Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Forgiving Family

Forgiveness in Mind-Body-Family

On Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, my yoga teacher asked us to dedicate our yoga practice to forgiveness.  He asked us to imagine a room filled with all of the people we ever knew.  He asked, "Who amongst these people would you avoid in any way?"  We might actively run from them, hope not to meet their eyes, or look for a polite exit.  All of these people, he said, are people that need your forgiveness.  I liked this expansive definition of forgiveness, much broader than "the people who screwed me" or "the people I screwed."  He asked us to try to locate in our body where we were holding on to something that needed forgiveness.  Perhaps if we could find and acknowledge it, one day we could let it go.

Much of the tension we hold in our bodies can be related to forgiveness, either of self or other.  We're supposed to hold exes in our hips, grief in our tummy, and stress in our neck and upper back.  In addition to this practical, physical aspect, there is also a perceptual aspect to forgiveness.  Unforgiveness filters our perception, casting random occurrences into familiar ways of being hurt.  So our present experience is filtered by past hurt, often dating to childhood.  We might even speculate that everyone you would avoid reminds you of something you don't like in yourself, your dad, or mom.   Even if your parents have passed, your relationship with them is everpresent, etched in the fabric of your brain.  You don't need to be Freud to know that the people you grew up with(out) are the most in need of forgiveness.

Arriving blind
We arrive in the world utterly helpless -- blind and bumbling.  We depend on the power and mercy of our parents to feed and protect us.   They often do a pretty good job of providing our basic needs.  When they do so, the world is great, generous, bountiful, and connected.

However, being human, our parents are inevitably flawed.  Even when they have pure intentions, they hurt us.  We thought they could hear our every need, but they are deaf sometimes.  We have trouble expressing when they feed us too much, when they hug too hard, when we feel ignored, where our body hurts.  Eager to make sense of the world and protect ourselves, we split our parents, and thereby the world, into "good" and "bad".  We learn behaviors that make us "good" and deserve attention, or "bad" ones that also get us attention.

Our parents can be moody, immature, or even abusive.  We develop hurts that rage deep below the surface, forming lifelong insecurities.  Insecurely attached, we are unable to receive consolation from our parents for our hurt.  We develop habits of what it's like to love and be loved based on our relationship to them.  If "being bad" is the only way we got attention, we master "being bad" for the rest of our lives, especially in romantic relationships.  We unknowingly  seek out people that speak our familial vocabulary, and are naturally attracted to each other.  We form fetishes that can't be explained, attractions to people we know are bad for us.  While these attractions seem self-destructive, in actuality they are our only way of getting the kind of love we are familiar with.

Perpetually young in our relationship to our parents, we are unable to be compassionate for their humanity.  Sometimes we just swallow the pain they cause us.  Either we are too young to express ourselves clearly or too afraid of losing their love.  When we start to express ourselves, it doesn't necessarily get better.  Our first protests come from a place of deep insecurity and repeated frustration.  Our passivity gives way to aggression.  We yell, we hit, we scream, and we cry.  Punished for being "bad", we start to doubt our emotions and sensations.  We are told "it's not so bad" or "you shouldn't get angry for that."  When our protests repeatedly fail, we create a victimization story.  These stories help make sense of a disappointing world, but simultaneously corrupt our freedom and perception.  We develop a cynicism towards authority figures that we nonetheless empower.  We replay the drama again and again, sometimes casting people into roles that they've never played.  We are confused or bored when they don't act as expected.  Our boredom protects us from feeling the helpless scarcity and bottomless hurt we felt when we were young.

Starts at home
Psychologist Robert Karen's book Forgiving Self marvelously discusses splitting, resentment, forgiveness, and mourning.  After recommending it to lots of friends, I wondered if I could use it to help me and my nuclear family.  Maybe we could do a book club?

So I asked if my parents and brother wanted to work on forgiveness with me.  Of course, family forgiveness can be combustible, so I set some ground rules.  First, we would focus on understanding the material.  Each of us answered some questions before we discussed each chapter.  While it didn't really matter if we really understood every concept, there was some value in us engaging intellectually.  The intellect provided a safe distance that protected us at times.  And besides, even when we talked about abstract concepts, we were really just talking about ourselves.  Second, while we could bring our own life experience to the discussion, we would start by focusing on our relationships to people outside our nuclear family.  Only after building forgiveness capacity in safety, we might consider turning inwards.  Lastly, there had to be active facilitation to make sure all voices were entertained, to keep it safe and inviting for us to share.  I started in this role, but alternated with my brother to destabilize my role as facilitator or authority.

Forgiveness club
At first my parents were just happy to have a periodic conference call.  This was the first time in a while we actually worked on something regularly as a group.  I was able to find wisdom I had ignored in my mother or father.  They talked about their childhood in a way that made me understand them better.  I also understood over time that my brother and I had a different story about our childhood than my parents did.  This was difficult to accept at first, since we all want our individual story itself to be validated.  Over time it allowed for a newfound freedom - I could let go of my need for my dad or mom to approve my story, realizing that it would never happen.  My freedom didn't have to wait for our stories to agree, and our relationship need not be conditioned on it.

I got to understand my father's attitudes towards saints, my mother's attitude towards irresponsible friends, my brother's way of reasoning through his emotions.  I gave of my own life experience and of my own failed relationships.  We started to understand the attachment we had to blaming, and the fear and guilt hiding underneath.  We shared our anger and disappointment at the cruelty we felt in the world.  There were some sad times too, when we followed each other to the depths of our psyches.  More than a few times a headache or stomachache shortened our discussion.  Sometimes my father complained that the process was too painful, the book was too sad.  Life was depressing enough -- couldn't we read something more uplifting?  

Over time, things started to fit together.  We started to reclaim the resources we had bound up in the unresolved hurt of relationships, energy literally frozen in our bodies.  We looked forward to seeing each other.  Our family was working together like it had never worked before.  We started to care for each other, express love and gratefulness.  Sincere love shined through as we started to dissolve resentment built up over the years.

Healthy protest
One of the hallmarks of a healthy relationship is the ability to calmly protest when someone you love is hurting you.  My historic relationship with my dad was more passive-aggressive than calm.  As a good Hindu son, I was taught to shut my mouth, and as a Hindu father, he was taught to discipline me.  We didn't know how to say when we felt hurt, and we didn't trust that the other person would stop if we did.  Six months after we started our book club, I was driving him to see someone he had an uncomfortable relationship with.  I told him how he should behave and what he should say, going on and on about drawing boundaries and creating a sustainable relationship.  Then, something remarkable happened.  He said, in a perfectly calm tone, "Please stop.  I don't need a lecture right now."  His tone betrayed no bitterness, no anger, just asked a simple favor from a friend.  I stopped dead in my tracks, pausing my righteous tirade.  After a half an hour, I realized, he was right.  Who was I to interpret his life experience for him?  I didn't need to educate him.  He was consciously choosing how to be in his relationship.  Only later I realized this was a historic moment.  It was the beginning of healthy, honored protest, the basis of an unprecedented trust.

Supporting cast
My father recently travelled to India to settle his father's estate.  Growing up in a large family naturally involves sibling rivalry.  We create and re-create our parental relationship with our siblings, experiencing jealousy, victimization, paternalism, and anger.  They know how to push our buttons.  Settling an estate is metaphorically bestowing the last bits of mother and father's love on their children.  For all of us, in some areas, love feels scarce.  And where love is scarce, there is desperation.  As he headed into the lion's den, we told him we believed in him.  If he was able to keep his intention pure, his ancestors would line up behind him.  He could settle his affairs, and reclaim the emotional energy trapped in his adolescence.  While he might get dragged into identifying with the tumultuous waves of an argument, they would subside.  His true nature was also like the ocean underneath the waves: calm, infinite, and loving.

I was proud that our nuclear family could support him, unconditionally, as he braved the hazards of sibling disagreement.  We had already established a group interested and capable of helping each other.  We renewed our conference calling, not out of duty, but out of interest.  We became a larger vessel for listening to his hurt without judgment.  We gave him space to continually forgive himself and those around him.  He was grateful for our support, and we were grateful for him.  And lots of research says gratefulness is linked to well-being.

We were proud to see him blossom into his responsibility, doing the best he could in a difficult circumstance.  In so doing, he reclaimed an inspiration that had often wavered over the last sixty years, an inspiration that is our birthright.  He reports a renewed daily physical vitality, which I think is linked to releasing some of the energy bound up in these relationships.  It might be unreasonable to expect perfect forgiveness, but it's reasonable to search for vitality and freedom.  

Continually mourning
What is it about these experiences that transformed me, my dad and family?  Think about it for a second before I tell you my answer.  While you might say it's talking about emotions, setting boundaries, being grateful or believing in each other, I'm going to say something even simpler.  It's all about listening.  Listening is the best healing you can give your body, the best you can give your friend, and even the best modern medicine can give you.  In listening deeply to the hurt under our stories, our family healed itself.

Our world can be unexpectedly cruel.  While religion might give some a larger meaning for our suffering, the hurt stays with us as body pain and filtered perception.  The only way to get by is to practice forgiveness -- continually mourning your hurt.  But it can be hard to find the actual hurt, let alone mourn it.  Searching for hurt often starts by surfacing stories or emotions, which is a complicated process to be respected.  While there is one level of truth at the emotions, I'm starting to believe there is yet another, perhaps more fundamental truth, in body sensations.  Awakening these dormant sensations can be painful and scary.  Mourning might be defined as deeply feeling this hurt, at an intuitive level of the body.  It helps to have a container of infinite size and compassion, so you can have the courage to stay with your sensation.  Our family provided this judgment-free container for each other.

In a safe container, you can get past the fear of your hurt to the actual hurt itself.  If you can really feel the contours of your pain, if you can honor it, and you can let it go.  Over time, you can build a habit of feeling and letting go of these sensations without attachment.  This is one way to remain sensitive and free in an unpredictable world.  Surfacing and releasing sensations naturally, we return to the present, the moment of inspiration and freedom.


Diane said...

You are incredibly lucky and fortunate. My parental problems revolve around them not having listening skills. It's because of that, that we are unable to have these discussions and I was forced to learn to forgive blindly without understanding. This is probably why I previously disagreed with you about the necessity of discussing things to heal. Really loved this post, and it heals my heart to know that your family is healing.

eudae said...

thanks @diane. i'm indeed lucky to be able to work with them through stuff. but we mostly worked on the present, not the past. so even with my parents, there is a need to forgive blindly. i probably didn't make this point clearly, but the forgiveness is your own, the family (or some other group) is just a container for you to get closer to the hurt, so you can mourn it yourself.

Meghana @dancingwithhappiness said...

It's so wonderful that you and your parents have been able to get to this place. I have to commend your parents for keeping an open mind through the process, and for being willing to see that there were situations that called for your forgiveness, and that your love for each other existed and still does despite them.

Megan said...

Great post! Thanks for sharing. Forgiveness is what I've been working on most lately, and you reinforced a lot of what I've been reading and/or thinking about. That's awesome that your family was able to talk about it. That is not something I have courage to do at this point.

eudae said...

thanks @meghana - it is indeed wonderful that they were able to keep an open mind throughout. but it was easier than i thought, believe it or not.

thanks @megan - it does take work to get to this place. my first couple of attempts failed, usually as i was going too direct on trying to reconcile the past. i found this indirect "let's work on the present" approach was more effective. glad this stuff squares with what you've been reading - Forgiving Self is also great in case you haven't read it.

Kerry said...

Thank you for having the courage to start this dialogue with your family and for having the grace and eloquence to write about it, so that we may have similar courage and grace with our own families.

eudae said...

thanks @kerry! i hope so - may we have the strength to heal ourselves and our families.

BentonvilleGal said...

Wonderful post! You have my admiration for doing the work it took to get your family functioning cohesively. Your insight and thoughtfulness are inspiring. I think we often think/feel that our forgiveness will set free the person who hurt us from the consequence of his/her actions, and consequently hold on to the pain as a way to "punish." But it is a punishment only for ourselves. The faster we can validate the pain and move on from it, the better!

eudae said...

thanks @bentonville. still a long way to go :) very much agreed the pain is mostly our own.

Colin said...

This is an incredible story. I don't know if I have the guts to do it myself. Kudos to you!

eudae said...

Thanks @Colin! Just remember you can always go undercover as a "book club" :)

Saeed said...

I really appreciate your courage and eloquence.

The fact that family is such a challenge for all (including those who are either emotionally not present, or in denial), is a clue to the importance of family in our spiritual evolution. I am looking into the framework of sacred contracts, and it is very helpful. This framework proposes that we are under agreement to push each others' "hot buttons" to bring our energetic issues to the surface, so that we can transmute them. This perceptual framework helps us free ourselves from the trap of victimization.

We can't transform what isn't brought to the light of consciousness. So, those who trigger us, are serving us. Even if it's very painful and difficult on a human level.

Here's a video on this topic that might be helpful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=0f_AoaV8ehc

eudae said...

Thanks @Saeed! I think this is a great framework for looking at family relations - we 'solemnly pledge' to trigger you until you evolve :) And I like the irony in the first few seconds of the clip. How can you help mother Earth if you can't be at peace with your own mother?

Saeed said...

You're welcome brother, simply sharing what I've picked up on my journey and has worked.

Working through family issues is not easy! I feel that if we take up the great challenge, it will help us not only potentially forgive and mend the relationships, but also to resolve our own core issues and fulfill our sacred contract with ourselves.

Trauma/Tension Releasing Exercises, TRE (traumaprevention.com) is also very helpful for family group healing. It helps dissipate the anger that is prevalent among family members (that we've triggered/hurt each other into), and allows for calmer communication around the core wounds of betrayal and trust.

Here is a book about family healing, with a focus on the archetypal "hero's journey" as key to healing the family. The author writes that TRE is one of the most important tools that she personally has experienced to overcome relational wounds. I second that.


Btw, reconciliation requires the courage to come out of denial. But perhaps it only takes one...

Gitanjali Sarangan said...

wow...lovely adi. very well written. Forgiving onself , liberating oneself from these strings is truely therapeutic...hugs

eudae said...

Thanks @Geetu! Hugs right back.

Mira Prabhu said...

Adithya, as Diane said in the first comment, you are incredibly lucky that you could get them to listen to you at all. I tried and tried and tried -- promise i did -- over decades - and after a couple of astrologers warned me specifically that my family was the biggest block to my spiritual evolution -- rather my own attachment to seeking their approval etc - i was able to let go -- so the thing is that in order to even be able to dialogue, there should be a mutual honoring of the goal--which is greater understanding and harmony. If the only goal of one is to put down and criticize the other, whom they do not understand, this process cannot work. For me, i now work on harmony on the level of Self -- with all beings, w/o reference to blood - because I am on the path of Advaita - Not Two -- and on that level I am at peace with all those who have caused me so much suffering by their obdurate refusal to grow or to listen to soften or to change with the years. Love, Mira

eudae said...

i hear you, @mira! i think most of the work happens on the level of Self anyway, it's only occasionally it manifests as dialogue between beings. i wish you understanding and harmony! <3