I have no idea how much resentment and bitterness I’ve been carrying around, until one day I realize that I am chewing on old bones, rotten, dirty, maggoty, old bones: thinking about old wounds and injustices, remembering the pain, anger, sadness, humiliation, and betrayal, reliving my sense of outrage and powerlessness. My teeth are clenched, my breath is shallow and tight, and I chew and chew. I feel hurt and angry that these people have never apologized, and I imagine what I would like to say to them.
I’m appalled. How long has this been going on, just under my conscious awareness? Apparently, I’ve been chewing on these old bones for years, sometimes for decades. I’m shocked at how much resentment I’m still carrying and how long I’ve been doing it. I knew I wasn’t doing so well in the forgiveness department, but I didn’t have any idea how bad it really was.
It begins, of course, with my mother. When I first began seeing a therapist, at age 35, I had been choking on my anger towards my mother for my entire life. I knew how important it was to forgive, I wanted to forgive, I tried to forgive, but I couldn’t do it. Whenever I thought about forgiving her a terrible rage came up and hijacked my “good” self, turning me into a lunatic.
I shamed myself about this until I realized that there were other things that I needed to do first: tell the truth, cry, let myself be angry, learn to say no, honor the little girl who was in such pain, and take back my power. So I just gave up and gave myself permission to set the forgiveness piece aside until I felt ready for it.
I’m ready now. It only took me 30 years.
I’m aware, once again, of how much courage and humility it takes to look at what’s really going on in there. Neitzsche said that if we would be wise we must “listen to the wild dogs barking in the cellar.” It sounds like there is an entire pack of them down there.
I feel like I’m being immersed in this process of forgiveness. It develops organically and intuitively, pulling from many sources and teachings. When I feel done with one piece of it, the next piece emerges all on its own and carries me along in its flow. I’m not doing the process; the process is doing me. Things happen that I don’t understand with my rational mind.
I wish I could take more credit for it. The truth is that this readiness isn’t a result of my maturing into a more loving and forgiving person, it’s probably purely selfish. I have this nagging worry that if I don’t forgive my mother before I die that I might have to see her again in my next lifetime in order to have the “opportunity” to resolve it. This terrifies me; I never ever want to go through another lifetime with that woman. So, what do I need to do to make sure it’s done? I figure it’s wiser to just face the damn thing and get it over with now so I’ll never have to see her again.
Ho’o pono pono
I begin by easing into a meditative space and using Ho’o pono pono, which is a beautiful way to begin anything.
Please forgive me.
I love you.
I think about my mother as I begin. “I’m sorry, please forgive me.” I’m getting tighter and tighter, hotter and hotter, and it’s hard to breathe. The words feel like lies. I’m sorry?! For what? Forgive me?! I’m not the one who needs to apologize. This process is already triggering tremendous anger, but I keep going. I feel the pain of that traumatized little girl inside me, so I turn towards her, embracing her, connecting heart to heart, comforting her. She begins to calm down. She is so sad.
How do I say this to my mother? It feels impossible. She was a complicated person, and definitely not a 50’s Leave It To Beaver sort of mom. She was a pilot in WWII (a WASP); she loved to fly and was proud to serve her country in an important way. She was a very good classical pianist and made sure we all had music lessons. All five kids played piano as well as an orchestral instrument. This required some intense logistical planning if everyone was going to have time to practice before going to school, so she put a line of alarm clocks in the hallway. The first alarm would go off at 6am, when one of us would practice on the piano while others too showers, ate breakfast, and practiced other instruments (violin, cello, trumpet, clarinet, and trombone). At 6:30 the next alarm would go off, and we switched around, and again at 7:00, 7:30. and 8:00. She was adventurous and liked to take us to interesting places. She loved to travel, and one summer she took the five of us (ages 10 to 15) on a nine-week camping trip all around the U.S. in a VW bus. She revered education. She gave us a lot of freedom to play, explore, take risks, and to make mistakes and learn from them.
She was also mean and unpredictable and violent. On that camping trip she ordered us out of the car and left us in the middle of nowhere in upstate New York, and drove away, saying we could find our own way back to California. She beat me with a metal pipe, with a swim fin, with anything that was handy. It felt like she wanted me dead. I had recurring nightmares until I was 40 in which she was chasing me with a butcher knife and trying to kill me.
So how do I do this? How do I say, “I’m sorry, mom, please forgive me”? At first, I force myself say the words, using all my strength to push them out through layers of resistance. Labor pains of love. I lose my breath, lose my voice, my whole body feels tight and tortured, but I continue, and eventually it gets a little easier and a little lighter. My body gradually stops clenching. I do this for hours, over and over. The words slowly sink down, deeper and deeper, beneath all the layers of hurt and anger, until they settle in a softer place. Little by little they become more heartfelt, and I am surprised to find the place of truth in them. It opens a well of tears.
The armor around my heart cracks open, and the feeling of vulnerability is excruciating. I want to tear myself away and go do something, anything, to distract myself. I don’t want to feel these feelings. She doesn’t deserve this.
But I stay with it, and strangely enough, I find that there are things I’m sorry for, and the longer I stay there the more I find. I let myself see all the ways that I wounded her.
“I am sorry, please forgive me.”
This takes a long time. I let myself soak in this painful muck, let it emerge, open, and deepen. I stay with it and let it wave through me, until it feels clear and true. Until it feels done.
When I’m able, I move into the next part of the process and force myself to say, “Thank you.” At first this one is just as difficult as the first one. Thank her?! I can feel that little girl rising up in rage again. I don’t minimize it or reason her out of it. I don’t shame her into “bucking up and moving on.” Instead, I give her all the space and time she needs to tell her truth. I let her cry. I listen to her pain. And eventually, gradually, I can sink down into that place underneath the pain.
Surprisingly, I find things about her that I am thankful for. Strengths, courage, values, inspiration. I take my time and find them all. I realize that I have wisdom and resilience that I wouldn’t have if she hadn’t been my mother. I discover that I can thank her from my heart. This, too, takes hours and hours.
The last piece, “I love you,” is the hardest of all. It feels impossible. I give myself time to ease my way into it. I feel hot, sad, angry, and vulnerable. Inner voices rise up, reminding me of all the ways that she hurt me. I honor each one until it calms down and allows me to continue. At first, I growl and snarl the words, but eventually it changes. The words soak in and thaw out all the deep, cold, frozen places. I allow the feeling of loving her to slowly germinate and grow and fill up my body. For hours I sit with the “full catastrophe” of my mother, all her volatile and violent and creative complexity, and force myself to say, “I love you.” Eventually, miraculously, it connects to some hidden place inside of me, a chord of authenticity, and becomes true. How is this possible?
The strange kaleidoscope of identity
Meditative processes often take on a life of their own and take us to places we could not have anticipated. As the emotional charge softens, something strange happens. Without any conscious intention, my inner awareness moves into my mother, and I see the world through her eyes. This is not part of the Ho’o pono pono process, as far as I know, and is not something I’ve ever heard of. It happens all on its own, from “somewhere else” other than my conscious mind. Yes, of course we are taught that it’s important to be able to see things from other peoples’ points of view, to walk a mile in their shoes, etc., but this is different, deeper. It doesn’t feel philosophical, it feels real. I am not simply trying to understand things from her point of view, I am in her. I have merged with her identity. It feels weird, but I let it flow, and I allow myself to look through her eyes and feel what she is feeling. “I” look at my daughter and see how much pain “I” have caused her. “I” can feel all that pain, and am overwhelmed with the reality of what “I” have done. “I” allow myself to see the truth without minimizing or avoiding. “I” have done this to my own daughter, and “I” cannot blame anyone else. “I” am overcome with shame and remorse.
I’m sorry…please forgive me…thank you…I love you… Now my mother asks me for forgiveness. She acknowledges what she could never acknowledge in life, and I can feel her genuine remorse. It hits me like a huge wave that feels painful and healing at the same time. I am shocked; I never imagined that she would ever understand. I never imagined hearing these words. My whole body is lit up and it’s hard to breathe. I feel her apology and her love soaking down into my bones.
As the two of us connect heart to heart I find myself lifted out of this plane, out of both bodies, and up into another level of awareness where I am watching both my normal self and my mother. I wonder what this is, and the only thing that comes to mind is that I have moved into my Higher Self, my God-Self, or whatever it is. I don’t have a clear idea of what that is, but it is definitely a different “place” than my normal consciousness, or even than the relaxed, centered state I reach while I’m meditating. It feels big, calm, and wise. It feels way “up” and way “out.”
From this place, I watch these two beings, my normal self and my mother, as the love and forgiveness flow back and forth between them, melting all the anger, pain, and shame. Then I stretch out my arms and embrace both of them with understanding, forgiveness, and love. All separateness evaporates, and there is only oneness. There is no loss of identity, only enlargement.
In the midst of this exquisite integration I become aware of other voices, the very young parts of me that carry the deepest mother-wounds and yearn to be healed. The first one is the baby in the womb. I let her come up stronger. This womb feels dangerous. I give myself time to feel the depth of this baby’s dread and helplessness, as well as her yearning to love and be loved. Eventually she is able to turn towards her mother and apologize for her anger and judgment. I’m sorry, please forgive me, thank you, I love you… When that is done, my perspective shifts and I am again looking through my mother’s eyes, and feeling her feelings. “I” feel this baby’s pain and vulnerability, and apologize from “my” heart. I’m sorry, please forgive me, thank you, I love you… When that feels complete, I move out into that bigger mind and embrace this baby and her mother with love and forgiveness. Again, we all melt into oneness.
The next part to emerge is the newborn. Her vulnerability and grief take my breath away. She is cold and alone; she has no mother to hold her, comfort her, rock her, sing to her, smile at her, look into her eyes, and keep her warm. She is trembling at being alone and unloved, and is angry at being abandoned. I connect with her and feel this in my bones. Eventually it shifts; she feels seen and understood, and begins to relax. As the intensity subsides, something else emerges…a pure thread of yearning for her mother, a yearning to be held and nursed. My mother is uncomfortable, but willing. This tiny baby nestles into her breast and nurses. She sinks into it and stays there a long time, feeling loved and safe. I’m sorry, please forgive me… It flows back and forth between them, each one feeling the other’s pain, each one feeling remorse, each one asking for forgiveness, each one reaching out in love, heart to heart, until the baby feels satiated. Again I find myself embracing both of them from this other place of forgiveness beyond forgiveness and love beyond love. Once again, we melt into oneness.
Piles and piles of bones
I am relieved and exhausted. I feel wrung out. I feel different. I’m so glad it’s over, but, unbidden, another face comes up. Another person who hurt, humiliated, and bullied me. Another person I haven’t been able to forgive. Without any conscious intention, I find myself doing it all over again. I’m sorry…please forgive me…thank you…I love you. Again, it takes hours and hours of feeling the pain, moving into his body as he expresses his own remorse, and then stepping out into that other mind and embracing both of us with love and forgiveness.
The process continues, with one person after another. Over the next several days I face my resentment and unforgiveness for every single person who has ever hurt me…family, friends, partners, strangers, everyone I can think of, everyone who has slighted, betrayed, disrespected, squashed, condescended, molested, abused, sabotaged, injured, bullied, robbed, harmed, taunted, slandered, deceived, or insulted me. There are dozens and dozens. All the old bones. I am saddened and dismayed by the number. I had no idea there were so many, no idea that there was so much bitterness and resentment stuffed down in there. Some take a lot longer than others.
It goes on and on as I express remorse, ask for forgiveness, express gratitude and love, from both sides. I feel completely drained. I can’t think of one more person who has hurt me. I can’t find any more resentment or bitterness. It feels done, but I can’t help wondering if there’s more. As the days pass I wait and listen, but there is only space and silence. The wild dogs are curled up, snuggled together, peacefully sleeping. For now.