it’s in your view, it has been in your view, it played out in front of your eyes, so why shouldn’t it be visualized there, too?
Our Western “looking forward” is also easy to understand – when we are going somewhere we are moving towards our future and spatially it means moving forward. Future is uncertain, sometimes it looks dangerous, and when confronting danger we turn our face to it. Then we might flee, but first we have to have a good look at what is facing us.
Putting past behind also makes a lot of sense – we have no control over it any more, it’s done, cannot be changed, cannot be reversed. So we do not cry over spilled milk and forget whatever happened in the past, we do not let it drag us down in our future endeavors. We put it where we can’t see it and where it’s unlikely to bother us anymore – behind our backs.
I didn’t mention those reasons yesterday, I just went for the one favorable to my point – as westerners we live under the mode of passion and so our happiness is always in the future, we live for the sake of our future, not the past. We constantly make plans, dream, imagine things, imagine our future sense enjoyment. These thoughts about future occupy our minds “front and center” and that naturally leads to visualizing our future in front of us, not behind.
That is all our material conditioning, though – it entirely depends on where we were born and how we were raised. Where do Indians place past and future? I have no idea, I’ve never heard it was any different so I assume it’s the same as westerners. Does it make it spiritually legitimate, though? Yes and no.
Yes, because if Śrīla Prabhupāda saw the past behind him and future ahead of us then it’s legitimate. No, because it doesn’t really matter. Our spiritual practice and our spiritual progress do not depend on where we imagine our past and future are located in relation to our material bodies.
Having said that, our practice does depend on these things – we are supposed to strip it from all material contamination and that means purging all cultural and societal norms from our hearts. We are not walking into Vaikuṇṭha speaking English. We are not eating off banana leaves there with fork and spoon, and we won’t endear ourselves to anyone there by constantly saying “achcha!” That might impress earthly vrajavāsīs but needs to be abandoned as yet another upādha.
With that goal in mind we should isolate unfavorable influences of our cultural conditioning and that includes dreaming about our future.
I wrote about it a couple of weeks ago already, I just want to expand on this topic a little bit more.
There’s no dreaming about the future among the nine methods of devotional service, but smaraṇam, remembrance, is there. It’s so important that it’s even made into two other foremost rules – always remember Kṛṣṇa and never forget.
All our mental work in devotional service is related to the past, that’s why it’s called remembrance, after all. Every time something happens to us we must remember the words of our guru and apply them to the present situation. Alternatively we can remember how other devotees acted in the similar situation and follow their footsteps.
That’s another big one – we always follow somebody’s footsteps, always follow what somebody has done in the past. Our guru, our ācāryas, other devotees, even Kṛṣṇa or Lord Caitanya Themselves.
Our real spiritual life might lie ahead of us but all our present perceptions of spirituality come from the past, ours as well as historical. We read books about events of five thousand years ago and earlier. We read books about Lord Caitanya, too. We read biographies of our ācāryas and they also describe the past. All spiritual events for us happened in the past – the Lord descended, had some pastimes, His devotees wrote them down, preached them to other people, saw spiritual visions in meditation, converted entire countries and continents and so on.
These events of the past are solid and indisputable while whatever happens to us in the present is doubtful and should be accepted with a great deal of skepticism. We won’t accept claims that Kṛṣṇa had appeared in front of people’s eyes. We might accept reports of Deities talking or appearing in dreams but those are exceptions. We tend to talk about spiritual ecstasy but we don’t take it as real thing yet, certainly not on the level of ecstasy experienced by Lord Caitanya or Six Gosvāmīs.
So, when we talk about engaging our minds in Kṛṣṇa’s service we mean directing our minds towards the past, not future. That is not an absolute rule, though – we have to plan things in our service, too – from cooking food for Kṛṣṇa to preaching engagements. This is probably why it would be crazy to ask devotees think like people of Aymara tribe. We don’t need to visually place past in front of our faces.
Rejecting mundane dreams and plans, however, is legitimate. Our mind always seeks material enjoyment and for the mind it’s always in the future. Our intelligence devises various ways to achieve that enjoyment and that’s why we are always busy making plans. What if this, what if that, what if I do that other thing first, wouldn’t it be better in the long run? That has to be rejected.
It’s the kind of thing that we better put behind us, as materialists say about their past. As soon as these plans occupy our consciousness “front and center” we need to stop and push them away. Our minds should always look backwards – towards our past, not the future.
It’s not an easy thing to do but that’s besides the point – we have to do it anyway, there’s no choice here.
So, a spiritually minded person should dwell in the past and always look towards the past, and if somebody asks about his plans he would stare at that person with a blank expression: “I really haven’t thought about that.”
In this way we should all become “spiritually backwards”.