When I was in a relationship in my late teens I was cheated on. What made the experience even more devastating was the sacrifices I had made for that particular relationship and how tightly I clung to it for a sense of self-worth. Talk about all your eggs in one basket!
The psychological toll was tremendous, especially for someone who’s core desire is for affection and esteem. For me, that meant serial fixation on someone as the source and symbol of that affection and esteem.
Everything was upside down. It was like there was poison in the communion cup. Like contaminated the holy water. The single source of perceived salvation turned into pain, shame, and embarrassment.
Unconsciously, a story began to take shape – sooner or later, in a romantic relationship, you’ll be victimized. Strangely, this is food for the False Self, the ego. Whether we pretend we’re better than everyone else, or worse than everyone else, both are ego driven attitudes. Anything that reinforces our sense of separateness becomes ego food.
The ego feeds off of pain, and turns it into an identity. It’s as if it becomes an independent being inside us, with our bodies as the host. It can be dormant for stretches at a time when everything is running fairly smoothly, but when triggered, it manifests as fear, anger, and acting out addictions.
We can easily fall into patterns of assuming the moral high ground because of the degree or intensity or longevity of our suffering. We can assume superiority to others, looking down at their experiences. I was cheated on. Some are abandoned, abused, or neglected. Once the experience becomes internalized as an identity it can take on a life of its own.
In relationships for a very long time this manifested itself in attraction-repulsion patterns and paranoia. In everyday life this manifests itself as fixations. Identifying familiar or safe moments in the past to cling to and turn over in the mind to avoid the dangers of the present. It manifests as anxiety in the face of any threat to sources of affection and esteem.
Because of how overwhelming or embarrassing they can be, we can ignore or suppress the big traumas, and instead focus on all their little children. We want sympathy and pity for the little things because we haven’t let go of the big ones. We stay bogged down because haven’t gone through the work of seeing, naming, and forgiving more than superficially.
For many of us this simply manifests itself as chronic complaining, or internal resetnment. As we formulate the story of what happens around us, as we interpret reality, we situate ourselves as the offended, the wronged, the neglected, the unappreciated, the underserved. This is the ego-energy of victimhood perpetuating itself. Once deeply ingrained, this is an unconscious process that mediates the very reality we see around us and dictates the tapes that play in our head.
In religious circles, we can actively perpetuate this cycle. In churches, we use the language of brokenness. While suffering is in fact a valuable teacher, and expands us to live more compassionately when directed outwards, we can lose sight of that, and hold on to our suffering as something that gives us identity and worth. Instead of identifying with the suffering of others as a means of transformation and moving toward wholeness, some of us cling to our own suffering as a source of attention. We want to stay that way, because it gives us identity, distinction.
Part of the contemplative path is having small periods of time every day where we don’t identify with our habitual ego and thought patterns, when we detach from our story, identity, and suffering for a little while. It’s like draining a muddy lake, you can see all the trash that’s been in there preventing life from flowing.
I recently had the pleasure of reviewing a forthcoming book by Vishen Lakhiani called The Code of the Extraordinary Mind, a look at the underlying patterns of what makes extraordinary people tick. While thoroughly secular, the book touches on issues of mindfulness applied to business and life planning. In one of the anecdotes, the author meets up with several other entrepreneurs to test the most effective types of meditation for generating alphas waves – ideal for the free flow of relaxation, acuity, creativity, and problem solving. It turns out the most effective practice for these successful businessmen in accessing this state was one thing: forgiveness. According to the book, they spent seven days straight on these forgiveness exercises. The changes were profound.
It can be a huge benefit to make a list of people and situations in which you were wronged, allow yourself to feel that embarrassment, shame, or anger, and consciously choose forgiveness. A great part of being able to let go for me was recognizing the extent to which other people I was hurt by were acting out of their unconscious patterns, just as I often watch myself do. Along with seeing our own unskillful patterns, recognizing their sources, and letting go of the underlying attachments, this process of forgiveness and letting go can be one of the most liberating along the path of spiritual maturity.