Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn has said that “usually when we hear or read something new, we just compare it to our own ideas. If it is the same, we accept it and say that it is correct. If it is not, we say it is incorrect. In either case, we learn nothing.”
In the conundrum of our humanness we cling like drowning sailors to the life raft of stories that have worked for us for years. Some stories portray us as the hapless Victim: our mother was an alcoholic, we were bullied at school. Some give our lives a heroic dimension that lifts us above the rest and spurs us to remember our Greatness: the great grandfather who was the illegitimate son of the king. We were always daddy’s favourite child. We inherited our uncle’s business acumen.
We can “Om” ourselves into the Power of Now, root at our past hurts and grievances during hours of therapy, affirm all we like that we are OK. But if our negative narrative is on the repeat button, we stay becalmed in a polluted sea.
Inner work requires the courage to strip naked. Our past will insist on a Full Monty – the meat and two veg – served up cold and often congealed, mostly unpalatable. If we are to understand why we stonewall our best friend, overreact in the workplace, shut down and exit in our relationships, we are required to broaden our tunnel vision – to open our eyes as we trip over the dusty baggage from our past that clutters the hallway of every new relationship.
The one constant we bring to all our relationships is ourselves. Yet as the psychological model proposes, much of ourselves is incarcerated in the unconscious – our orphaned hunger for love, our shame, our worthlessness wander like itinerants in exile. Our relationships will mirror back our own “intimacy issues”. Birds of a feather will always stick together. If we are out of touch with how we feel about ourselves we will say, “my husband cannot show his emotions” as we unwittingly diminish and confine him to the small airless box we live in ourselves.
Moving from a place of stuckness into a place of hope and new vitality takes courage and commitment, much like the decision to climb a high mountain. To look back or down the steep slope renders us wobbly, weak-kneed. Neale Donald Walsch admonishes, “Move forward with no second-guessing, no guilt trips, and no hesitation. Your purpose is to recreate yourself anew in each moment.”
Our subconscious mind accepts whatever we believe is our truth – those limiting ideas about the world we have breathed in to our lungs and uttered in moments of fear. Our brains store our memories in files marked “explicit memory” which is all the conscious, intentional. The who, what, where and when recall of our experiences, stored away in the hippocampus area of the brain. We store our misty, water-coloured “implicit memory” in the amygdala. The diffuse memory of the emotional climate, always unconscious and unintentional. Science suggests that if we are not given enough time or space to process our experiences, our emotional resonances will remain locked in the amygdala, like unexploded bombs, activated in our daily interactions. That the unconscious clouds the present moment, drags our energy into the past, clutters our minds with circular thoughts, judgements, conditioning, so we shine like low-wattage light bulbs never fully present in the Now. When we still our minds and really hear something new from each other, we may find an echo within ourselves that resonates with a new way of being in the world.
It takes an act of will and enormous courage to be fully present to ourselves and to the Other. Says John Bradshaw, “when we are present, we are not fabricating inner movies. We are seeing what is before us.” We can make sacrosanct a space for ourselves each day. Commit to watching our thoughts and words vigilantly. Commit to listening with empathy and compassion when our partner expresses a frustration or a desire. Commit to accepting our responsibility in the mess we find ourselves in and doing our bit to repair the ruptures in our relationships. We can heighten our awareness of our self-talk – the babble of criticism and judgment, the scaremongering. The knee-jerk response which says, “I’m not too bad,” that lodges the bad into our consciousness when someone enquires how we are doing. We can work at truly loving ourselves so that we are able to love another with all our heart. Scottish mountaineer W.H. Murray describes this gathering of intention and focus so beautifully: “Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that moment one definitely commits oneself, and then Providence moves too.”
Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn
Photographs by Galen Rowell and Tyra Nur Athirah