Dear Swamiji, What can I do with painful memories when they surface?

Sometimes students write to or ask Swami Veda and other senior teachers in our tradition questions about practice. When this happens, Swami Veda may answer the question himself or ask a senior teacher to do so, or if the question is asked directly to a senior teacher, the senior teacher will respond. This is one such "Question and Answer," or Q&A.

Dear Swamiji ...Question
How can I deal with the memories of intense suffering that I experienced in childhood and in my past?

The question about past grief and trauma is a very important one, as there are very few people who do not carry a lot of heavy baggage from the past. The goal of meditation is a peaceful, still, quiet, absolutely crystal clear mind. So, what can we do with strong memories? It's a major issue with all people who practice meditation because memories keep resurfacing and so the mind never becomes quiet. 

My own understanding of this is that the painful memories of the past will never go away - and in many cases we don't want them to go away because our past experiences have helped us grow, and have brought us to where we are now.

Also, it's hard to imagine how a child (whose mind is very open and innocent) can be "socialized" within any society without some painful things happening. However, as we grow spiritually, we gain a different understanding of them. 

Many years ago I asked Swami Veda that same question: "Dear Swamiji, What can I do with painful memories when they surface? This is a perennial problem for some of my students, and for me, too, in my own meditations."

Swamiji kind of glowered at me and said, "Michael, how many years have you been studying yoga? ...and you ask a question like THAT!"

And at that time the answer came:

Because YOU change and your self-identification rises to another level, therefore the memory that formerly used to bother you loses its grip and its power. It's like an insect or a plant that cannot survive if the temperature or the humidity changes a little; it does not have a hospitable environment any more. 

I think that's what mantra-japa does. Very slowly over time, repetition of the mantra changes the vibratory level of your personality.

Right now we are very much identified with our "egoic, limited self," and so we take the painful things that occurred while growing very hard. But when we identify with a more expansive self, then our personal history is seen in a much larger context and kind of "depersonalize" them.

After a while in meditation one's awareness expands so that the past thoughts become proportionally smaller. If we see things from an ant's perspective, then a mouse is huge. If we see things from an elephant's perspective, then the mouse is insignificant.

Sometimes people describe this change as "burning one's personal history." And that does not mean than you lose anything. It means you burn your identification with memories of the past and see them with a more expansive awareness. There is a poem by Thich Nhat Hanh which shows that higher perspective:

Please Call Me By My True Names
by Thich Nhat Hanh

Do not say that I'll depart tomorrow 

because even today I still arrive.
Look deeply; I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
in order to fear and to hope,
the rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that are alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes,
arrives in time to catch the mayfly.
I am a frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond,
and I am the grass-snake who,
approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the Politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay
his "debt of blood" to my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.
My joy is like spring so warm
it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so full it fills all four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.

And there is another thing that happens with continued meditation, too: We learn to "let go" of thoughts - all thoughts: the good, the bad and the ugly. When we're sitting by a river we watch leaves and things float by and go downstream. The current carries along all sorts of things. We notice them, but don't try to hold onto them or follow them. Instead, we focus on just the flow of the river - which in meditation would be the breath, or the mantra, or both. If our concentration can be one-pointed (that's the trick), then there can be significant expansion of awareness into another level. 

We have listened to Swami Veda tell us about the experience of samadhi, and we think that reaching such levels is unattainable for us, but that's not true. We get little glimmers from time to time. Swamiji calls them "little satoris." or "getting brushed by angels' wings." And we can experience something of that even after watching our breathing for a short time, because there a noticeable shift to greater clarity and peacefulness... and dispassion. That little shift that we are able to make tells us that that meditation works. And if it works with just a little bit of effort, then that encourages us and gives us confidence that if we practiced more, there would be greater benefits still.

If we're in yoga for the long haul - like our entire life - then gradually we make changes in our lifestyle, so that there is less commotion outside, more time to practice and explore the dimensions that we carry within us. This seems self-centered, but that's not true. Exactly the opposite happens. As our awareness increases, so does our compassion and our responsibilities to others and effectiveness in the world. Inner and outer expand together, while ego and ego-based problems shrink and eventually fall away.

- Michael Smith


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19 Dec 2021;
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