As we construct our identities, we tend to reinforce certain interpretations of our experiences, such as, “No one was there for me, so I must be unlovable.” These interpretations become ingrained in our minds and validated by the heated reactions of our bodies. And so they begin to define us. We forget that we’re constantly changing and that we have the power to make and remake the story of who we are. But when we do remember, the results can be dramatic and turn our lives around.
For years, Stephanie struggled with insomnia. When she was in her early thirties, her doctor prescribed a blood pressure–lowering medication for her persistent migraines. The trouble was Stephanie already had low blood pressure, and the drug made it drop even further, making her so anxious that she felt as if she would die if she let herself fall asleep. Instead of identifying the real source of the problem, her physician prescribed sleeping pills. By the time Stephanie consulted another doctor (who immediately discontinued the blood pressure medication), she was hooked on sleeping pills — and remained addicted to them for the next 20 years.
“I hated myself for taking them and tried so many times to stop, but I just couldn’t,” she recalls. “I truly believed that there was something inherently wrong with me and that my body no longer had the capacity to sleep without chemicals. The nights I tried not to take the pills, I’d lie awake for hours, panicking, drenched in sweat, until I finally just gave up and reached for the drug.”
But two years ago, when Stephanie started reading news stories about the dangers of sleeping pills, she became determined to stop taking them. She began meditating more regularly and tried every imaginable herbal remedy; still, she struggled and relapsed off and on for months. It wasn’t until Stephanie identified — and questioned — the story she’d been telling herself about how she couldn’t sleep unaided by drugs that she successfully weaned herself off them. “When I finally saw clearly that I’d been held captive by this story that was just a story and not the truth, it was as if a lightbulb went on. For the first time in 20 years, I was able to trust my ability to let go and fall asleep on my own,” she says.
Ultimately, we’re the only ones who can take a familiar story, one that is encoded in our bodies and minds, and turn it around.
Nancy Napier, a trauma therapist, talks about working with people who have been through what she calls “shock trauma,” a huge life disruption — from dangerous situations, like a terrible car accident or plane crash, to more everyday events, like getting laid off or a breakup in a relationship, that are perceived as huge. The key piece, Napier tells me, is that people’s ordinary lives have been destabilized, and their expectations feel like they have been ripped apart. One of the first things she often says to her clients who have experienced trauma is “you survived.” “You’d be amazed at how many people for whom that is a real surprise,” Napier explains.
If I were choosing captions for snapshots of my early life, they would look like this: “Motherless child.” “Abandoned.” “My mentally ill father.” “Raised by first-generation immigrants.” “I don’t know how to be like everyone else.” Pain, upheaval, and fear brought me to seek a new story through meditation.
One of my meditation teachers was an extraordinary Indian woman named Dipa Ma. She became my role model of someone who endured crushing loss and came through it with enormous love. Her whole path of meditation was propelled by loss — first, the deaths of two of her children, and then the sudden death of her beloved husband. Dipa Ma was so grief-stricken that she just gave up and went to bed, even though she still had a daughter to raise.
One day Dipa Ma’s doctor told her, “You’re going to die unless you do something about your mental state. You should learn how to meditate.” The story is told that when she first went to practice meditation, Dipa Ma was so weak that she had to crawl up the temple stairs to get inside.
Eventually, Dipa Ma emerged from her grief with enormous wisdom and compassion, and in 1972, she became one of my central teachers.
One day in 1974, I went to say goodbye to her before leaving India for a brief trip to the United States. I was convinced I’d soon return and spend the rest of my life in India. Dipa Ma took my hand and said, “Well, when you go to America, you’ll be teaching meditation.”
“No, I won’t,” I replied. “I’m coming right back.” She said, “Yes, you will.” And I said, “No, I won’t. I can’t do that.” We went on this way, back and forth.
Finally, Dipa Ma held my gaze and said two crucial things. First, she said, “You really understand suffering. That’s why you should teach.” This remark was an essential catalyst that enabled me to reframe my story: The years of upheaval and loss were not just something I had to get over, but a potential source of wisdom and compassion that could be used to help me help others. My suffering might even be some kind of credential! The second thing Dipa Ma said was this: “You can do anything you want to do. It’s your thinking that you can’t do it that’s stopping you.” What a different slant on my usual story of incapacity, incompleteness, and not being enough! I carried Dipa Ma’s farewell message with me back to the United States. It set the course for the rest of my life.
To say I am grateful for the things I went through in childhood is a bridge too far for me. But I know those experiences are what allow me to connect to people, heart to heart.
To truly love ourselves, we must treat our stories with respect but not allow them to have a stranglehold on us, so that we free our mutable present and beckoning future from the past.
To truly love ourselves, we must open to our wholeness, rather than clinging to the slivers of ourselves represented by old stories. Living in a story of a limited self — to any degree — is not love.
To truly love ourselves, we must challenge our beliefs that we need to be different or inherently better to be worthy of love. When we contort ourselves, doggedly trying to find some way to become okay, our capacity to love shrinks, and our attempts to improve ourselves fill the space that could be filled with love.
Maybe we don’t need to correct some terrible deficiency. Maybe what we really need is to change our relationship to what is, to see who we are with the strength of a generous spirit and a wise heart. St. Augustine said, “If you are looking for something that is everywhere, you don’t need travel to get there; you need love.”