Embodied Transformation & Evolution

Unwinding the Past ~ The Healing Medicine of True Apology

Posted by on Sep 18, 2018 in Featured Writing, Lifeletters & Articles | 1 comment

Unwinding the Past  ~ The Healing Medicine of True Apology

I have been interested, for a long time, in what it actually takes to heal the past. Not just to stuff it away and pretend that it’s gone, but to actually dissolve its power over us. As William Faulkner famously said, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” Easy to say, “Let it go, start again, it’s new moment.” Not so easy to actually inhabit the fresh bright energy in this radical place of new beginnings. Transforming our relationship with the past is the way we create a new future. But how do we do it?

One essential part of this healing is learning to make amends, to offer a true apology. A real apology is like healing water, gently pouring over a wound. When we behave in ways that are unkind, unskillful and uncaring, we leave scars behind. Those scars don’t melt away very easily. Sometimes they last for generations, as we have learned from the science of epigenetics recently. I have witnessed these scars, these energies that get frozen, in my family, in my communities, and in our collective field. Years later, people are still holding on, still suffering, still feeling deep antagonism towards each other. The wound has not been healed, only covered over. The work of repair, of making amends, has not been done. A real apology has not yet happened.

A friend of mine asked me recently, “Who is the apology for?” I had to sit with that for quite a while, before I could answer. What I came to is that whenever I have made a real apology, it was for the other person. It was an act of love that emerged from the depths of my care for them. And that is a paradox, because I have no control over the other person’s response. They may not be able to hear or receive what I am saying. All I can do is offer it, and hope that they are able to hear, even just a bit of it. If they can hear me at all, something beautiful happens to them. If they cannot or will not hear me, something beautiful still happens to me. So even though the apology is not about me, even though I am not doing it so that I will feel better, the offering I make pours its medicine into my being. I am not the same, after a genuine apology. I am not the same because I have to strip myself down, and get very naked, in order to make real amends. Any trace of dodge and weave, any attempt to explain or justify myself, and the space between us will instantly close down. A real apology is like a deep bow, with my belly pressed flat against the earth.

A few months ago I hurt a friend. My first apology didn’t work. Happily, my friend, who is smart and evolved, let me know why. Instantly I recognized what I had done, and remembered what a real apology was. I offered it to her in the best way I knew how, and she heard it. I got lucky that day. Perhaps we both did. Since then, I’ve been struggling to articulate all of this clearly, wondering where to turn for help in putting into words what I was realizing.

A while ago, walking one afternoon with my daughter in the blossoms of early spring, she gave me the gift I was looking for. She told me about something she read in a book by Amy Poehler, of Saturday Night Live. Amy did a skit on the show that went sideways, and deeply hurt and offended someone. That someone was a woman Amy knew and respected. Amy was so horrified by what she had done that she couldn’t deal with it for a while. She felt so much shame that she just shut down, buried all the pain, and carried on. (Does this sound familiar?)

A little while later she realized that she had to say “I’m sorry.” During the whole process of offering this apology, Amy learned the difference between a true apology and one that is not: “Your brain is not your friend when you need to apologize.” This is the heart of the matter.

What the intellect wants to do is explain, defend, avoid the intensity of the feelings. It wants to list all of the reasons that I was such a jerk. It wants to shout these justifications from the rooftops, so everyone can hear that I am really not so bad. Amy says, “My heart told quite a different story.”

When I drop into the heart, I find at last, the place I need to apologize from. It’s a naked, very vulnerable place. There are no excuses here, there are no defences. I don’t get to say, “You didn’t hear what I really meant,” or, “I am not who you think I am.” In this wide-open, transparent, trembling place, I simply acknowledge whatever it was that I did, or didn’t do, and what the consequences of that have been. It’s not easy to do. Amy says, “It’s hard to do it without digging yourself in deeper. It’s scary, and we want to avoid the pain. We want so badly to plead our case and tell our story.”

It’s actually astounding what can happen when we open ourselves to another human being in this way. I have seen a woman pull the murderer of her beloved daughter into her arms, and hold him as they both wept. These miracles are not imagination. They are one of the most real and amazing things we can participate in, on this planet. We actually can rewrite our past, allow ourselves to be washed clean.

We walk around carrying the weight of the past, without even knowing we are doing it, most of the time. It’s a heavy burden we have just got used to. One that we inherited from our parents and ancestors. As the past unwinds, it’s amazing how light we start to feel. The buoyancy can be disorienting, destabilizing.

Woman being tossed in the air..vasily-koloda--unsplash

This process comes with no guarantees. Our apology may come too little or too late. It may never find a place to land, in the heart of the person it was offered to. And I believe that every single time we make this kind of offering, from the deep vulnerability of our heart, something changes. A drop of truth, of mercy, of humility, falls into the great ocean we swim in together. The scars we all live with start to melt and dissolve.

Trust your wound to a teacher’s (God) surgery.
Flies collect on a wound.
They cover it, those flies of your self-protecting feelings,
your love for what you think is yours.
Let a teacher wave away the flies and put a plaster on the wound.
Don’t turn your head.
Keep looking at the bandaged place.
That’s where
the light enters you.
And don’t believe for a moment that you’re healing yourself.
—Rumi

Photo credit: Vasily Koloda on Unsplash

with love,
Shayla

One Comment

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  1. Lyn Merryfeather

    Thank you for this. It is so very true. Who is the apology for is a great question, since I often find it is for me. Unless I offer it sincerely for the other, it won’t be for me. I want to “get it off my chest”, and forget that sometimes it can weigh heavily on the other person’s chest unless it is truly for them.
    Bless you for the work you do. It does make a difference to me.

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