…. some version of: ‘I’m so sorry that happened to you’ and sometimes: ‘imagine what you would be like if that hadn’t happened.’
In regards to the first response, ‘I’m so sorry…’, it is understandable that the natural reaction is to share sympathy, but I have had time to learn that I would not be who I am without all of those experiences, even the most terrible of them. A lot of people who have survived rough times in their lives share the belief that everything happens for a reason. This is most certainly one of the most difficult beliefs to maintain because it requires faith that regardless of how terrifying a situation or circumstance may be in your life, the lessons and growth you derive from it are invaluable. Your very idea of self, who you are, and the comfort of not having to question what your place is in the world becomes a much easier obstacle to tackle. Defining yourself in this way, by what you are not, what you have survived, and how you have grown is a spiritual relief of sorts, and a significant strength that becomes embedded in your person (soul).
I’ve always thought to myself that I don’t ask the question of who I might be without a given bad experience because it is not only a moot point, but I find no value in thinking what I might be when I should be focusing my thoughts and energy into who I will and want to become.
It struck me as I was reading an article about a Tantric yoga text that another reason I may not have let myself ponder who I might be, if I was dealt different cards, because a deep part of me knew that if I started down that path, it would be a dangerous descent into the darkness that is self-pity. As I kept reading the article, which explained the yogic belief that our soul is made up of five sheaths, described like ‘layers of an onion’*, I began to realize how lucky I am. Not that I am calling myself ‘self-actualized’ but the experiences have given me, in the very least, a necessary amount of control over my thoughts. I almost think it might be a mental survival mechanism of sorts, where some part of you that you are not entirely aware of guides you away from a mentality that could be very dangerous for your well-being.
In the text, however, there was a point where I noticed an alternative to the explanation I had given myself throughout my life. The article gave suggestions of exercises you could do to become more aware of the individual sheaths. In the author’s description of the ‘manomaya kosha’ or mental body, she explains that our thoughts and behaviors are generally set in fixed patterns. In order to become more aware of these patterns and grow out of unwanted mental reactions that have previously been out of our control, she offers a method developed by a spiritual teacher named Byron Katie. The exercise is to pick a situation in your life that has ‘a charge to it,’ meaning a strong positive of negative effect on your mental self, write down your thoughts about it and for each thought, ask yourself ‘what would I be without this thought?’ This is followed by the suggestion that you become aware of your energy, breathing, and emotions while you are considering the event and its effects on your mental self. Finally, she advises you to consciously, with intention, replace your previous reactions and thoughts with ones that are more positive and empowering. The examples she gives are what really inspired me to explore this further: ‘I am free to choose my attitudes’ and ‘There is another way to see this.’ These statements can make or break me on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes it is incredibly difficult to overcome mental resistance and the tendency of your mind to harbor those natural thoughts and negative reactions.
The truth is that being intentional with your thoughts, meaning to see something in the best light and keep the lightness in your step and freedom in mind is like anything else, something you build up over time, where it becomes easier and more natural as your fixed patterns become determined by what you intend and not how you react. It is the difference between turning out as the bad seed because of a series of unfortunate circumstances that have plagued your life since you were born, or becoming the beacon of light you hope to be, where people you love admire how well you have turned out, in spite of all of the bad stuff. What I tell all of them now, as proud of myself as I am for living through some bad things, is that I am who I am because of all of those things, not in spite of them. I would never have learned to guide my thoughts in a positive direction, nor that I have that control. Most importantly, I would not be so firmly and whole-heartedly invested in always growing and being positive because I would not have needed to be, and I would not trade that for anything.
*yoga journal. ‘getting to know you.’ Sally Kempton. Issue 219, May 2009. Pp.59-6