Samsara is a Sanskrit word that means ‘wandering,’ specifically in the cycle of birth and death and rebirth. Wandering implies exile, because we have split from the whole and now wander adrift in our separation. Western psychology offers a version of that split, positing that it occurs when we suffer a significant rupture in our caretaking. It may be hard to remember how much in love we were with the giants who took care of us. We climbed over their bodies and looked longingly into their eyes and buried our faces in their necks. We worshiped them, and any disruption in the flow of that love cast us into a relational crisis that felt like our very lives were in jeopardy. If such disruptions occurred frequently enough or were violent enough or both, we experienced a fracturing of the self into two additional parts—the one carrying the wound and the one protecting it.
Such wounding puts in motion a blind compulsion in us to return to wholeness by redeeming ourselves in relationship. Freud points out a particularly pernicious aspect to such compulsions (‘Repetition Compulsions’): We unconsciously seek redemption in relationships similar to those in which we incurred our original wound. The greater the danger, the greater the promise of redemption. But such relationships are almost always a zero-sum game: What we do to free ourselves and return to wholeness, though well-intentioned, only deepens our entrapment, our suffering, our exile... Welcome to Samsara.
So how do we free ourselves from the compulsion to find redemption in relationships that will inevitably wound, if not devastate, us? A good start is becoming aware that we have a tendency to enter them in the first place, and that that awareness is often born out of suffering. Suffering takes many forms. On one end of the spectrum: loneliness, depression, lingering dissatisfaction; on the other end: despair, suicidality, grave illness. If we listen to our suffering, we might hear a prompt to wake up out of it: ‘I can’t keep doing this’; ‘Something’s got to change’; ‘How do I keep ending up here?’ We might experience a kind of disgust that Buddhists call samvega, whose meaning includes not only the shock of having ended up once again on the bad end of a cycle of suffering but also the spark of motivation to wake up out of it.
The experience of samvega presents an opportunity to work with our minds and start to grapple with the idea that we create our suffering out of the conditioning that has shaped our sense of self. In theory, such an idea is not hard to grasp: If the experience of love in our childhood moved in cycles of approval and punishment, affirmation and shame, abuse and neglect, we will look to repeat those experiences in our intimate adult relationships. It’s what we know love to be. Turning toward that reality, in whatever intensity it expresses, takes courage and self-compassion, vital resources as we seek to uncouple our self-worth from the conditioning that damaged it. Because we intend to diffuse the compulsion to repeat our cycles of suffering, we must grow to accept that our childhood longings for redemption will never be fulfilled. It is heartbreaking work that will inevitably push us into a state of grief.
But cheer up: Grief initiates a process of profound transformation that will eventually enable us to live free of the compulsions that harm us. The process itself is one of deepening, a slow immersion in which we encounter ourselves on progressively deeper levels of emotional intensity. We descend by increments, our movement mediated by the part or parts of us that protect us from re-experiencing the pain of the original wound. And so, deepening into grief is a process of trust, trust in our capacity to endure the pain we have kept buried.
At first, the fear of annihilation might grip us, waves of despair and desolation, of being utterly lost and worthless—for that’s how we experienced the original wounding. Time and again, we are called upon to see clearly, to separate our sense of self, our intrinsic value, from the beliefs about ourselves that were inculcated in us when we experienced our wounding. We might learn to tell ourselves: ‘No, darling, that is not who we are’; and practice meeting our desolate parts with acceptance and kindness, holding them with compassion. By doing so, we are establishing trust within the self-system that then allows the process of grief to further deepen.
We will need our clear-seeing when our defenses take all manner of guises. They will accuse us of betraying those who took care of us; accuse us of exposing family secrets; call us ungrateful, bad children, and flood us with the heat of shame—all in service of preventing us from feeling the pain of the original wounding. They will distract us with illness or the chaos of interpersonal drama; we will pick fights or smoke too many cigarettes or too much weed or overeat, employing an array of gambits meant to help us evade the danger of feeling the pain of the original wounding. These defenses, these parts, call on us to treat them with honor. They are our frightened children, all seeking reassurance, all seeking to trust in the safety of the self-system. Again, they call on us to take our seat in the center of it all and practice meeting them with acceptance and kindness, holding them with compassion.
By degrees, we become able to step fully into the experience of our wounding. We might find rage waiting for us, and we must let ourselves have our rage, hearing its vital communication: ‘I did not deserve that. I shouldn’t have been treated that way. I am better than that.’ And we might find heartbreak waiting for us, through which we might come to experience our true self as standing apart, already whole, undamaged by the trials of our conditioning. In these moments of re-experiencing, the original wound, in its horrible immediacy, awakens us to the knowledge that the sacred has been violated, and by which means the sacred repossesses itself.
Of course, the process does not proceed in a linear fashion, winding down to a single moment of triumphal freedom. But it does facilitate a disentanglement, slowly, painstakingly, by increments and repetition, through courage, persistence, and kindness. In the meantime, something radical and just as valuable has taken root: trust in our capacity to take care of ourselves, to take refuge in our own love and wisdom. We have learned that we can endure the pain of our original wound, our original abandonment, without being annihilated, and because we now know we can survive it, we no longer need to employ strategies of avoidance that often cause harm. In our clear-seeing, we can now observe the forces of our conditioning that have shaped us and choose to arrest their momentum, no longer compelled to experience the same suffering. Through grieving, engaging in a process in which we practice at responding to our own pain and distress with acceptance and compassion, we have facilitated a profound transference of power: from seeking redemption in the outside world, perhaps in abusive intimate relationships, to turning inward where we trust we can feel our feelings and meet ourselves with kindness. Feeling our feelings and meeting ourselves with kindness is an ongoing practice, full of frustrations and successes, a work in progress. But we can be certain of the fact that we really don’t need to be redeemed, by anyone or anything. We are sacred beings, as clear and as bright as a ringing bell.
End Notes The above essay is a sketch, offering digested material others have written reams about. It also addresses the challenges faced by those who experienced trauma in their childhood. If the ideas presented here also resonate with those who experienced other kinds of trauma, so much the better. My hope is that you’ll take what feels useful. Lastly, while I understand we are relational beings who thrive in partnership, friendship, and community, I also understand that those relationships are healthier when unburdened of projections from the past. The above essay is offered in service of that understanding.
The process described above can be effectively navigated through some good psychotherapy. If you’re inspired to make an appointment with me, please click here.
Photo by August Sander