We all become wounded in life. Each one of us is required to inhabit a unique collection of painful memories that retrieve feelings of loss, grief, sorrow, anxiety, and regret. Sometimes the feeling of a painful memory can be so potent that it seems to reach from the past in order to haunt us in the present moment, as if it possessed a secret desire to remind us that our memories are primarily a form of touch. Learning to accommodate the wounds caused by painful memories is a core discipline in life and an essential component in the preservation of our health and wellbeing.
One of the unpleasant requirements of aging is becoming wounded. Pain is an agile creature and a remarkably potent source of fear within the human condition. The experience of pain effortlessly permeates body, mind, and spirit; pain can infiltrate and alter the nature of our thoughts, feelings, attitudes, beliefs, and intentions. To be in pain is to become profoundly aware of our own fragility, vulnerability, and fear.
A painful memory has the potential to metamorphose into the presence of a mercurial apparition that refuses to leave us alone. The pain associated with difficult memories is a remarkable shape-shifter that can effortlessly move across time that can inflict the wounds of fear and discomfort in the here and now. Even the pain associated with a distant memory can become a source of distress that makes us feel constantly threatened and insecure in the world.
In other words, the painful memories that live inside us are never just about the past.
Everyone’s experience of pain is unique and varied; some of us will experience far more pain in life than others. Each one of us inhabits a private universe of painful memories. One of the most potent sources of painful memories is the loss of someone or something we cherish. The sense of grief and loss originating inside these memories retain the potential to alter the feeling of the present moment across the entire arc of our lifetime.
One unfortunate characteristic of painful memories is that they can be remarkably stubborn and persistent; they have the potential to cling to our spirit and coerce us into believing that the past is merciless and must be relived in the here and now. Each time we recollect a painful memory we feel its presence throughout our body as the emergence of stress, tension, and discomfort. This physiological fantasia of touch is the felt-meaning of a memory and the authentic corporeal resonance of the past as it expresses itself inside the immediacy of the present moment.
Painful memories are a potent and sometimes virulent source of felt-meaning throughout the body. To remember a painful memory is to feel its presence as much as it is to mentally recollect the events and circumstances that surround it. Our natural inclination is to avoid pain and we have a remarkable array of pharmaceutical interventions designed to provide pain relief.
However, we cannot medicate a memory.
Ironically, if we attempt to avoid, oppose, or regret the pain associated with a memory we aggravate our distress; the effort we expend to ignore or avoid a painful memory only serves to intensify its influence. Nor can we analyze a painful memory away, that is to say, we cannot intellectualize a memory into the convenient form of a conclusion.
Time heals nothing at all; if the passage of time could heal our painful memories then all we would have to do is wait long enough for the pain to disappear.
Healing painful memories is the art of learning to accommodate the wounds of the past. An important dimension of wellbeing is acknowledging that painful encounters are inevitable in life since part of what it means to be human is to endure pain and suffering. Healing does not mean an absence of pain; healing means the merciful accommodation and acceptance of our wounds through heartfelt self-compassion. Healing is ultimately an act of self-directed kindness and a heartfelt acknowledgement of our imperfections.
Healing painful memories is an act of generosity, and of cultivating a more open and expansive space of being.
This sense of inner hospitality is at the heart of healing and the accommodation of our wounds. In an important sense, healing is the creative and courageous act of opening ourselves to the unmediated experiences of life, even when our experiences become a source of difficulty and suffering.
Healing is a merciful opening of the heart.
The accommodation of painful memories also requires a quieting of the mind. A painful memory is really a source of inspiration for an artistry of the heart, rather than an opportunity for analysis and rumination. There is no greater artistry than the heartfelt creativity of healing. In this sense, the fear, insecurity, and anxiety that live inside our most painful memories become the underlying ground of our own liberation.
Accommodating the wounds of painful memories is an opportunity to practice kindness, generosity, and self-compassion, as if to say that the pain embedded within a memory is really the underlying ground of a necessary pilgrimage into courage, resilience, and beauty. As much as we might secretly wish for our pain to disappear, we know that our real task is to find a meaningful way to accommodate it in our life.
In a vital sense, a painful memory is a liminal frontier, a space for personal transformation, and an opportunity for a soulful release from our suffering. Of course, we will not always be successful and from time to time the felt-meaning that hides within a painful memory will bring us down, sometimes to our knees.
And it is here, on our knees, that we must accommodate our wounds with the heartfelt self-directed generosity of kindness, compassion, and love.