This is part of the Compassion in Action series. If you just found this and are wondering what’s going on, click here for chapter 1.
Chapter 5 – Love Conquers All
Frees us of all the weight and pain of life:
That word is love.”
Back when I was in college, I ended up getting a double major in Economics and Classics. I wanted to do something in the financial realm, so Economics seemed like a good fit, but I also was attracted to Classics because I loved learning about the ancient world, and had always wanted to study Latin. Imagine my surprise twenty-odd years afterwards when I look back and realize that Economics was almost completely useless to me, but the lessons from Classics, which I thought had absolutely no practical application at the time, have turned up all the time in my everyday life.
Of course, it’s not like I’m at work, focusing on some difficult problem, and then suddenly pull out a quote from Alexander the Great which completely solves the issue. That hasn’t happened yet, at least! But understanding history, and listening to stories about how and why people did the things they did at the time, turns out to be really valuable when it comes time to try and understand events and issues in the modern world.
For example, one interesting thing I learned has to do with the way contracts were handled in the old days. Nowadays, everyone can read and write, and so it’s easy to create and sign contracts. If there is some disagreement on terms, or if one side completely denies that the deal ever happened, the contract settles the dispute. It is the witness of the deal, and there are notarized signatures to give it authenticity. But image trying to replicate it in a situation where paper was not available, and when neither side even knew how to read or write in the first place.
One solution that was used was to gather ten young people to bear witness to the deal. Younger people were preferred, because you want them to outlive the two parties actually conducting business. That’s a way to keep everything binding for as long as possible. You want ten of them because you need to account for people moving out of the area, or going to war, or just keeling over from something. So with ten young people present, odds were really high that at least one of them could be found in the future in case a witness to the proceedings was ever needed.
Now here’s the really interesting part. After the deal was completed, the witnesses were then beaten. That’s right, beaten, like with a stick! This is to seal the memory. A witness is of no use unless they can actually remember the thing they were brought to witness, and even back then it was understood that the best way to create a lasting memory is to make the event really emotionally charged. Hence the beatings. Obviously, the people doing these deals were probably members of the upper classes, as this isn’t going to happen every time some peasants decide to trade a goat for some potatoes.
You probably have experienced the sticking power of emotionally charged memories yourself. It’s impossible to remember whether or not you brushed your teeth just five minutes ago, but you still remember the time when that kid on the playground said that mean thing to you when you were only five years old. Not only do you remember how mean he was, even now you still sometimes fantasize about getting even with the brat, despite the fact that it’s been decades since the incident.
The brain is constantly processing information, and there’s so much of it that comes at us in a day that most of it just gets discarded. It’s too much to store. That’s why we only ever have access to fragments of it. Without the excitement and emotional charge of the moment, the memory has trouble fusing itself into the memory banks.
If you’ve been married, you probably remember putting the ring on your partner’s finger, or alternately, having them put it on yours. In my case, I was nervous enough in that moment that I couldn’t muster the motor control to grab the ring with two fingers without risking dropping it altogether, and so I sort of had to scoop it onto Laura’s finger with my palm. I remember the whole thing exactly. That’s a big memory on a big day. But I can’t for the life of me remember what the inside of the bathroom at the church looked like, and I was in there just before everything else happened.
We can devise a sort of scale for emotionally charged memories, running from one to ten. One is no emotional charge. That’s like brushing your teeth. Ten is maximum charge, like getting married. And then we have levels in between. All events in life fall somewhere on this scale, and the higher rated ones stick. This goes for both positive and negatively charged memories. Unfortunately, the higher charged negative memories, like the tens, can stick so well that they turn into neurotic playback loops that just won’t stop running.
My grandmother lived in Poland during World War II, and emigrated to the US with my mother and grandfather afterwards. She was actually originally born in America, but her family had gone back to live in Poland just before the Great Depression. As far as I can tell, it was mostly because having once been dirt poor in their village, they now had the opportunity to be the wealthiest people there, and lord it over all their old neighbors who had snubbed them in the past. Maybe I’m not being totally fair to them, but that’s my impression from listening to many stories about this when I was young.
Anyway, my grandmother had never given up her American citizenship, despite living in Poland for almost 40 years. However, although the US government recognized her as an American citizen, the Polish government did not, because by their logic since she had married my grandfather, who was Polish, that made her Polish too. It took some shenanigans on the part of US officials, plus a ton of bribes at pretty much every level of the Polish bureaucracy that she had to deal with, but she finally managed to get back to US soil. Once she was in America again, the Polish authorities were forced to recognize her, and couldn’t stand in the way of her daughter and husband living in America with her as well.
The part that really got to her was that she had to abandon her house in Poland. She could stay there, and have the farm, or she could come to America and make a new life in a free country. But she couldn’t both keep the house and move to America. It was one or the other. And having to give up that house was a ten on her emotional scale, and not a good ten either. It just ate, and ate at her, and wouldn’t go away.
When we would have Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner, we’d all be sitting around the table talking afterwards. And then, sooner or later, my grandmother would turn to my mom and start taking about her house in Poland, and maybe how she could hire a lawyer to get it back. That’s when, as if on cue, me, my sister, and my father would all quietly take our plates and leave the table.
That’s what a negatively charged memory can do – it burrows in and won’t leave you alone. You just can’t get over the attachment and the painful memories, and the same old song plays over and over, making you crazy in a way.
You may have noticed a similar thing when you’ve tried to meditate. You made time to practice, sat down quietly with the best of intentions, closed your eyes, and then immediately jumped into a replay of that childhood memory which you never think about otherwise.
The most common reaction to these memories popping up is to think that they are the product of an untrained mind, which gets bored easily and is trying to sabotage your meditation. At least that’s that way I always used to look at it in the beginning. My viewpoint on this eventually changed.
Roughly a year ago, I had a stretch where I could barely sit down on my cushion without one of these memory loops ambushing me. It was never happy memories either, but memories of times when I had hurt other people in some way. A lot of them came from my elementary school days. I’ve been practicing for a long time, and I never had issues like this before. It was not only the persistence of these memories that surprised me, but how much force they used in pushing themselves forward. What I realized was that this wasn’t my ego trying to sabotage my meditation, but was rather part of the process of cleaning out the dark corners of my subconscious.
There’s a field of alternative medicine called Somatic Psychology, which deals with how memories and traumas get stored in the body. In other words, memories carry energy, and that energy can get stored all over the body, not just in the brain. Massage therapists are very familiar with this phenomenon, as memories can be spontaneously triggered in a client by working through knots in the body. One minute you’re sitting there having a nice massage, and then the therapist stumbles onto that one special place where your body has decided to put some of the trauma from an event that happened when you were six years old, and the whole thing comes roaring back to life as if it only happened yesterday.
Meditation works directly with energy, activating and cultivating it, then running it through various channels in the body. When you go deep, you can feel it running up and down your spine with your breath. It can cause heat, cold, can make you shake, and can inspire all sorts of emotional reactions, from terror to bliss. Meditation might seem like a dull, boring activity, but that’s only what it looks like from the outside. It’s actually very different. There’s a whole universe inside of you to explore.
Keeping the energy connection in mind, when psychological material spontaneously appears during your meditation, it might not be a trick of the ego, but instead a side effect of running the energy through your body. As you strengthen your energy body, you start to blow things out of the pipes that have been stuck there for years.
Memories are complex, and contain not only the storyline of what happened, but also an emotional record of it all. It’s the emotional record more than anything that determines how sticky the memory is, and whether it can be discarded or saved. As you review your memory, if the emotional charge is still high, that memory isn’t going to want to move anywhere. You can play it over however many times you like, but it won’t dislodge.
This is what I discovered during that stretch of time when I started triggering childhood memories with my meditations. The energy would activate and knock them loose from wherever they had taken up residence in my psyche, but then the emotional content would get triggered during playback, and they’d go right back in and reattach themselves. Knocking them loose is the first part, but once you’ve got one free, you need to find a way to clear it so that it doesn’t live on. It’s like finding a tick on your dog. Once you’ve found it, and pulled it off, you’ve got to flush it down the toilet. You don’t just drop it right back onto your dog’s fur so it can reestablish itself.
The technique we’re about to look at is a way to do this. This is the method I used when I felt like those old memories were trying to sabotage my meditation practice a year ago. If you do this right, you can clear those memories out. It’s not that you’ll lose the story about what happened, but that you’ll lose the emotional charge. And once the charge is gone, the memory will be transformed into just a regular memory, and not a sticky one that likes to pop up over and over and end Christmas dinners.
We aren’t going to try and forget or change what happened, because that’s impossible. But we can work on overwriting the emotional component of it all. In other words, we’re going to allow the memory to play back, but we’re not going to be very concerned about the storyline. Someone did something, someone got hurt, and life went on. Something happened. None of that matters. What matters is how you felt during and after the event. That’s the important part which we need to work on. That’s the part that has made this memory a problem.
Remember our emotional scale, which runs from one to ten. Stronger emotions overwrite weaker ones. If you can replay a negative memory in your mind, but feel a stronger positive emotion as you do so, the stronger emotion will overwrite the older one. And then the memory won’t have the same stickiness as before, and won’t be able to lodge into your psyche in the same way.
What’s the most powerful positive emotion we have access to? Love. You’ve been practicing generating Metta, right? Love conquers all. Even negative memories with a charge of ten.
We are going to examine our memory from three different perspectives, and at each perspective, we are going to completely bathe the memory in feelings of love. We are going to soak it in so much love that the memory becomes completely saturated. Again, the storyline is completely irrelevant. That’s the “hook” that will get the negative emotions back. You need to completely detach yourself from the storyline, and just focus on the love.
The first time you practice this, don’t jump right into your house-in-Poland memory right away. Start off with an easy one and learn how to do it first.
Think of one of your negative memories. They aren’t hard to find. If it’s one that is ready to be cleared, it will pop up all on its own. Don’t fight the memory, but allow it to come.
Play the memory through, and as you watch the events unfold, do so from the perspective of the other side. It can be one person or many, but take the perspective opposite your own. That side may be doing harmful things, or may be the victim, but in either case, give the other side your love. Cover them in love. Some drama occurred, just as drama has been occurring throughout history. It doesn’t matter what is happening, only that you are giving them your pure, unconditional love. Feel the love. Soak them in your love.
Once you have felt that love for the other side, and only when that love is not partial, but full and complete, you turn the perspective back to yourself. Replay the memory again, but this time from your perspective. You are in this drama, and you are playing some role, either as a victim or a perpetrator, but none of that matters. Love yourself. Throughout the memory, give love to the side that is “you” in this interaction. Soak your end of it in love, and don’t stop until there’s nothing left but love.
Finally, play back the memory a third time, and view it from the observer’s perspective. You are neither of the sides, you are watching them. Feel love for both of them. The drama has unfolded, and both of these people ended up in this situation. The situation is just another story. It doesn’t mean anything. Give your love to the characters involved. A mother loves her children even if both of them are fighting. Give your love to both sides in this memory, to the entire stage that the drama has unfolded upon. Feel it awash in the ocean of your love.
Once you feel that the situation has been completely covered with your love, that there is no way for it to absorb any more, then at that point let go of the memory. Drop it like you are dropping a rock, without attachment to any of the characters or the storyline itself. You are finished.
In my case, I processed quite a few memories with this method, and none of them have ever come back to bother me during my meditation. Other memories do arise from time to time, and when I find myself confronted with one of them, I just clear them with love and move on. After you overwrite a memory like that, you really feel much lighter, as if a weight has been lifted. You also get better at it, and can start using the technique in other situations.
One very interesting experience I had with this approach involved a daydream. I’m not sure where it all came from, but for whatever reason, I was imagining being physically attacked by multiple people with knives. Usually that sort of daydream ends up with me pulling off some sort of kung fu movie solution, including crazy acrobatics, where I disarm and defeat all the attackers with my bare hands.
In this case, rather than doing any of that, I stopped, dropped the storyline, and gave everyone in the entire scene my unbounded love. One of the attackers was thrusting forward with his knife, and as I stopped fighting and just felt the love for them all, the knife and the daydream dissolved around me. Usually daydreams are very controlled, but this dissolving was a surprise, as I didn’t mean for that to happen. When you give love to both sides, and to the entire situation, it makes it impossible for your brain to continue along with a storyline like that. It all just vanishes into the mist.
Once you’ve learned to do it with memories and daydreams, then you can work on bringing it to bear in your dreams at night, as well as in your waking life. This is practical spirituality.