How to dis-empower painful memories

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Everything we do and every word we say has an impact. That’s why Buddhism puts such emphasis on developing wise ways of being in the world, as taught in the Noble Eightfold Path. Something that was said or done long ago may still be causing pain—maybe all the time or maybe just when a parallel situation arises. We might not be actively thinking about it, but the emotions it brings up can be so powerful they can even make us physically ill.

This happened to me recently. I started feeling faint all the time. After a week, I contacted my doctor. A phone visit, office visit, full blood panel, EKG, and MRI later, I am happy to report I am in excellent health. So why did I still feel faint a month later? Could it be stress? As a long-time meditator, it’s unusual for me to feel so off-kilter. But this is, I think we can agree, an unusual year. Compound stressors are going on in the world in 2020, even if we are making the best of the situation in our personal lives. Like many, I have used my shelter in place time to study, organize, and accomplish things I’d put off, including publishing a book with the help of a talented editor/designer. All good. Except, now it is time to promote that book, something that requires a degree of self-confidence that I lack.

That’s when the constant feeling I was about to faint started. Well, that, the smoke from the wildfires, and the loss of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. May she rest in peace. So I resolved to take a break. I turned off the news. I have already voted, so maybe I don’t need to keep watching this bizarre circus act play out. Second, I put away my promotion chores to-do list. Third, I did the little hand massage exercises one of the sangha sisters taught us after class. The combination of these and the following addition to my daily practice, I am happy to say, seemed to cure me of the faintness. When I take up the to-do list again, I feel I will be able to proceed without so much trepidation. So I am sharing my exploration here in case you find the process of benefit. I have put in subheads to help mark the course of this exploration, and perhaps your own.

The Question
I gave myself some time after meditation each morning to explore why I have such trepidation when it comes to promoting a book. This question falls under the general category of “Why am I afraid?”, always a valuable question to explore. 

The Memory
In response to my question, a memory came up that I would rather forget—a clue that it’s one to look into:  I was a freshman in high school. I knew only a few students because we had just moved to town. There was an election and, seeing that no one was running for vice president of the freshman class, I thought it would be a good way to meet people and get involved. I signed up.

Then at the last minute, the most popular girl in the class decided to run. Anybody could see her win was a given. Anybody but me, apparently. I don’t know if it was too late to back out, if I was discouraged from quitting, or if I didn’t understand the statistical odds stacked against me. What I do remember is that I wore a new pleated plaid Pendleton skirt when I gave my campaign speech before the assembled class, and after my resounding defeat, I never wore that skirt again. I blamed the ‘unlucky’ skirt! Or I just didn’t want to be reminded of my humiliation.

One question sparks another
Why humiliation? After all, every election has winners and losers and there is no shame in having run. Right? My mother never thought less of her beloved Adlai Stevenson for having lost by a landslide twice to Eisenhower, a popular war hero made president by a grateful nation. But I overheard my mother and my older brother chuckling over my gall to run for office when I was so new to the school. “What was she thinking?” I don’t remember them saying anything to me directly, but laughing about me behind my back made it worse. If the people who loved me most were laughing at me, what were others doing? And why didn’t my mother gently steer me clear of making a fool of myself?

Water under the bridge, you say? Let it go? Yes, that’s exactly what I would like to do. But their words set up a pattern of questioning my judgment whenever a similar situation comes up in my life. I get an unwelcome dose of that toxic question “Who am I to_______?” Fill in the blanks with whatever challenge I am facing. Any absence of outright praise is quiet condemnation or embarrassment for me. Who does she think she is?

Sound familiar? Your painful memory might be of a very different nature, maybe significantly more traumatic, but the process can be the same. For teaching how to investigate, using a seemingly minor event like this one to examine makes it easier to focus on the process itself. Not to belittle it. Small events set off chain reactions. The law of karma acknowledges that each moment is a pivotal one. Some thoughtless words overheard can change the course of life. No moment is isolated. Everything affects everything. Even the tiniest pebble in a shoe can cause a lot of pain, and maybe stop us from walking our path.

Accessing inner wisdom
In giving myself the gift of time and attention to explore it, and inviting you to do the same, I am doing my version of a Buddhist practice based in the Abhidhamma Pitaka, the section in the Pali Canon focused on Buddhist psychology, that delineates in great detail and copious lists, what the Buddha and deep meditators over centuries observed as the nature of mind.

Since this is not a scholarly investigation, I let my inner wisdom guide me. But if you are interested in studying these teachings, particularly if you are a mental health professional, you might want to check out the Abhidhamma itself.

To invite inner wisdom to guide me, I begin with metta practice, infinite lovingkindness: May I be well. May I be at ease. May I know the joy of being fully present in this moment just as it is. This calms my inner critics and creates a safe space for me to explore.

The first thing I become aware of is that this memory does not exist anywhere else but here at this moment in my thoughts. The past is not a physical place I can visit. So I am entering a state of timelessness. It doesn’t matter how old the memory is or even how factually correct. It is this memory, even if faulty, that is activating pain and dysfunction.

Blame-free zone
I recognize that although other people are in this memory, it would be a distraction to place blame or confront them. In my case, that’s not even possible, but in your case, it could be, so I encourage you to send them metta, even if, especially if, that is difficult to do, and recognize that this is no longer about them and nothing they could do at this point would resolve this challenge.

‘I don’t know’ mind
The possibility that what I remember may not be factually correct may not change how it affects me, but it does give me permission to enter a more spacious state of ‘I don’t know mind’. This shard of memory is sixty years old. I don’t remember everything that happened, only the most painful embarrassing things, and the things that support my dim view of myself. Even if the memory were just a week old, I would be wise to question its veracity. Experiences are remembered selectively and memories are undependable. At any given moment what we notice—based on mood, interest, energy, distractions, prejudices, conditioning, even the weather—is going to vary. Think of the Japanese classic film Roshamon, where everyone remembered the same event differently.

Instincts on overdrive
I recognize how my instinctive sense of self-protection taught me “Don’t do that again!” just as it did when at a younger age I burned my hand by playing with a paper napkin in a candle flame. That valuable ability to learn from experience, when it gets steeped with emotion, can also keep us from doing things that are not harmful to us. Letting in the “I don’t know” frame of mind helps to allow for that possibility.

State of mind
One aspect to consider when looking at a memory is the state we were in when the event happened. I was fourteen years old. Remember how it was to be fourteen? Everything was taken personally and affected by changing hormone levels. What a challenging time to be a human! It’s so easy to misinterpret what’s happening and to take things the wrong way. So I can benefit now by acknowledging that the receptors may have been on hypersensitivity mode. For you and your memory, it might not have been budding adolescence but some other condition in play. Consider all that was happening at the time and how the conditions may have put you in a stressed-out state, compounding the experience. Had it happened at another time, would it have had the same impact? Maybe yes, maybe no. But worth questioning.

Imaginative metta
Metta is of value here as well. I can send lovingkindness to that fourteen-year-old girl who suffered. It may be difficult to do if I think of her as ‘me’, with all my harsh self-judgments. So instead I access the easy love and goodwill I have toward my children and grandchildren, and think how proud I would be of any of them if they got up in front of a student body and spoke about what they envision as beneficial for the class. Regardless of the outcome.

Aha! moment
Regardless of the outcome? The outcome was everything I cared about! It was the measure of my self-worth. But is it? Consider these words in the wonderful novel A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles: “What matters in life is not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim.”

Buddha wisdom
Absolutely nothing that I know of in Buddhist teachings is about the outcome of our endeavors. In fact, focusing on outcome guarantees suffering. So this is a big clue for me to use in my exploration. The Buddha’s Eightfold Path is my guide of choice. For example, when I feel guilty, it can show me where I ran aground of its simple but profound wisdom. In this case, I can ask “What was my intention?” to see if it was wise. Was it rooted in wisdom? Or was it rooted in greed, aversion, and/or delusion? Looking back, I see that continuing to believe I could win the election after the popular girl joined the race was delusional, yes, that’s true. But my intention to run was to engage and to be of service. The timing was off, but I was not foolish to have signed up. Circumstances changed and I didn’t stand down. I was steadfast. There is no shame in that.

So what are my intentions in promoting this book? To continue to be of service! To offer a proven system of self-inquiry to a broader group of people. There is no reason to feel either shame or pride. It is an extension of my life’s work that came from wanting to help others to avoid making themselves physically ill from stress. (Ironic, isn’t it?)

So this is the metta I send myself now: May I not stand in my own way as I offer it, because to do so is to withhold what might be beneficial to others. May I not hide my light under a bushel, because in so doing I am encouraging others to do the same.

The many ways of inner wisdom
During this period of exploration I was on heightened alert for wisdom from any source. I shared the words that jumped out at me from the novel I was reading, but there were others as well, including some words from Dolly Parton who talked about promoting herself, and how at a young age she recognized that rejection would not kill her. So it’s good to pay attention and make note of all the ways inner wisdom informs us and helps to answer our questions.

Your turn
Does this little exploration give you some sense of how you might work with a memory that keeps you from living your wisest intentions joyfully?  Can you sense how in each moment you have the power to come into a more skillful relationship with a painful memory? Not making an enemy of it. Not incorporating it into your sense of self. Simply seeing the memory for what it is, and what it isn’t. But this is only possible if you are willing to pause on your path to investigate what’s been causing the pain in your footsteps. 

It’s not the path itself that causes suffering, but the way we walk it! May you walk with ease.

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay


  1. I love this post and so appreciate the vulnerability expressed by sharing these experiences, both current and past. Moving beyond these limiting core beliefs and replacing them with a new narrative can be so freeing. I relate.

    Liked by 1 person

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