The mind selects, enhances, and betrays; happenings fade from memory; people forget one another and, in the end, all that remains is the journey of the soul, those rare moments of spiritual revelation.Isabel Allende from Paula
To understand the judging mind, we need to touch it with a forgiving heart.Jack Kornfield
- Warning to those who have witnessed a violent act and have been subsequently traumatized.
The idea of “happenings fading from memory” and “forgetting one another” at first glance might scare us as we all watch the continually rising rate of dementia as we age, however, looking at these statements from a day to day living viewpoint, I believe we can also consider the propensity for forgetfulness in our thinking selves a boon of our ever-changing brain.
We are all bombarded daily with rampant and random thoughts, those that are judging others, painful memories, resentments, judgement toward ourselves, fears, angers; the mind can be exhausting. With a holiday season and for many of us in all manner of beliefs and traditions, these thoughts might be more burdensome, including the loss of loved ones, depression, anxiety, and lost dreams.
Pestered by the smallest incident of who did not clean out the dryer filter last to a painful experience in childhood that has not been resolved and won’t leave us in peace, our mind selects today’s winner of the mental lottery and runs with it in a circle of exhaustion, upheaval, and self-criticism. The more we fight our thinking the more persistent it becomes. The body and mind are one, hence the body is also aroused in our mental circles with our nervous system responding in increasing heart rate, breathing, and muscular tension. What a blessing it would be to live in this day without dwelling in the past in old hurts that drain our energy or to not lose ourselves in worry for a future that is not yet written but leaves us stuck in inaction.
Many times, we feel helpless with the running of our thoughts; I know I have. One moment stands out for me as a time when I could pull together all the years of meditating and education in mindfulness and other techniques for calming the mind/body that I had learned and tried to practice. It was a cold January morning when a call came letting me know that my colleague, Sarah, had been murdered during the night by her husband. There were enough details gleaned leaving me feeling sickened, shocked, and unmoored—this did not fit my known sense of reality. The event was traumatizing in its gory details with much left to my imagination.
Hanging up the phone, I felt stunned and off balance. Where a moment ago, I knew exactly what I was doing, I now felt like I needed direction. My sister was visiting, and we had a full day planned regarding care for our youngest sister. While a part of me needed time to process this information, I also knew that I did not want it to take over my mental state and consume me as we had a long drive with a long day ahead of us and had to be leaving soon.
I took a few moments to sit quietly and review the information from the call. Saying a blessing prayer for my colleague and her husband and young son, I then visualized all those in my department who would also be hearing this story. I allowed myself to feel the pain and the shock and asked that I and all be held in love as we journeyed through our important duties in this day. I acknowledged to myself that there was nothing more I could do and whatever was happening now for her, and her family, was in the care of other hands. Then, rising from my chair, with my sister in tow, we entered the tasks at hand.
As we drove, I began to watch my mind. An image would come of my colleague, then the murder, and her little boy. Then, I would try to shut it off. No. I do not want to see this. But that never works. The more we say no, the more persistent a memory or a thought becomes. The next time the thought of her arose, I watched it and saw that it began to take me down a road, one that was always seen in my mind to be at my right, and one that I had been following, but not now. When I caught myself beginning on this path, I acknowledged the thought with non-judgement, saying, “Okay, I see you, and now I am thinking of Sarah at work.” I pictured her doing or saying something that brought a smile to my heart and face and then I proceeded to bring myself back to the moment with my breath or in looking around at the world around me.
This is and was hard work. I kept at it throughout the day and into the night and the next day as the thoughts of the trauma continued to rise. The energy for working with this came from knowing that I knew enough of the story and dwelling on it did not offer me any new insight. I was not shutting off my care for her or the reality of this tragedy but working to open my heart to the whole of her life, all the while caring for myself. I was giving my body the time and the trust it needed to calm and to settle as the mind worked to claim its center once again, thus allowing the autonomic nervous system the time it needed to understand it was not needed for fright or flight and I could now breathe, rest, and feel peace.
My experience showed me a way to be compassionate and kind to myself and my thoughts. This story was tragic, shocking, and challenging to work with, and there were many more days and events that followed when I needed to use my will to care for myself. Over time, the mental images I struggled with receded to a fading memory replaced with a recollection of a beautiful woman’s life as I knew her.
As Jack Kornfield states, judging comes in many ways. There are stories and images created in our minds around any event. The ones we tend to cling to come when someone slights us, or when we feel we have not done enough for another, or we have felt misunderstood, or we witness an event, or experience trauma, and on and on. Some are quickly let go of, others linger, coming forward when we are not focused, or we get triggered by something we see or do or hear. It happens equally in our grief stories and our love stories. We replay and recreate and every time we do, we develop a new version of the narrative.
I chose to free this narrative with my heart. Being mindful of the suffering mind of the spouse who acted out his own troubled thoughts. Allowing my heart to open to the young boy left without a mother and father, to the broader hurting families and coworkers. I chose to care for myself as well knowing that I have a challenging time clearing visual images. Choice is essential in working with our mind. We all have the power to choose and we either forget or do not believe this as a viable option.
When we get to the end of life, the detail stories and the list of grievances will not be important, fading from memory, forgotten in the truth of the moment, enveloped in the lifelong task of letting go. The path we trekked, those we met along the way, the kindnesses shown, the compassion developed, the care for each other, from birth to death, is the journey of the soul. That is what we will be taking with us. This is what we are preparing for in the cleaning, the clearing, and the polishing of the heart, all that happens in the rare moments of spiritual revelation.