Each of us has experienced the feelings that arise from having failed miserably or from being hopelessly inadequate in regard to something or someone we deeply cared about. Maybe you have to live with an irredeemable loss caused by a mistake you made or suffer the consequences of cruelty by another. What you may not have noticed is how you organize internally in reaction to these losses, failures, and mistakes. If you look closely, you may discover that you reject the experience even as you’re feeling it, never fully accepting it because you so desperately want something else to be true. Living with the insistence that the past be other than it was is hopeless, yet most people suffer in this way without ever realizing it.
The more painful your feelings, the more likely you are to hold the experience at bay, never able to fully let it in so that it can be processed and relinquished. Nor are you able to let it go, since that would first require allowing it to permeate you to whatever degree of impact it has for you. You separate from it by becoming angry or restless, or you start to judge yourself or others and fantasize about how you could have been different or done things differently. You repeat this story to yourself over and over again and harden around the experience. Why? Because the feeling seems so unbearable that to fully let it in seems as though it would be to experience annihilation. You mistakenly believe separation is safety. Paradoxically, the opposite is true: To allow the experience in is to embrace life.
When someone tells me about a difficult situation from their past and asks me how to work with it, I suggest that they investigate what is actually going on when this situation arises in their thoughts.
The process of investigation begins with asking, “What’s true right now?” and recognizing that in this moment you’re caught in a difficult memory from the past. Just noticing this gives you space in relation to the difficulty such that you aren’t unconsciously being controlled by it.
The second step is to ask, “How does this feel in my body and mind?” Notice the physical and emotional tensions that are arising and recognize the resulting contraction as suffering. The third step is to ask, “How is my mind reacting to what’s happening?” Is it fantasizing? Creating aversion? Bringing up fear? Are you clinging to it? Do you have any choice in how you respond as opposed to react in this moment?
The final step is to ask, “What dharma can I find around this difficult memory in this moment?” How might it relate to the Four Noble Truths, or the hindrances, or the aggregate nature of existence, or some other aspect of the dharma?
Experiencing the difficulty as a moment of dharma sets you free from your suffering.