There’s something that I’ve been learning in my personal work on myself that I want to share with you today. It’s changed so much for me.
There’s a lot of excitement in our culture around the idea of mindfulness – becoming an observer of your own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors – in order to see them rather than be caught in them, to watch your behavior patterns rather than be identified with them.
Through meditation, journaling, or talking with a therapist, coach or even good friend, we start to ask questions like: What am I feeling? What limiting belief may be holding me back? What old conditioning is causing me to hurt myself and others?
As we answer these questions, we can start to actually look at, evaluate, and have agency around old patterns and beliefs that otherwise unconsciously drive our choices.
To all this I would say, yes: this kind of self-awareness can open up a space for us to begin to change a belief or behavior.
But what I’ve been learning lately is that for me, awareness is not really the most important thing in making change. The most important thing is something that comes next – in between awareness and action.
Let me take you through an example. Let’s say, through some awareness practice – perhaps journaling about some areas I feel stuck around – I discover that I have an old and deeply held belief that I don’t belong. Through more inquiry, I pinpoint some of the early childhood experiences I had that led to this belief – my family acting and looking different than those around us in our neighborhood, and some painful memories of being excluded.
So now I’m aware. I’m aware of a limiting belief that I’m carrying. I’m aware of the root causes. I’m aware of the costs.
But this is not quite enough for me to make real change and stop acting out of this belief. Why? Because the younger, hurt part of myself who got those early messages is not soothed or healed by my new cognitive awareness about them.
That’s worth repeating: the younger, hurt part of myself who got those early messages is not soothed or healed by my new cognitive awareness about them.
She needs something different. She needs to heal the early experiences of not belonging. She needs to receive the love and support she needed at the time of those painful experiences, but didn’t get then. She needs to know some older grown-up has her back and will be there for her, resolute and full to the brim with love, when she feels lonely.
So I take out my pen, and I find all her old pains, and embrace them. By “embrace” I don’t mean “accept” them. I mean a more literal embrace. I meet them, and her, with a loving hug. I write my list of embraces:
I embrace the little girl who felt different.
I embrace the younger girl who looked around and felt her body stood apart from all the others.
I embrace the little girl who wanted a house full of people and laughter.
I embrace the little girl who wanted to blend in, and just be one of many, and feel cozy as part of some larger circle.
I didn’t really know until this year you can hug your old pain and thereby transform it. I didn’t really know some emotions in you need your internal hug. I didn’t know these strange immaterial hugs are like magic that changes everything inside.
You can give them like this, through writing. Or you can picture your younger self in your mind’s eye and go to her, ask her what she needs and give it. Stay until she is okay, until she dismisses you because she is ready to play happily again. She’ll let you know when she’s been made whole.
It’s this – not the new awareness, but the embrace I can give to what I’ve just become aware of – that allows me to unblock what has long been blocked in me. It’s the love I give the old pain that allows me to stop acting out of that pain.
Now I know: if you haven’t embraced your younger self lately, you are living a compromised life.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk, global spiritual leader, and peace activist has written:
Sometimes the wounded child in us needs all of our attention … If you are mindful, you will hear his or her voice calling for help. At that moment … you go back and tenderly embrace the wounded child within you …
“When we speak of listening with compassion, we usually think of listening to someone else. But we must also listen to the wounded child inside of us. The wounded child in us is here in the present moment. And we can heal him or her right now. ‘My dear little wounded child, I’m here for you, ready to listen to you. Please tell me all your suffering, all your pain. I am here, really listening.’ And if you know how to go back to her, to him, and listen like that every day for five or ten minutes, healing will take place.”
So this is my offering to you this week.
Find some old pain. If you don’t know where to find yours, ask yourself: What fears gripped me today? Where did I betray myself? When was I dishonest today? Then ask, why did I think I couldn’t tell the truth? Or, what beliefs about life or others or myself led me to betray myself in that way? Or, what is the origin of that fear? As you look deeper into the why of that fear or self-betrayal or dishonesty, as you follow it to its root, you will find some old pain.
Find that younger girl who first experienced it, and feel everything she went through.
Then write your embraces. Everything in her you embrace. Everything still in you that you now embrace.
I embrace the little girl who was …
I embrace the little girl who had to …
I embrace the little girl who felt …
You will feel it – across your chest, tingling in your skin, how this changes everything.
photo credit: Issa Momani