Letting Go of Blame and Judgment: Emotional Transformation through Zen with Len
July 17, 2016
Many years ago, I experienced betrayal, pain and anger about something that someone did. I did not have the tools or life experience to fully understand my reactions - much less transform them - at the time, and the memory of the episode has resurfaced periodically, re-triggering unresolved emotions. The most recent recurrence began last October, disrupting my ability to sleep and negatively impacting other dimensions of my life over several months. The spell was finally broken during a retreat in January that was organized and led by my good friend, Kensho Len Silverston, promising - and delivering - emotional transformation. I wanted to share some of the insights and experiences that contributed to my breakthrough(s) that weekend.
I went into the retreat filled with blame and judgment: blaming the other person for causing my pain and anger, and judging that what the other person did was wrong. The intensity of my righteous indignation was magnified by the person's unwillingness to admit any wrongdoing or express any regret about the episode. I knew it was up to me to resolve whatever lingering emotions I was holding on to - as Tara Brach so aptly puts it, the boundary to what we can accept is the boundary to our freedom - and it was increasingly clear, after several months of disequilibrium, that I needed help. When the student was ready, the retreat appeared.
Meditation, Yoga and Qigong
The Zen with Len retreat consisted of several days of meditation, gentle yoga and Qigong sessions - all interleaved so as to balance our focus on mind and body - as well as special sessions exploring a number of other practices Len has found helpful in his own emotional transformations. Most meditation sessions were a half hour long - a bit of a stretch for me, as I had previously only sat for a maximum of 20 minutes at a time, but not out of my comfort zone - and I found the yoga sessions were similarly within my comfort zone, offering opportunities to gently push the edges.
While I have practiced meditation and yoga (with varying degrees of dedication) before, the Qigong exercises - a type of moving meditation - were new to me. One exercise, in particular, seemed like it was custom designed for what I was seeking at the retreat, and proved to be one of the most significant sources of breakthrough: an invitation to bring into consciousness something we want to let go, and then manifesting the letting go through movement (not just words). I'll embed a 15-minute Qigong video Len made after the retreat below; the letting go exercise can be found around the 9:55 mark.
The Qigong exercises were repeated several times throughout the weekend, and for each iteration of the letting go exercise, I alternated between letting go of blaming the other person, and letting go of my judgment of what the other person did. By the end of the weekend, I succeeded in letting go of both. However, I soon found that the blame and judgment were simply redirected toward me: how could I have tormented myself all these years? Fortunately, there were other tools provided during the weekend to help with this.
One of the special afternoon sessions was on Mondo Zen, a protocol adapted from ancient Zen principles by Len's teacher, Jun Po, to facilitate the awakening of Clear Deep Heart / Mind through a process of koans. The process - detailed in the Mondo Zen training manual - is divided into two parts. The first part, Ego Deconstruction/Reconstruction Koans, is designed to help loosen one's grip on traditional ways of seeing, understanding and acting and arrive at a state of "not knowing". I had worked through similar processes in the Warrior Monk retreat I attended several years ago, and found the refresher helpful. However it was the second part, Emotional Awareness Intervention Koans, that really set the stage for the transformation I experienced.
The resurgence of the episode that brought me to the retreat triggered a number of different reactions at different times: anger, pain, shame and dissociation. In Mondo Zen, I learned that
- No one can make me angry, shame me or cause me to dissociate / disconnect
- Any anger, shame and/or disconnection I feel is a reaction to fear and/or sadness
- Fear and/or grief is rooted in deep caring
I also learned that all of these emotions involve some kind of violence:
- Anger is violence against others
- Shame is violence against myself
- Disconnection is violence against a relationship
Through the 2-hour Mondo Zen exercise during the retreat - a highly abbreviated, but effective, version of what is typically a multi-day retreat of its own - I was able to
- Understand and accept that I reacted with anger, shame and disconnection to the past episode
- Take full responsibility for my reactions
- Recognize and take responsibility for the harm I have caused myself and others through my anger, shame and disconnection
- Accept that the other person did nothing wrong
All of these new insights reinforced my ability - and willingness - to let go of blame and judgment.
Another practice Len introduced in a special session was Voice Dialogue. We all have a multitude of voices in our heads, each representing different selves or parts of our personality. Each voice serves us in some positive way, and each voice has a different level of prominence in each of us, both in general and in the context of any particular inner conversation. Each voice can be harmful if allowed to commandeer the conversation to the exclusion of other voices. Disowning or rejecting any voice can also be harmful, as the abandoned voice will always find some way to leak out and express itself. We also have a higher self, or "True Nature", that serves as a moderator of our inner dialogues. I like to think of the voices as an inner program committee or board of directors, and my "True Nature" as the chairman of the board.
As I understand it, there are a few different variations on the number and specific labelings of voices. The one Len used was from the book - and associated deck of 52 cards (each representing a different voice) - Selves in a Box. I think the most important aspect of the practice of Voice Dialogue is not so much the specific labels that are used for different voices, but the act of explicitly labeling the voices itself, and the way this differentiation enables one to identify and consciously moderate among the voices ... a manifestation of the principle I have heard articulated by several different spiritual teachers (including Tara Brach and Dan Seigel):"If you can name it, you can tame it".
Among the most prominent voices on my board of directors (in alphabetical order) are
- The Accommodator
- The Critic
- The Judge
- The Loner
- The Perfectionist
- The Romantic
- The Sensitive
- The Thinker
- The Vulnerable Child
I have very loud and strident Critic (inwardly directed) and Judge (outwardly directed) voices. As I mentioned above, when I let go of blame and judgment of the other person, I redirected the blame and judgment toward myself, unconsciously shifting the leading voice of that inner conversation from the Judge to the Critic. Recognizing the rise of the Critic enabled me (or my True Nature) to explicitly call upon The Nurturer to comfort The Vulnerable Child so that I could better practice self-acceptance and self-forgiveness ... a challenging practice that is still unfolding for me.
The Demartini Breakthrough Experience
The final special session that Len led us through was an abbreviated version of the Demartini "Breakthrough" Experience, which is another process that is typically offered in a multi-day retreat of its own.
The Breakthrough process is based on the recognition that all traits have costs and benefits, and so traits I judge as "bad" also offer benefits to me and others. The process involves a sometimes painful investigation into what those hidden benefits might be. During the retreat, I chose to work on the trait of remorselessness in the person I had formerly blamed for my anger and pain, a trait I had previously labeled as uniformly bad.
Through an iterative process of excavation through layers of resistance, I came to recognize that this trait provided me a number of benefits, including:
- Teaching me how to be unapologetically true to oneself (vs. consumed with people pleasing or accommodation of others)
- Teaching me that it is OK to do what one wants, without undue regard for how someone else might feel about it, if it does not violate an agreement or directly harm another person
- Teaching me that one cannot depend on anyone else for validation
- Offering me an unsought opportunity to accept full responsibility for my reactions, which I can apply to other situations in which I experience betrayal, anger and/or pain
This last point represents a significant and unexpected breakthrough, helping to reinforce some of the other dimensions of transformation I experienced during the retreat. If the other person had expressed remorse, it would have vindicated my feelings of blame and judgment, enabling me to avoid looking any more deeply into my emotional reactions, and thereby avoid taking responsibility for them. The lessons to be true to myself, not depend on others for validation, and take full responsibility for my reaction are lessons that have been repeated at various times, in various ways and at various costs over many years.
I believe the prolonged intensity of pain that preceded the latest course offering was necessary for the breakdown that facilitated the breakthrough, and I am grateful for the timely, multi-dimensional learnings offered at the Zen with Len retreat.