On Finding Freedom

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Passover has always been my favorite religious holiday. The story of the Jews finding freedom from Pharaoh’s oppression has always felt particularly meaningful and reflects, in part, my historical commitment to pursuits of social justice. Looking back, I can also see that the demands of being loyal to family secrets and dynamics felt no less than oppressive, and the quest to follow my own truth as arduous as trying to cross the Red Sea.

Stories of finding freedom are inspiring and hopeful, but they also contain elements of challenge. Letting go of the past can be exhilarating, but like winning any battle, it comes with losses. Not the least of these is realizing who you might have become had the road ahead of you been clear from the start. Finding a new identity may not come easily. It requires shifting your relationship to everything that came before, which can be difficult. Unlike a physical journey where you can move away and never return home, the specter of the psychic past may always be present, occasionally rising up to pull you backwards. It takes vigilance to get used to being on new and solid ground, and the passage may result in some injuries.

I’m reminded of when I began to practice Yoga, 20 years ago. I was a fitness instructor and in great shape at the time, but Yoga was harder than I ever expected. Each time I went to class, I couldn’t wait for it to be over. I also couldn’t wait to get back, sensing on some level that I needed to be there. I would practice diligently for a while and then slack off. I would make great gains in strength and flexibility, but then go home and compulsively overeat, thereby blocking the flow of energy opened up through practice. This battle went on for years before I understood that what I was really doing was fighting for the freedom Yoga promises while still firmly tethering myself to the past.

About 10 years ago, my battle found a profound embodiment. I was at a place in my practice where I was strong, flexible, and feeling great. I happened to take a class with a teacher who was known for “pushing” students. I was a teacher myself, so I had no problem with the deep postures we practiced, and felt I was in tune enough with my body to avoid injury. The postures indeed felt exhilarating and made me feel I was now truly on the Yoga path.

Shortly afterward, my back began to bother me a little. I assumed I had “tweaked” it, and that it would self-correct. It didn’t, and continued to nag. I kept doing whatever I was doing and eventually, the pain became worse. I had a sense that this was not just a physical manifestation, but that I had opened up something energetically that I was simultaneously fighting against. I tried many interventions to address it, but nothing worked. The pain became a chronic affliction, and slowed me down to the point of almost giving up on Yoga completely. I felt defeated, not just in my body but in my life.

Fortunately, I found the power of mindfulness practice, which allowed me to face head-on those beliefs to which I was still bound, and pushed me to finally stand up to that outdated loyalty. Joining this practice with a renewed commitment to Yoga has allowed energy to start flowing on all levels — physically, mentally and emotionally. The back pain is still there, but it’s changing — it’s beginning to shift in intensity and feeling. Sometimes, it disappears completely.

As I navigate these shifts, I am mourning the losses that accompany them, not the least of which are the opportunities that passed me by. However, becoming better at mindfully embracing the newness of the present, unencumbered by imprints of the past or expectations of the future, I am beginning to move forward, putting this particular battle behind me, with the hope of finding it is true after all that “it’s never too late to be what you might have been.”

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Mindfulness and Healing

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When we cut ourselves deeply, we cover the wound with a bandage to protect it and let it heal. It can be painful for quite a while. Eventually, we need to uncover the wound and expose it to the air in order for it to heal fully. We might develop some scar tissue, which serves to remind us of the injury and its cause. We might hate our scars, and try to cover them up. We might feel quite neutral towards them. We might even wear them as a badge of honor.

The psychic healing process has some parallels, but is generally a little more complex. Depending on the severity of our wounds and the environment we’re in, we may choose — often unconsciously — not to expose them at all, but instead to cover them up in a variety of ways. Like scar tissue, a whole new identity might grow over them. We might even forget who we were and what we felt like before we were wounded. How we relate to our wounds becomes the basis of our life experience.

As the child of a trauma survivor, my journey has had a particular complexity. In our house, the trauma was never discussed. It wasn’t even known to me consciously until right after my mother’s death, when, while taking a long walk outside during the shiva week, my father revealed it to my brother and me abruptly, suddenly, like the gasp of air that comes when you’ve been underwater too long and finally break the surface.

My mother never dealt with her trauma; instead, she left a legacy of mental and emotional knots for me to inherit and unravel. This long and winding road has shaped me, informing my choices and governing my growth. It’s had everything to do with why I learned from an early age to hide and compartmentalize the different aspects of my life, so much so that it took years to fully realize the extent to which I did this and the impact that it had, and even more years to pull the pieces back together.

More than anything else, the practices of Yoga, meditation and mindfulness have been the most profound for me in penetrating the layers of identity and exposing these psychic wounds. In mindfulness we say that the important thing is not whether or not we experience difficult emotions, but rather how we relate to them. In my case, there’s been a lot of stop and go. Fully experiencing the pain was, many times, too threatening, and I’d back away from the edge. At the same time, tasting the freedom that lay just beyond was enticing, but evoked an equal threat. It’s been a frustrating and often paralyzing dynamic.

While we may like the idea of healing, it’s important to understand that it is a painful process. However if we turn away from it, our patterns simply repeat themselves.
I’ve watched myself, time and time again, sabotage opportunities, ruin relationships and thwart my own success. Many times I punished myself for this, which was like kicking my own legs out from under me just when I was trying to stand back up. I’ve harbored shame, guilt, and a haunting sense of unworthiness. It’s taken a good deal of self-compassion to face this fully, accept myself and truly let go of the past.

Listening to the pain takes patience, and learning to respect how much we can tolerate at any given time. As we do in our practice, we need to keep returning our attention to the present and relate to our energy in a new way. By letting the waves of anger, sadness, regret and loss move up and out of us, we make more space for calmness and joy. Experiencing that fully serves to build our faith; with more faith, we develop the strength to keep going. It makes me think of what happens in weight training — as the stress makes the muscles develop microscopic tears, it is scar tissue that heals them and rebuilds them even stronger than before. Instead of choosing to hide in shame, all of us who are healing would do well to think of ourselves as weight lifters, Olympic-style, going for the gold.

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Mindfulness is a Game-Changer

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The difference between thinking and mindfulness is that when you’re thinking, you’re doing it in the present but may be “lost in thought.” When you’re mindful, you’re aware that you’re thinking and can notice where those thoughts may lead. That’s a game-changer.

I’m taking a slight liberty with the semantics, but what I mean is that when you’re not really conscious of what you’re thinking, you’re also likely to be unaware of how your thoughts are contributing to your shifting moods and emotions. Since we often act and make decisions from an emotional state, the less aware you are, the more you may find yourself carried along on a current of actions and reactions that can leave your life bearing very little resemblance to what you actually want.

It’s easy understand how this works. Imagine a time when you had a conflict with someone or witnessed an action or an exchange that upset you. What did you feel? What did you think? What did you do? Were you conscious of those reactions at the time? If you were, and chose a response aligned with that awareness, you were able to be mindful. If you weren’t, and reacted strictly by bouncing off the energy of the situation, you weren’t.

Now, it’s perfectly possible that your reaction was a productive one — perhaps you stepped in to break up a fight and prevented someone from getting seriously hurt. Perhaps you moved out of the way and prevented yourself from getting seriously hurt. But if, for example, you found yourself carried away by the heat of the moment and getting into a screaming match, it’s likely that mindfulness was not at play — especially if you found yourself feeling regretful later on.

The more we practice becoming familiar with our thought process by sitting and noticing what arises without running away from it or towards it, the more clearly we can see what is getting stirred up inside us. That helps us create the pause between stimulus and response that allows us to choose, rather than react blindly. That’s actually empowering, and it changes not only our game, but our sense of what it means to win.

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What is mindfulness based counseling?

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Mindfulness based counseling uses the techniques of cultivating mindful awareness — noticing breath, body sensations and thoughts — to discern what are your conditioned or habitual reactions and behaviors, and to clear the path to new, authentic responses that address where you truly are and get you to where you want to be.

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On Failure, and Trying Again

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I’ve never considered my father to be a particularly quotable guy, although he’s definitely tried to be. There are several things he likes to say over and over (some of them attributable to my grandfather) and while I don’t always find them so compelling in the moment, once in a while they do stick. One of his favorites is, “It’s all right to fail as long as you don’t fail the last time you try.”

Not so compelling, right? Except that after thinking about it for a while, I have to admit, there’s a certain wisdom to it that I find very useful. It speaks to our attempts to do just about anything, and allows for seemingly endless opportunities to fail, but with the notion that there will be just one time that you succeed. And of course, one time is all you need.

I think about this now as I climb back on the well-worn wagon of recovery from falling back into old patterns that I thought I’d gotten well past — abusing myself with food, with negative thoughts and self-sabotaging behaviors. I’ve devoted the better part of my adult life to understanding the psychology of personal growth, combining conventional western paradigms of psychodynamic conditioning with the Yogic and Buddhist views of samskara, or patterning, as well as the various ways to go about trying to transcend them. One of the most exhilarating feelings is when your practice — whatever form it takes — brings you to a place where you finally feel free. You can see the invitation to go down the old familiar road but you have the courage and the guts to take another path.

One of the most debilitating feelings is the opposite — when you see yourself choosing old, self-destructive patterns and getting those miserable but somehow comfortably reliable results. It’s worst when you’ve done enough work to really have awareness — and you realize that you are indeed choosing. When you don’t really know what’s going on or how to stop it, there’s a certain helplessness that keeps your shoulders free of responsibility, and your challenge then is to seek the help and guidance to understand and learn how to change. When you’ve done the work and you know better, you have to own it, both your actions and the results. As any relapsed addict can tell you, this is not pretty.

The accompanying feeling that neither you nor anything in your life can or will ever change yields a sense of collapse, of giving up. This is tough to live with, and the stakes can be very high. We can lose relationships, jobs, money, even our health if we go too far or too long down the road. It’s especially helpful to get support for this. Meditation practice teaches us that when our minds wander, we begin over and over again by coming back to the breath; in the very same way we learn that we can always try again — put down the donut, or the drink, or change the channel on the mental tuner to a more positive station. In this way we begin again, knowing that we can fail many, many times, but just one attempt can be the successful one, and you never know — this could be the time.

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Meditation: The Anti-Addiction

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I was walking through East Harlem yesterday on my way to teach Yoga to recovering addicts, and inevitably passed through a crowd of people smoking cigarettes. As I choked my way through the accompanying clouds of smoke, I had an epiphany: meditation is the anti-addiction.

My thought process went something like this: I wish people wouldn’t smoke…in the scheme of things, quitting smoking is not as crucial as quitting crack, cocaine or alcohol…but it’s still so dangerous…I wish my students wouldn’t smoke…but it’s a lot to ask of people, giving up everything at once. Then it hit me — that’s exactly what we are asking people to do when they meditate. Give everything up and just stay present with whatever arises.

Of course, this isn’t news, but you know how you can understand something and then somehow it really strikes you? This simple picture made it crystal clear why meditation is so powerful. It’s not an explanation of how to abstain from using drugs, alcohol or, for that matter, eating, shopping, gambling, t.v. watching or any other addiction you can think of. It IS the abstinence from any of those activities.

From the time that you begin a meditation session, you sit and you do nothing but pay attention to your breath, notice your thoughts and return to the breath. Over and over. Getting agitated? Stay with the breath. Getting uncomfortable? Stay with the breath. Feeling the urge to reach for something, flee from something, or do just about anything but stay where you are? Notice the energy of that feeling, avoid making up stories about it and return to the breath.

It’s so simple. At times, it’s so very hard. But this is the nuts and bolts of the practice and this is the nuts and bolts of what it is to overcome the tyranny of addiction. There are other techniques and skills, of course, that will help. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps you turn self-sabotaging thoughts into self-supportive ones; movement and exercise will make you feel better physically and emotionally, decreasing your anxiety and mitigating the effects of stress, which might otherwise trigger addictive behavior. Support groups help you counter the isolation that often accompanies addiction, offering connection and the comfort and wisdom of shared experience. Those are just some of many helpful and necessary practices, but there’s nothing quite like bumping right up against the moment an urge overtakes you and riding it out.

Like any other practice, the more you do it, the more you can do it, and thus, the more you know you can do it. Like any other practice, there are times when you might need a teacher or guide, and the support of a group can also help. Ultimately, though, it is you who sits, who stays, who breathes — and, at least for that space and time — who is free.

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Meditation’s Executioner

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Years ago, a therapist I was seeing told me she felt like “Love’s Executioner” — the title of a story by renowned therapist Irvin D. Yalom — because she inevitably had to shoot down the fantasies and get to the real heart (so to speak) of her clients’ romantic love lives. It was a risky bit of professional self-disclosure to be sure — not wanting her arrow aimed at my own passions, I resolved not to tell her about any of my own love interests ever again.

Now, however, I find myself in something of a similar situation. I’m starting to feel like “Meditation’s Executioner.”

When people find out that I practice and teach meditation, they’re often very interested, and confide that they’ve been wanting to try it. When I ask them what it is they’re interested in or what they’re hoping to get out of it, they usually say they want to learn to stop thinking, clear their minds and just be peaceful. A reasonable expectation, right?

Here comes the bow and arrow…

“That’s not exactly how it works,” I say gently. I’m often met with some surprise, and if they want to know more, I tell them that it’s more like getting to know your own mind and your own thoughts; that when you practice, you notice your thoughts and the effect they have on you; you practice not getting too caught up in them, and you begin to realize can change your relationship to your thoughts, and even the thoughts themselves, thus cultivating a different experience that can indeed lead to a greater feeling of peace.

I swear I can see most people deflate, just a little.

Most likely due to its association with world-renouncing spiritual seekers in mysterious Eastern cultures and religions, meditation largely came to be seen as some great form of mind control in which you develop a superhuman ability to transcend the base realm of human emotional experience and simply float inside a bubble of peace and well being.

The Buddhist approach to meditation cuts through a lot of that. There’s a story in which Buddha was asked who would bear witness to his enlightenment, and he leaned over touched the earth in response — suggesting, perhaps, that the fruits of meditation are not found in some esoteric, transcendental realm but rather right here in our everyday experience. It’s not about “not thinking,” but rather about how we can interact with our thoughts, with each other and with the world around us in an openhearted, compassionate way. To do this, we need at least one effective way of working with our minds, and therein we find meditation: a daily practice of remaining present with our minds, hearts and bodies, no matter what is arising. Happiness? Sadness? Anger? It doesn’t matter — the question is, can you stand to sit with the sheer energy of your emotion, the thoughts that both feed it and that it feeds, while keeping the core of your attention on a neutral place like the breath? That is a simple, but by no means easy task. Developing awareness takes time, effort and ongoing discipline and, alas, a lot of people “don’t wanna hear all that.”

[ Pause ]

Lest I sound like I’m looking down at you from my very high horse, that pause was where I realized that before I could continue this post with integrity, I had to sit down and practice after missing two days in a row! This, of course, is exactly what I mean. Even a disciplined practitioner may miss a day, or have trouble sitting, or face a host of other challenges to their commitment. In that same way, meditation doesn’t make you immune to sorrow, loss, fear, anxiety, anger, hurt or regret. Executing our fantasies of what meditation is and does can clear our path of the pain of unrealistic and unreachable expectations — and that, ironically, can bring about a lot more peace.

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Mindfulness and the Operating Room

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Today I had a minor surgical procedure, the kind after which you can go right home, but that still requires general anesthesia. I’ve been lucky enough to have only had one other similar experience in my life more than 20 years ago, and I figured this would be an excellent opportunity to observe the role that mindfulness could play.

Since the procedure was indeed relatively minor and the prognosis positive, I had very little anxiety around it. It was at a good hospital, at a convenient time of day, and I had good friends who were available and reliable to pick me up and make sure I got home safely and that I had whatever I might need.

Every now and then leading up to the day, I caught my mind spinning some kind of yarn around the situation that would start to heighten the anxiety — basically creating dramatic, “what-if” scenarios. I don’t know why the mind tends to do these things — maybe it’s a way of heightening our sense of self-importance, or maybe a way of injecting some excitement (albeit fear-based) into our day-to-day routine. In particular, I had a chance to notice the role that expectations played. An area where I got caught repeatedly was remembering my first experience coming out of general anesthesia. There was a lot of pain, and a momentary inability to speak that caused a brief but intense moment of panic. I kept remembering that moment, and fearing it would happen again. Each time, I was able to navigate my thoughts to more neutral ground, but when I met with the various nurses and doctors I was compelled to tell the story over and over, seeking reassurance that there would be enough nurses around when I regained consciousness. Rightfully, there were no guarantees that I wouldn’t have a difficult moment, but I realized I would simply have to surrender to this and hope for the best.

All the general calm and positive thoughts cultivated by ongoing meditation and Yoga practice were serving me well throughout the waiting and preparation — in fact, the most anxiety-producing element was my own doctor’s impatience, as he kept checking the time, asking all the ancillary staff to do what they had to do (“You still haven’t tested her urine? You’re taking her blood? Why you need to do that? [Typing and matching.] Do you want me to do it?” [Uh, no thank you! Please let the non-emotionally charged nurses who do this all the time handle it!] ) And when I insisted the anesthesiologist check to make sure he was covered by my insurance network before the show could get started, it was tough to prioritize the importance of avoiding a multi-thousand dollar bill over not wanting my doctor to be mad at me! (Upshot: insurance good — doctor not mad — all systems go.)

The moment I didn’t expect, however, came when I walked into the operating room and looked at the operating table. Tears sprang to my eyes as I suddenly got the feeling of the life/death edge. Fueled, perhaps, by watching many episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy, “ER” and every other hospital drama show I’d ever seen and informed by stories both real and fictional of things going horribly wrong — including the stories of those whose edge was much keener than my own. I’m sure lying on this table posed no more threat of death than the proverbial crossing of a busy street, slipping in the tub, etc., but if you are there to try it yourself it, see if it feels that way. Talk about surrender — this was it.

Fortunately, once I lay down there were four or five people all strapping things on and talking to me at once so there was a lot of distraction. People were nice and I was reminded to use my Yoga breathing (which you know I did). I looked at the lights, the equipment and the scrub-garbed professionals, wondering what I would visually remember — and then I was out of that consciousness and slowly, groggily awakening in the recovery room. Happily, I was only a little uncomfortable, not panicked and had all the attention I wanted and needed.

I hope never to have to practice and observe the effects of mindfulness under more serious medical circumstances, but I can certainly understand the challenges of doing so. In fact, this is exactly what they’re for. Who wouldn’t conjure dramatic, “what-if” scenarios in the face of a difficult prognosis? The challenges might also be greater for someone who is more generally anxious or prone to negative thinking. The good news here is that the practice is the same — notice the thoughts you have, how they affect you, and then choose which you want to cultivate. Cultivate dramatic, “what-if” scenarios with heroic, defy-all-the odds endings! Imagine that it’s all going to turn out fine. But then, always, surrender. It might sound corny but one of the last thoughts I had as I waited for the anesthesia to kick in was that I am part of absolute bodhichitta — basic goodness, as it’s called in Buddhism, and that will never change. In that scenario, no matter what the outcome, it can only be positive.

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Mindfulness and Midlife

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Did you have a reaction to the very word?

If you’re the age of me and my high school classmates (names withheld to protect the innocent), chances are good that you did. There are few words or phrases I can think of that so quickly conjure up a myriad of conditioned thoughts around youth, age, and the journey between them — and, of course, the journey beyond. At one point in your life it might have seemed like a foreign concept, something you related to your parents, your teachers, or other “mature” people in your life. If you’re my age now, the phrase might have more of a charge — remember the first time the AARP sent you a mailer? In my experience, it’s been almost short-circuiting.

During the past year I noticed an awful lot of self-talk attached to my coming-of-middle-age, centered around a whole heap of resistance to getting here. I’ve always looked younger than my years and had a lot of energy to boot, but I’m not sure I realized just how invested I was in preserving the identity of my “youthful” self. As the inevitabilities of current reality became apparent, it was like someone yanked my head out of the sand and the grit got in my eyes.

Aches and pains, changes in sleep patterns…hormones…

Physical changes have come, and while they’re certainly not as profound as they might be for others whose personal and professional lives haven’t hinged on health and fitness, they’ve been disconcerting. I always tell students it’s not that we can’t do the things we used to do, but often we have to change the way we approach them. While I do think that’s largely true, there are some things for which I’ve simply given up the ghost.

A much tougher pill to swallow has been the acknowledgment that because of this undying attachment to youthful me, my life is simply not in the place I wish it was at this point. While we all have failures, make mistakes and may be struck with the perfect vision afforded by hindsight, the tenacious grip I’ve held on my younger identity meant playing out old family loyalties long past their expiration date; resting in the seductive but sticky web of financial dependency, and sacrificing a sense of autonomy that might have led to greater risks and subsequent rewards in any number of arenas.

Time to take stock…the second half of life…

Fortunately, practicing meditation and mindfulness helps. Not only does it offer us the opportunity to observe the content of our thoughts and experiences, but also gives us the chance to cultivate new ones. This requires courage, and the willingness to let go of whatever doesn’t serve us anymore. It’s a very simple concept, but as I wrote about in an earlier post, digging up the roots can be a long and difficult undertaking. I’ve been lucky to have some good friends and teachers who have stuck with me and supported me along the way, and I’m happy to be able to show them that the late blooming is finally underway.

Of course, “midlife” is a relative term, and for me, it’s well worth remembering that I’ve had several close friends whose lives were over way too early — at 15, at 23, at 42. For them, my midlife was a place that they’d desperately have wished to reach. With them in mind, I look at where I am with gratitude. Instead of remaining mired in feelings of loss and regret — which is really just the fear of letting go — I can finally accept the past for what it was, and begin to plant new seeds of growth and possibility.

Second half of life?

Bring it.

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Pulling Up The Roots

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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.

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