How to turn hate and fear into love

How to turn hate and fear into love

One of the most difficult things I’ve done is learn how to love the person who abused me.

When I was 26 years old, I made the incredibly difficult decision to cut my mother out of my life. In child abuse survivor circles, this is often called going “no contact” or NC and it was not a decision that was made lightly. In fact, it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made.

I’d tried everything I could think of — writing her letters, talking things through, therapy for myself, and family therapy with her and my sister. I desperately wanted a relationship with my mom, and I didn’t want to go through life without that type of support. The idea of not having a mom in my life felt so freakish and lonely, so I was trying anything I could to salvage a workable relationship so that I could have her in my life.

Finally, after a typical abusive episode at a restaurant where she loudly told me what I was wearing made me look fat, repulsive, hideous, and disgusting and she couldn’t imagine how I could let people see me in public like that (for the record — it was a nice skirt and blouse that I often wore to the office), I decided I’d had enough.

I was at a loss. How do you go about divorcing your mother? How do you deal with the guilt, the anger, the loss, and the intense emotional pain?

When I asked people who I thought of as older and wiser, the response was often, “But she’s your mother! You can’t cut her off. I don’t care how horrible she was to you, she’s still your mother.” I was told by so many well-meaning people that once I’d had my own kids, I’d understand how you simply CAN’T cut your own mother off. Then, they’d give me suggestions for how to work things out that I’d tried 1000 times before.

No one I knew seemed to have any answers.

And while I know they didn’t understand the depth of the abuse, and the lengths to which I’d gone to salvage the relationship, they were right about one thing. She was still my mother. I needed to figure out a way to relate to her in my own psyche, even if she wasn’t in my life. So what could I do?

About a year later, I found myself at my first meditation training. The instructor was B. Allan Wallace, a Buddhist monk who seemed like he may have some answers. One day I asked if I could eat lunch with him and talk to him about something I was wrestling with, in my life. I gave him a brief account of my childhood, my mom, and all the things I’d tried to do to repair our relationship. To my surprise, even after that brief account, he didn’t try to suggest new ways to repair it or even question my decision to go no contact. He paused for a minute and then said, “Sometimes the only way to have people in our life is to send them compassion from afar. And that isn’t nothing — sending someone the energy of compassion can be very healing.” At the time I thought he meant healing for my mom, but I’ve now come to realize he meant healing for me, too.

So I practiced sending her the Buddhist prayer of Mettā each time I thought of her (which was still many times per day).

“May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May you find happiness and the causes of happiness.” 

I repeated this over and over, through tears, through rage, through confusion, through grief, and through loneliness.

Finally, I started to understand. I could be furious at how she treated me and also have compassion for her suffering. I could be brokenhearted and also have compassion for how miserable she clearly was. I could hate her for what she did to me and also have compassion for what had happened to her to create such psychological instability in her own mind.

And I could do the same for myself. I could feel broken and depressed and also have compassion for myself. I could feel shame and also have compassion for myself. I could hear her abusive voice in my head, now my own inner critic, and also have compassion for myself.

Compassion can exist at the same time as anger, grief, hatred, and shame. Fondness or affection is not a prerequisite for compassion. In fact, seeing someone in their wholeness, both the “good” and “bad” parts of them, is a huge part of compassion.

And beyond that, once you feel compassion for someone else’s suffering, even love can exist at the same time as anger, grief, hatred, and shame. You can love the part of them that hurts, the part that is suffering, and in this way, you can move towards healing the pain.

“I would like my life to be a statement of love and compassion–and where it isn’t, that’s where my work lies.”

― Ram Dass

What Ram Dass is saying here is essentially the same thing that Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” It is possible to have love in your heart, no matter what someone has done to you.

It took me YEARS to get to a place where when I thought of my mother, I was able to send her love. Now, don’t get me wrong —  I was still angry, sad, confused, and traumatized (sometimes all at once) but at the same time I was feeling all of that, I was also able to feel compassion for her suffering, and then from there, eventually, I could feel love for her.

My mother died earlier this summer. I hadn’t spoken to her in over 15 years, but when I heard she was dying, I went to the hospital to say goodbye. It took 30 minutes of meditation in the hospital parking lot to regulate my nervous system so I wasn’t about to have a panic attack, but once I felt centered, I went in.

I told her I loved her, and I meant it. She asked what had happened, why we hadn’t spoken in so long. I looked at her and said, honestly, “Our relationship caused me too much anxiety. I couldn’t handle it, so I pulled away.” She said she wished it had been different. I cried and told her I did, too.

And then I held her hand and told her all the things I loved about her. And I told her all the things I knew others loved about her, too.

She denied it all. She said, “Oh, come on” and waved me away.

I know mom. I know you never felt worthy of love. I know that’s why you tormented me, and I can see that through the eyes of compassion now. Hurt people hurt people, until we break the generational cycle.

So, I’m here to break that cycle. I’m here to “be a statement of love and compassion.” In many ways, mom, you were the hardest place to do that work. You were the person who did the most damage to me and so you were also the hardest person for me to love. But I thank you for that lesson because you know what? Now that I know how to feel compassion for you, I can feel that same love for everyone I meet.

I understand that loving someone has nothing to do with agreeing with their actions, their beliefs, or their words and, instead, has everything to do with seeing them in their wholeness and that simple Mettā prayer of compassion:

“May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May you find happiness and the causes of happiness.”

Xo Megan

My secret weapon for staying balanced

Over the past 10 years I have been practicing mindfulness.  It has made a world of difference in how I interact with others and how I process all the ups and downs of life. It has helped me to remain balanced and have a perspective that I never knew I could have. Mindfulness has given me a space where I can observe myself, the situation, and my reaction and actually choose how I want to proceed before I get caught up in the whirlwind of  automatically reacting with anger, anxiety or fear.

Mindfulness is basically about keeping your thoughts and awareness on what’s going on right now. By right now, I mean at this exact moment. No, wait! That one just passed. Okay, this exact moment. D’oh! That one passed too. Okay, this exact moment.

You get the picture. Mindfulness is about only paying attention and letting your thoughts be about this exact second. Any moment that has passed or any moment in the future should not be occupying your thoughts or feelings. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction said that mindfulness is, “bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis.”

This is harder than it would first appear because we are trying to go against what our mind has been trained to do. Our minds fill our day with all sorts of thoughts. What should I eat for lunch? Did I remember to pay my cell phone bill? I wonder if my friend is annoyed at me? I flaked on her and now I haven’t heard from her in a few days. That guy is cute, I wonder if he’s single?

Mindfulness is about having those thoughts, feelings, stressors come up… and then letting them go as the moment passes. Mindfulness isn’t about not having thoughts. Asking your mind to stop having thoughts would be like asking your heart to stop beating. That’s its job! Your mind will have thoughts, but if you let them go, if you don’t allow them to carry you on a tangent of worry or stress or guilt, then you won’t feel the emotional and physical ramifications of that tangent. You will simply have the thought, and let it go. The thoughts won’t be able to suck you down the rabbit hole of stress, fear and worry.

Mindfulness has been shown to have a number of beneficial physical effects when practiced on a regular basis. It can decrease anxiety and stress, increase focus and memory, increase creativity, and increase both self-compassion and compassion for others. That’s a lot of good stuff, isn’t it?

There are a lot of good resources on the web for starting a mindfulness practice. I want to stress here that the key word is practice. When you first start out, your mind will wander like crazy. Don’t stress out or get annoyed with yourself. Just say, “thank you, mind, for doing such a good job of thinking. However, right now, I’m trying my best to not get caught up in thoughts.” And then, gently and lovingly, bring yourself back to your mindfulness practice.

Here is a simple mindfulness practice you can do while eating. I’ve used raisins here, but you could use the same idea with any food.

Mindfulness Raisin Exercise

People often don’t notice what they are eating or whether they are still hungry. While they are eating, they may be talking on the phone or doing work or playing around on the computer. What if you just ate and did nothing else for a change? Mindful eating involves noticing how and what you eat, from one bite to an entire meal. By taking the time to eat your food, you can begin to learn what foods actually taste like and which ones you like and dislike.

To try eating mindfully, take three raisins. Look at these raisins as something you have never seen before. Set two of the raisins aside and take the third in your hand. Look at what you are about to eat. Think about how it got to you. Think about the seed that was planted to grown the plant. Imagine the roots sprouting from the seed and the leaves pushing up through the soil and to the sun. Think of the sun’s warmth and energy, feeding the grapevine as it grows. Think of the farmers who tended to this plant, watering it, feeding it and pruning it. Think of a grape, growing on this vine, becoming plump and sweet, full of juice. Think of the person who picked this grape and placed it in a basket. Think of the people who laid the grapes out in the sun for days, allowing them to become raisins. Think of the person who drove these raisins to the market, the person who stocked them on the shelves.

Give thanks for what you are about to eat. How do you feel about putting these raisins in your body? How does your body feel, knowing that you are going to eat?

Use your senses to experience this raisin. Notice what it looks like. Roll it around in your hand; what does it feel like? Hold it to your nose; what does it smell like? Place it near your ear; can you hear anything? If you move it between your fingers, can you hear something now?

Place the raisin against your lips, then lick your lips and notice the taste it has left. Put the raisin into your mouth without chewing it. Close your eyes, if you like, and let it roll around on your tongue. Put it between your teeth and feel it there, without biting into it yet. Notice any saliva that is present. Pay attention to the change in the raisin’s texture after it has been in your mouth for a bit.

Bite into the raisin, noticing any tastes you experience. Slowly chew it for as long as you can. Right before you swallow, notice what it feels like to want to swallow this raisin. When you are ready, swallow the raisin. Notice that it is now in your body.

If you notice yourself getting distracted by your thoughts, take a moment and refocus on the raisin. Repeat this process with the remaining two raisins.

You can follow these steps with any food of your choosing, from one bite to an entire meal.

What are some tools that you use to stay balanced? Share your ideas in the comments below so we can all try them out!