Recently, I hurt someone I love and care about deeply. It wasn’t intentional, but it was the kind of hurt that ruins relationships and makes you wonder if you actually know yourself at all. In strictest terms, mindfulness didn’t initially seem to be a whole lot of help, as I was quite present with the awful pain of the situation but also riddled with self-judgment and self-hatred at having caused it. It didn’t seem as if a sitting meditation practice was even an option, as I couldn’t imagine focusing on anything other than the pain.
An interesting thing quickly happened once I got on the cushion, though. The initial onslaught of thoughts consisted mostly of replaying the scenario over and over again, evoking a familiar litany of reactions. I wondered how I could ever forgive myself, especially if my friend did not forgive me. I thought I did not deserve happiness, I would end up alone forever, miserable, etc., etc. I breathed, and for just a second here and there, put some space between me and my thoughts. Miraculously, it was enough to give rise to some new thoughts — like the realization that if I solidified those judgments I would create that reality for myself (karma), and I didn’t want to do that. Since I was sitting, I kept practicing letting all the thoughts go and returning to the breath. Not easy, but every once in a while the space would open just a little. New awarenesses arose and later on, I could return to them. But for the time being, it was about letting go, over and over again.
When the practice was over, I was able to see my behavior with a new clarity, recognizing that it was rooted in deeply held patterns that had held me hostage for years. Coming face to face with these roots, I could see that while my behavior toward my friend was hurtful, it had caused far greater hurt to someone else who was important — to me. In order to forgive myself for hurting someone else, I had to first forgive myself for hurting me. I looked squarely at everything I sacrificed over the years in service of this pattern, an outdated code of conduct and sense of identity: a relationship, a family, financial success, so many things I really wanted but told myself I didn’t, or couldn’t. Why did I persist in telling myself these things? Whose interests did I think I was serving? Family? The past? News flash, folks: the past is over. I couldn’t change it then, and I sure couldn’t change it now, so WHY was I still trying? It felt like the time I did an Outward Bound course. During the last activity, the zip cord line, I became paralyzed with fear, unable to jump. I must’ve stayed on the platform for at least 20 minutes — at first everyone was cheering and encouraging me. Eventually, they all just moved on and went to lunch. I knew could stop there but I also knew I’d hate myself if I did. After begging, pleading and bargaining with myself, a switch eventually seemed to flip in my brain. I finally loosened my grip and slipped off the platform. I shrieked, zipped across the wire, and landed, at long last, on my feet, safely. I felt freed in that moment in a way I never had, and I realized that holding myself back was one of the biggest obstacles I had developed to my own happiness.
A visceral, experiential learning moment like that is exhilarating and expansive, and my initial reaction to what I can only call the uprooting of the neurosis felt that same way. Since then, it’s been a little less straightforward. There are aftershocks in this process, and visits from familiar fears and doubts who still like hanging around. Most notably, there is intense grief, as this is a loss tantamount to any you might experience.
I don’t know if my friend has forgiven me, or ever will. I hope so, because the burden of unforgiveness is a heavy one to carry. But I know that having forgiven myself, the freedom of new possibilities is in front of me. And if the pattern knocks on my door again, as it may well do, I hope to finally recognize it as the unwelcome visitor it is, and, even if I indulge it briefly, send it packing before it’s had the chance to get too settled.