How Thoughts Get in the Way of Being Present

If just one word were to go in a time capsule to represent our society right now, the word would have to be “mindfulness.” Mindfulness is in every book title, workshop, conversation, idea, and everything else we now encounter.  We’re a society obsessed with mindfulness.  So what is this thing we’re all talking about and presumably trying to create? And how do we do it—be mindful?

Mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, and without judgment, according to Jon Kabat Zinn, a leader and teacher in the mindfulness movement. While we can easily define it, it seems that being it is not so easy. Despite all our talk of mindfulness, studies indicate that most people are only here, paying attention in the present moment, 50% of the time.  That said we miss out on half our life, with our attention somewhere other than where we are.

Rather than take the usual, culturally-accepted model and suggest another thing to go out and become, get, do, study, buy, or otherwise accomplish in order to attain mindfulness, perhaps it’s wiser to turn our attention into ourselves and investigate what gets in the way of our being present.  What are the obstacles to being here now?

The first and most obvious obstacle to being present is distraction. We’re in a constant state of motion, busyness, and getting to somewhere else—using our devices, substances, entertainment, chatter, and anything else we can find to avoid here, now.  Doing is our first line of defense against being present.

The most treacherous impediment to mindful attention however, even more than busyness and activity, is thought. The mind, maker of thoughts, is forever chattering, distracting us, telling us stories, beckoning us to not be where we are, but rather get involved in the tickertape of plot twists it’s creating.

When it comes to avoiding the present moment, we tend to employ a handful of habitual thinking patterns.  First, we keep ourselves safe from now by narrating our experience as it’s happening. We follow ourselves around, perpetually commenting on our own experience.  “Oh look, I’m having a good time here, this is going well, they seem to like me” and so it goes, the voice over of now—soundtrack to our life.  All day and night we tell ourselves the story of ourselves, story of our life.  Sadly, we live the voice over but not the life itself.

So too, we disappear from the now by continually packaging our experience as it’s happening, preparing the story that will later tell the tale of our current experience.  As our present moment is unfolding we’re preoccupied with transcribing the now into a summary or narrative, ever-readying the now for some future explanation or presentation for others or perhaps just ourselves.

And then come the big three: the thought patterns that are always running in the background of mind, subtly or actively pulling our attention away from here.

How Thoughts Block Us From Being Fully Present

Boots on the ground mindfulness: removing the obstacles to being here now.

Posted Aug 11, 2018

Val Toch/Unsplash
Source: Val Toch/Unsplash

If just one word were to go in a time capsule to represent our society right now, the word would have to be “mindfulness.” Mindfulness is in every book title, workshop, conversation, idea, and everything else we now encounter.  We’re a society obsessed with mindfulness.  So what is this thing we’re all talking about and presumably trying to create? And how do we do it—become mindful?

Mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, and without judgment, according to Jon Kabat Zinn, a leader and teacher in the mindfulness movement. While we can easily define it, it seems that being it is not so easy. Despite all our talk of mindfulness, studies indicate that most people are only here, paying attention in the present moment, 50% of the time.  That said we miss out on half our life, with our attention somewhere other than where we are.

Rather than take the usual, culturally-accepted model and suggest another thing to go out and become, get, do, study, buy, or otherwise accomplish in order to attain mindfulness, perhaps it’s wiser to turn our attention into ourselves and investigate what gets in the way of our being present.  What are the obstacles to being here now?

The first and most obvious obstacle to being present is distraction. We’re in a constant state of motion, busyness, and getting to somewhere else—using our devices, substances, entertainment, chatter, and anything else we can find to avoid here, now.  Doing is our first line of defense against being present.

The most treacherous impediment to mindful attention however, even more than busyness and activity, is thought. The mind, maker of thoughts, is forever chattering, distracting us, telling us stories, beckoning us to not be where we are, but rather get involved in the tickertape of plot twists it’s creating.

When it comes to avoiding the present moment, we tend to employ a handful of habitual thinking patterns.  First, we keep ourselves safe from now by narrating our experience as it’s happening. We follow ourselves around, perpetually commenting on our own experience.  “Oh look, I’m having a good time here, this is going well, they seem to like me” and so it goes, the voice over of now—soundtrack to our life.  All day and night we tell ourselves the story of ourselves, story of our life.  Sadly, we live the voice over but not the life itself.

So too, we disappear from the now by continually packaging our experience as it’s happening, preparing the story that will later tell the tale of our current experience.  As our present moment is unfolding we’re preoccupied with transcribing the now into a summary or narrative, ever-readying the now for some future explanation or presentation for others or perhaps just ourselves.

And then come the big three: the thought patterns that are always running in the background of mind, subtly or actively pulling our attention away from here.

-Why is this present moment happening?

-What does this now say about me and my life?

-What do I need to do about this now?

Our tendency is to experience the present moment through at least one and usually more than one of these thoughts.  Rather than being where we are, we busily attend to the who, what, where, when and why of where we are.

And then there’s fear.  Thoughts are a way the mind tries to manage its fear of and lack of trust in the present moment.  Rather than risk diving into now, into the river of life, we stay on the shore, using our mind to manage, control and make linear sense of our present experience, in the hopes of steering now in a direction we design. The mind doesn’t believe that we can relax into the unknown of the present moment, show up fully where we are, experience now without controlling where it’s headed. It doesn’t trust life to take care of us, but instead imagines that it must make life happen, and direct our path at all times.

In reality, the present moment doesn’t need the mind to make it happen; now is unfolding without the mind’s help.  When we live the present moment without thinking it, the mind is left without a task, without something to do, figure out, or solve.  It has no bone to chew on.  For this reason, the mind vehemently rejects the now, using this moment to generate ideas and issues that will require its own attention and input.

Furthermore, the mind subsists on the past and future; it alternates between turning now into a projection into the future and a narrative on the past. The now, however, is a space poised between the two locations or concepts, past and future. The present moment is a gap between the two.  In truth, it’s always now–now offers a vertical eternity. When we dive fully into the present moment, we step out of the linear timeline altogether. We are liberated from the shackles of time.  In response and rebellion, the mind grabs hold of now, through thought, and places it back into a timeline, thereby re-orienting itself in a way it can understand.

It’s often said that we avoid the present moment to avoid ourselves.  But in fact, when we dive fully into the present moment, are fully engaged in our experience, as in the flow state, what we discover, paradoxically, is that we lose ourselves.  We disappear, and that’s precisely what makes it so delicious and makes us want to return again and again.  In full presence or flow state, we don’t experience ourselves as separate, as the one living the experience; there is only the experience of which we are a part.

We’re always running from the present moment, not to escape ourselves, but to escape the absence of ourselves.  The battle with the present moment is an existential battle for the mind; the flight from now is its fight to exist.

Living the now, without a narrative, requires a death or at least temporary letting go of mind. When the mind stops talking to us, there’s nothing there to remind us of our own existence, we’re left unaware of ourselves, in a state of void.  That said, the mind abhors the present moment just as natureabhors a vacuum.

But in fact, when we have the courage to drop out of mind and into the present moment, what we find is the opposite of a void.  We find wholeness, an experience without an experiencer.  We encounter ourselves as presence inseparable from life, rather than a person who is living, directing, managing, and controlling this thing called life.  In the process, we discover liberation and something as close as I’ve ever found to the end of suffering.

To begin practicing this paradigm shift, start small.  Every now and again, glance around your surroundings and just look, see what’s there without going to thought or language to understand or name what you’re seeing.  Experience your environment without using mind to translate what your senses are taking in.  Simply allow your awareness to be aware without interpretation.  So too, if you ever meditate or spend time focusing on your breath, try paying attention to the spaces between breaths as well. Feel the sensations occurring in the gaps between the inhalation and the exhalation. This simple practice can offer a direct taste of the present moment without the interruption of thought. And finally, every now and again, invite yourself to stop and drop. Deliberately unhook from the storyline going on in your head and shift your attention down below your neck into the silence and presence in your own body.  Experience being as its own place, without thought.

These and other simple pointers can escort us into a radically new experience of living; they can be used as portals to a serenity that the mind, no matter how much it wants to be involved, cannot figure out or create.  When we’re fully present, living now directly rather than the mind’s interpretation of it, a palpable peace unfolds—a peace that surpasses all the mind’s understanding.

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The Invisible Mom: If You Feel Unappreciated as a Mom, You’re Not Alone

Being a mom is perhaps the most all-inclusive and demanding job in the history of “man”kind. It’s impossible to capture what running a family with school-age children entails these days, but here’s a very, very, very short list of Mom’s job…

-Life management: schooling, homework, tutoring, forms, academic, athletic and social schedules, playdates, activities, camps, birthdays, health care, appointments, child and family travel, holidays, vacations, weekend planning, scheduling, grocery shopping (remembering everyone’s faves) cooking, cleaning, laundry, house repair, date night planning (if still applicable).

-Provide primary connection and emotional glue for all members of family: knowing names and details of who’s who in the children’s lives, who’s being mean and nice, the latest crush, who got the lead in the play, when the next math quiz happens, who needs a tube of glitter for tomorrow’s science project, and all the other infinite events that go on in everyone’s day to day life.

-Serve as that person who makes everyone (else) feel appreciated, seen and known.

Oh, and did I forget, in addition to everything just mentioned (and the infinite things not mentioned), moms usually work full or part time jobs outside the universe that is the home (where children believe moms begin and end).

And finally, in their “free” time, most moms are picking up stuff, putting out fires, answering cries for help, and responding to the unending stream of needs that is the essence of modern mom-hood—all set to the soundtrack of  “can you…would you…will you…”.

What’s most remarkable about the mom job however is, ironically, not the enormity of it. What’s most remarkable is the fact that (from my research) most moms feel unappreciated. Moms from all walks of life describe feeling unacknowledged and unseen for what they do and are for their families. Being a mom these days (and maybe always) seems to be a job that’s taken for granted, thankless for the most part.  It also appears to be unique in that it comes with the expectation that appreciation is not and should not be needed or wanted by the one doing the job.  And in fact, to want or need appreciation as a mom would be self-serving, inappropriate and even shameful.

As a psychotherapist, I talk to women all day about their internal experience, the private experience they don’t usually share with others. Again and again, I hear moms express the deep longing for appreciation, the wish for some acknowledgment from their kids and partner, that they might notice what mom does to make everyone else’s life go well and just plain happen.  As a mom myself, I am remarkably aware of how little appreciation is offered for the amount of effort that being a mom requires, how infrequently gratitudeis expressed for all the important details we attend to. I am also aware that it can feel shameful to admit that I might want my family to occasionally notice and express unprompted appreciation for what I do for each of them individually and also for the family as a whole.  It feels self-indulgent because as moms we’re supposed to be selfless, and certainly not need anything as childish and greedy as appreciation, or at least not want it any day besides mother’s day.

To appreciate something is to value it, be grateful for it, and recognize/acknowledge its importance. As human beings, we all long to be appreciated, to have our goodness seen, our positive intentions and efforts recognized.  We want to be known and valued for what we do that’s helpful.  To want and need appreciation is a primal human longing.

At the same time, kids should experience a time in their life when they get to be fully taken care of without having to be aware of or grateful for anything or anyone, when they’re allowed to be oblivious to the fact that someone is providing for them. There needs to be a totally self-centered period in a child’s life.  And, there needs to be a time when the perfunctory, learned but not yet felt “thank you” is enough for appreciation. It’s not a child’s responsibility to be grateful to her parents for doing their job as parents. And yet, there also comes a time in a child’s life when it is important that she recognize that her parents exist as human beings, that they have feelings, are deserving of appreciation, and are working hard on their children’s behalf. This recognition is an important step in the healthy development from childhood into young adulthood.  Encouraging kids (when they’re ready) to feel empathy and gratitude for parents, not because they have to but because they just do, will ultimately help our children live connected and meaningful lives.

Recently, after a day of doing my job and using every spare minute between clients to arrange travel and other fun activities for my teenage daughter’s summer, and also getting my younger daughter’s medical and thousand other forms sent the different camps she’s in this summer, I disappointingly misspoke, asking my teenager how her French quiz went.  Well, apparently, in my exhaustion and bureaucratic stupor, I got the subject of the quiz wrong and received an icy and supremely agitated, “The quiz was in math.”  That was it, conversation over.  I had to laugh, there wasn’t anything else to do.  Failure, it’s the nature of being a mom.

It’s strange really, our society views things as black or white, either or.  We don’t well tolerate black and white, either and or.  As a mom, my children are the most important part of my life. They bring an ineffable joy and there is no thing or experience for which I could ever be so grateful.  Every day, I am astonished that I get to be a mom to two girls I cherish.  And, simultaneously, I dislike many of the tasks that being a mom involves as they are unpleasant and hard.  It’s an and not a but that separates these two concepts.  Because we want to be consciously appreciated for the incredible work we do, both the work we love and the work we don’t, does not contradict the fact that we choose to be moms and love being moms.  It’s all included…both and.

We live in a society where, at a subtle level, women are still taught that they’re not supposed to want or need anything for themselves, and for certain not appreciation or recognition. It’s bizarre really, wanting to be seen for our efforts is shameful for women and yet it’s inherent in every human being.  There is nothing wrong with wanting to be thanked and noticed for what we offer, it’s a wholesome wanting in fact, and one that when met, encourages us to keep on doing the good we’re doing.

This past mother’s day, I was happily surprised by my husband and kids with a lovely lunch at the restaurant they enjoy and a thought crossed my mind.  As much as I deeply appreciated this gesture, I would have traded a thousand of these lunches for one genuine “thank you.” Perhaps after returning from a 7 pm parent teacher conference on a cold February evening, or after a long day with patients and walking in to find three people, (2 small, 1 big) all waiting for their dinner to be made, or really any other random moment of standard mom-hood.

While it’s odd, it does seem that the simple act of stopping what we’re doing and offering someone a straight, heartfelt “thank you” or “I appreciate you” can, for some, feel too vulnerable, exposed, unnecessary, or even silly.  And yet, these simple moments of genuine appreciation are profoundly meaningful for the recipient, and also for the giver. The moments when appreciation is shared are the moments of connection that fill our emotional well.

Steps:

When you feel unappreciated or unseen, or notice the longing to be thanked, try these steps:

1.   Reject any self-shaming thoughts. Remind yourself that wanting and needing to be appreciated and recognized is normal and healthy, and you deserve it.

2.  Reach out to another mom.  She’ll get it.  Laugh about the fact that your kid hasn’t asked you how you are for years and yet is very good at asking for the credit card.  It’s a fairly universal first world experience for moms.  Get some support and chuckles from those who can fully identify.

3.  Ask for what you want.  Let your partner know, unapologetically, that it feels good to be seen for all that you do and are, and what you offer the family. When he does show appreciation without your asking, express your appreciation for his appreciation.  Appreciation begets appreciation.  If your kids are old enough, nine or ten and above is usually a good starting place, let them know that even mommies have feelings and sometimes need to be given a gold star in the form of a thank you.  It’s not about guilting or shaming them but rather, letting them in on the secret that mommies need things too.  It will help them down the road to be more empathic and grateful.

4.  Offer appreciation.  Appreciation is a form of love and our longing for it is in part a longing for a very particular kind of love.  When you offer it to someone or name it out loud, you’re not only modeling appreciation for your family, but you’re also giving yourself a small dose of the love you need.  It may feel counter-intuitive to give appreciation in the moments when you’re the one needing it (another giving not receiving). And yet, offering it can be a close cousin to receiving it, as it evokes the same feelings of love and warmth that you crave.

5.  Appreciate yourself.  Put your hand on your own heart and, to yourself, recognize all that you do and are.  Remind yourself how good a mom you are and how much you love your children and feel that love out of which all this wonderful effort is born.  Don’t skip the step that is honoring yourself because at the end of the day, only you really know how much you do and how incredible a job you are providing.  So be the one to also take that moment to acknowledge that truth.

How strange, magical, and deserving of appreciation is life;  just as I was finishing this piece, my 7-year-old daughter came into my office with this, “Hey mom, thanks for making me a playdate today and not making go to afterschool.”  Of course I cried, as I usually do when touched, and then I told her how much I appreciated her saying this, and how I hoped that one day she too would be as lucky as me and get to be a mom…because it’s the best job that ever existed.

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Do You Feel Alone When You’re Together? How to Deepen Your Connection With Your Partner

A lot of couples show up in my office because they don’t feel deeply connected.  Often, one member of the couple feels like she can’t connect with her partner and is lonely in the relationship.  Couples describe intimate relationships that contain a paltry supply of real intimacy.  In light of this, I wanted to offer something I witnessed recently, which was truly beautiful, and which reminded me of the divine ingredients of connection and how simple (but not easy) it can be to get there.

John is a highly educated man and was vigorously expressing a lengthy and well-defended case against the validity of the whole phenomenon that is the Me too movement.  His argument extended to issues of race and gender as well, specifically, how all of the now-prevalent identity politics is overblown, unnecessary, negative and destructive.

When he did pause, just for a moment, I snuck in an observation, namely, that the identity movement seemed to make him feel defensive and angry.  He denied feeling defensive but shared that as a teacher, the new politic did force him to be hyper-vigilant about the words he uses with students, to have to watch everything he does so as not to be wrongly accused.  I empathized with his experience and how hard it must be to be a teacher these days.  He then went back to his well-constructed case for what was faulty about the movement.

As this conversation was going on, I was also keeping an eye on his partner, Nel.  As John went on with his narrative, Nel’s expression glossed over; she had checked out, lost interest in even trying to stay present.  I understood her experience as there was nobody there, really, for her to be present with.  The possibility for connection was gone, lost behind the steel walls of intellectual content.

But I was hopeful as I had seen an opening; a little piece of John had emerged as he talked about the difficulty for teachers just now.  And so I inquired, hoping that I could get a little further than John’s teacherexperience.

“What does it trigger in you personally, having to be in the thick of it, required to participate in this dialogue and all the forms and training sessions you probably have to be part of?”  And for some reason, with that very simple invitation, within the safety of our relationship, John showed up.  In an instant, his entire facial expression shifted as if he had also not been present and now, suddenly, he was there.

John then expressed how toxic the whole thing felt for him, that he was not interested in any of it and yet was being forced to be in a conversation that was not his life, not valuable to him.  He felt terribly put upon and trapped by the whole environment of identity politics, in a constant fight about issues that he didn’t resonate with, having to prove he wasn’t guilty of something that didn’t in any way belong to him. The specifics of what he felt are less important than what happened in the couple as a result of this fresh truth that John was able to share.

Suddenly Nel was there in the room.  It literally felt like a wave of energy had wafted through the space; it was palpable.  Nel had returned, literally reentered the space behind her eyes.  In that moment, for the first time, I could see real empathy for her husband spread across her brow.   They were sharing the same space, perhaps for the first time in a decade.  Nel was looking at John with an entirely different expression, really looking at John.  Tears welled up in Nel’s eyes; connection was happening.  At last, what had been separating them all these years, all her husband’s ideas, were out of the way and she could feel him, be with him, be truly together, in real company.

John had been honing his ideas and intellect his entire life, using his arguments to validate what he was experiencing, but sadly, because of his own psychology, not even knowing or inquiring into what he was experiencing.  He had gotten quite skilled at proving his rightness, but all his ideas came at the cost of connection.  John didn’t get to feel connected to anyone or, for that matter, allow anyone else to feel connected with him.  He was an island in every way, surrounded by an ocean of mind.

Many people remain stuck in the land of contents—with the context underneath the contents rarely (if ever) reached.  Men particularly seem to get locked in their thoughts, information, and ideas, which shuts them out from their own hearts and shuts everyone else out in the process.  The feeling of being with such individuals is that of not being able to touch them, of being trapped in a corridor with no door, no way to be together, held at bay by the thoughts, opinions, and arguments, the armor that protects their hearts from ever being visible, or vulnerable.

As the partner, you are not able to connect deeply, not below the neck, beyond the layer of intellect. Since it’s not possible to join them in their experience, empathy has to happen from a distance, via an idea of what they’re experiencing but without getting to feel it with them.  For the partner of such individuals, being together is an experience of loneliness, separation, hearts that can’t actually touch, a life that can’t actually be profoundly shared.

When John expressed his personal experience, not his narrative around it, not his justification for it, not all that he knew about it, just his truth in its raw, real, and alive form, simply what he was living on the inside, as it was coming freshly in the moment, Nel felt connected to her husband, like she was at last with him.  They were together in the same now.  His intellectual defenses had stepped out of the way for a brief and blessed moment. Nel could then experience the sensation of being in true company—not being alone together. (She later confirmed this to me in an individual session.)

Couples spend decades trapped, like flies in spider webs, inside the arguments of content, and particularly who’s right, who’s justified in feeling the way they feel about the contents. They get caught, sometimes for good, in the ongoing battle for whose experience is deserving of empathy. This happens for many reasons, one of which is that we mistakenly believe that we are our thoughts and opinions.  Proving our rightness is thus a life and death struggle to ensure survival.  But such is a topic for another day.  In the interests of word count here, it’s my intention to simply point out that ideas and opinions, the stuff of mind, the generalized narrative and intellectual defense system, can serve as a non-navigate-able obstacle to connection.

Vladimir Kudinov/ Unsplash
Source: Vladimir Kudinov/ Unsplash

If what I describe resonates, consider offering questions to your partner that contain an intention to reach the heart and uncover the real felt experience–not the story of it.  And, offer yourself the same invitation, to deepen your connection with yourself as well.

Questions that invite feelings:

-What is the experience like, for you, in that situation?

-What does that situation trigger in you?

-What does it feel like when you’re in that situation?

-What’s the worst thing, for you, when you’re in that situation?

What makes it so hard, for you, when you’re in that situation?

And, when describing your own experience, try modeling the communication style you want to receive from your partner.  For example, “For me, when that happens, I feel (such and such)” “What makes it so hard for me is…” Actively model talking about your feelings, your personal experience, rather than your narrative about the situation, maybe even naming that distinction so that your partner can hear the difference, regardless of whether he knows how to do it.  Furthermore, remember that when your partner is able to express his direct and personal experience or a fresh perhaps newly discovered feeling, be sure to offer him (or her) a safe space and supportive response. Don’t correct or dismiss his truth, no matter what it contains.  Each time he moves from the known storyline to the unknown felt experience, he is growing, taking a baby step forward.  When you respond lovingly and with acceptance, you are encouraging more steps in this direction and thus inviting a deeper connection.  True connection happens when we can communicate from our vulnerability, our hearts–not our stories and protective mental layers.  It happens when we dive into life together rather than standing on the shore, safely commenting on it. The most important journey we take in relationship, and life, is from our head to our heart.

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What is Forgiveness, Really? When “Letting it Go” and “Burying the Hatchet” Fail…What Works?

What is forgiveness and how does it happen?  We talk so much about forgiveness, throw around so many slogans, and yet it seems that we all have radically different ideas about what it actually means. We want to know how to forgive and yet it can be very hard to achieve or practice something that we don’t really understand.

We often hear the idea that forgiveness is a gift, an act of kindness for ourselves, as the forgiver, that forgiveness is not for or even about the one we are forgiving.  It’s said that if forgiveness benefits the one we are forgiving, then that’s an added benefit, a gift, but not really the point. And yet, one of the obstacles we face in forgiving someone we perceive as having done us harm is not wishing them well, not seeing their benefitting from our forgiveness as a gift, and in fact, wanting them to suffer because of what they did.  The idea that the other person would somehow feel better as a result of our forgiveness is challenging and precisely what we want to prevent.  We imagine that not forgiving then is a form of punishment, a way of forcing the other to continue suffering, a way of being in control of a situation we didn’t feel we had control over.  At a primal level, we imagine that not forgiving is a way of taking care of our wound, proclaiming that our suffering exists, and still and forever matters.  Not forgiving, paradoxically, is a way of validating and honoring our own hurt.

So too, when the one we believe caused us harm is unwilling to take responsibility for their actions or insists that they did nothing wrong, we conclude that it’s even more necessary to withhold forgiveness.  Not forgiving then becomes a way of holding on to our rightness—remaining justified in our version of the truth, and the sense of having been treated unjustly.  Our non-forgiveness, as we imagine it, continues to prove the other wrong, which legitimizes our pain.  And indeed, it is the validity of our suffering which above all else we’re trying (often desperately) to confirm and have confirmed.

Furthermore, we think that forgiving the other somehow implies that we are now okay with what the other person did, and maybe even one step further—that what they did is okay on a grander scale. Our perception is that forgiveness announces that what happened is no longer relevant, significant, or alive.  It’s as if we’re allowing the past to be done, and thus to move out of mind and heart, which can feel intolerable.

Perhaps most troublesomely however, forgiveness, as we relate to it, is letting the other person “off the hook.”  We equate it with absolution—excusing the other from blame, guilt or responsibility for what they did.  We imagine it as symbolically setting them free from having to carry the burden of suffering that we believe they caused.

And so the question follows, What actually is forgiveness?  And its partner inquiry, What is forgiveness—not?

Forgiveness is Not Saying… 

-You were not hurt by what the other person did.

-Your pain is gone.

-You are back to being the person you were before it happened.

-Life can now pick up where you left off, you feel the way you did before, as if what happened never happened.

-You no longer believe the other person was responsible for causing harm.

-You excuse the other person’s behavior.

-You no longer view what happened as important.

-You share the blame for what happened.

-You can ever forget what happened.

___________________________________________________________________

The way we view forgiveness, in many ways, is flawed.  We say “forgive and forget,” but when we forgive we don’t forget.  Forgetting is by no means an inherent part of forgiving, nor should it be. So too, we refer to forgiveness as “burying the hatchet.” But when we bury the hatchet, the hatchet is still there, just under a bunch of dirt, or we could say, a bunch of denial.  Buried or not, we still need to find peace with what’s happened.  So too, we’re flippant about forgiveness, encouraging ourselves and others to “just let it go!”  But again, forgiveness is no small affair and we cannot rationalize, intellectualize, manipulate or bully ourselves into feeling it.

Forgiveness is different for every human being that lives it.  For some, it comes on suddenly, blessedly, without having to think about or try and create it.  For others, it’s a more deliberate process that requires effort and practice.  And for others, it’s a permanent destination and once discovered, never slips away.  But it can also be a feeling that comes and goes and ebbs and flows.  There’s no right way to find or live forgiveness; any path to and version of it will do.  And yet, despite the fact that there are infinite paths to and colors of forgiveness, certain key components exist in its sentiment, aspects of forgiveness that essential to its basic nature.

What Forgiveness Is

Forgiveness is, in part, a willingness to drop the narrative on a particular injustice, to stop telling ourselves over and over again the story of what happened, what this other person did, how we were injured, and all the rest of the upsetting things we remind ourselves in relation to this unforgivable-ness.  It’s a decision to let the past be what it was, to leave it as is, imperfect and not what we wish it had been.  Forgiveness mean that we stop the shoulda, coulda, woulda been-s and relinquish the idea that we can create a different (better) past.

Forgiveness also suggests an openness to meeting the present moment freshly.  That is, to be with the other person without our feelings about the past in the way of what’s happening now.  Forgiveness involves being willing and able to respond to what’s happening in the present moment and not react through the lens of anger and resentment, the residue from the past.  In meeting now, freshly, we stop employing the present moment to correct, vindicate, validate, or punish the past.  We show up, perhaps forever changed as a result of the past, but nonetheless with eyes, ears, and a heart that are available to right now, and what’s possible right now.

A primary component of the forgiveness process also includes our attention and where we choose to direct it.  The process of forgiveness invites and guides our attention away from the other person, away from what they did, haven’t done, or need to do.  It takes the focus off of them; off waiting for and wanting them to be different, and moves towards ourselves, our own experience, our heart.  We stop trying to get compassion or acknowledgment out of the other, stop trying to get them to see and know our pain, to show us that our suffering matters.  Forgiveness means that we lose interest or simply give up the fight to have the other get it, get what they’ve done, get that we matter.

We stop struggling to get something back from the other in part because we take on the role of our own caring witness, decide to offer ourselves the compassion we so crave, that we’ve tried so hard to get from the other.  True forgiveness means acknowledging that our suffering matters—to us, the one who’s lived it—whether or not the other person ever agrees with us.  We say, you matter—to our own heart.  And it bears repeating… we do all this with or without the other’s awareness.  Forgiveness is an inside job.

Forgiveness, ultimately, is about freedom.  When we need someone else to change in order for us to be okay, we are a prisoner.  In the absence of forgiveness, we’re shackled to anger and resentment, uncomfortably comfortable in our misbelief that non-forgiveness rights the wrongs of the past and keeps the other on the hook.  And, that by holding onto that hook, there’s still hope that we might get the empathy we crave, and the past might somehow feel okay.  When our attention is focused outward, on getting the other to give us something, so that we can feel peace, we’re effectively bleeding out not only our own power, but also our capacity for self-compassion.  What we want from the other, the one we can’t forgive, is most often, love.  Forgiveness is ultimately about choosing to offer ourselves love—and with it, freedom.

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When We Can No Longer Silence Our Truth

This week something remarkable happened—change happened. When a long-present way of feeling or behaving transforms, I view it as a miracle, a gift of grace.

Two months ago, a dear friend, someone I consider family, asked to borrow money.  I’m working a lot these days (thankfully) and therefore could provide the help. My friend told me that she would pay me back by the end of February. Before writing her the check, I asked her three questions:

1. Could she, realistically, commit to refunding me by the end of February?

2. Could she repay it without my asking for it?

3. Would she inform me if she was not able to, again, without my having to ask?

Essentially, would she take ownership of the loan she was requesting? Her answers were yes, yes and yes.

Just to know, this is not the first time this friend has asked me for a loan. And, she has not, ever, paid me back when promised. But she does pay me back… eventually. And in case you’re wondering, yes, I do know the problem with doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.  But here’s the thing, I didn’t expect a different result, and for many reasons not relevant to this post, I decided to lend her the money anyway.

On the last day of February, I awoke to radio silence: no text, email, phone call or other communication. My friend had not repaid the loan nor contacted me to let me know it wouldn’t happen.

In the past, when confronted with this same situation I would say nothing, at least not for several days, weeks or months. I would sit in resentment, anger, and make-believe okay-ness. Or, find some backhanded way to allude to the unpaid loan but without directly addressing it. Because of my intense fear of what I faced in expressing it—defensiveness, aggression, anger, and attack, a rage on why I was despicable and spiritually bankrupt for wanting and expecting to be re-payed, I would tuck away my truth, my experience of being unpaid, unappreciated, unacknowledged and uninformed. I would disappear, paradoxically, to save myself.

But on this recent occasion, I knew that no matter how frightening the situation, I was being presented with a great opportunity—to practice living from my truth and actually being on my own side. And indeed, I chose to take the opportunity the universe offered, or maybe more appropriately, the universe chose to take me, and lead me somewhere new. It was as if I were extending my hand into the handshake of forward-movement that grace provided.

On that very day, I asked my friend directly if she was going to pay me back and honor the promise she had made—to me.

As expected, she was not going to pay me back, not yet anyway. But the contents of this story are irrelevant. What matters is that I asked my friend for the loan back, on the day it was due. And, that at the moment when my friend would have ordinarily launched into her attack, I stayed still and faced her, eye to eye, to remind her of her promises, and ask her when exactly she would be able to take care of this loan I’d offered. I stood in my own shoes inside the actual moment.

I’m so grateful that my friend didn’t pay me back. It gave me the chance to change, the opportunity to speak up in the face of fear—to choose myself and the truth over the certain conflict it would create and even the possible loss of the relationship altogether. It gave me the chance to practice planting my feet in the truth and trusting that no matter how bumpy the ride, the solid ground of the truth is a place that I will be (and already am) okay.

I write a lot about playing on our own team, expressing and supporting the truth of our experience. In this particular relationship, I would have argued (until recently), that saying nothing and letting it go was taking my own side, because it resulted in keeping the relationship intact, which is what I really wanted and thought I needed.  But as time passed, I grew and my heart broke, for itself. It became clear that being on my side, in this way, also required abandoning myself, not speaking up for myself, and even joining my friend’s blaming of me.

Even though I knew, intellectually, that I had rights, nonetheless, after years of being blamed, something in my gut had lost its conviction that I had the right to ask for the money back because I didn’t need it financially. Or, that I had the right to be informed or upset that something I’d been promised was not going to happen.  Or, for that matter, the right to be able to trust my friend’s word. I was not on my own side in this relationship, not only because of my fear of the aggression that would come at me in response, but also because of my own handshake with blame, both hers and mine.

Taking the step that is joining our own side, finding the courage to face whatever comes when we speak our truth, is a profound shift in a human being.  It doesn’t happen in one fell swoop but rather in little moments and small challenges (that can feel gigantic). In order for this change to happen, we have to have had enough of the suffering that comes with not being on our own side, remaining silent, abandoning ourselves, or accepting blame for having a truth that another person doesn’t like. Our own heart has to break—for ourselves—for what we’ve actually been living, and believing. We have to stop self-blaming and forgive ourselves for needing what we need—for our truth. When this happens, it’s no longer possible to turn our back on ourselves, disappear, in order to keep the peace or status quo.

The moment comes when we say enough, not from our head, but from our deepest guts. We are done, not as an idea but as a profound knowledge.

This process can feel like an act of grace, like something far larger than just our personal self has intervened, offering us the strength and clarity to change how we’re living and who we are. At last, we find ourselves holding our own heart.

Furthermore, the courage to speak our truth involves a shift in allegiance or purpose. Our goal transforms from maintaining the situation/relationship—at all cost—to living from the truth—at all cost. But in order to find this courage, this reverence for and trust in the truth, we have to get okay with anyoutcome that might transpire, including the one we’ve most feared.  We must be willing to let it all burn up in the fire of the truth.

To do this, we have to release the belief that the only way to keep ourselves safe, keep our life proceeding as it needs to, is to control our experience and thereby create a certain outcome. It’s a process, really, of turning it over, truth’s will not my will, trusting (or at least being willing to try trusting) that the truth will take us where we need to go, even if it’s not where we think we should be going. At the deepest level, what I’m describing is an experience of awakening and surrender—knowing that we can’t keep abandoning ourselves in the service of taking care of ourselves.  And, that it’s safe to let go of the reins, that the truth will take care of us. And ultimately, that the truth is the only real safety we have.

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