AHAs!

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I love those rare and often serendipitous moments when I see something in a new way for the first time. I wish that I could plan them but I guess, by definition, an AHA! has to come to us. Perhaps the most we can do to facilitate them is to remain open and not ignore them when they are jumping up and down waving their arms in front of us to pay attention.

One of my most memorable AHAs! came during my first personal growth seminar. The program had started on a Friday night and by late Saturday afternoon, I was tired, antsy, and cynical, muttering complaints under my breath about everything from the temperature of the room to the workshop leaders’ over inflated sense of purpose and drama. I judged the seminar to be a cheap imitation of EST, precursor to Landmark’s Forum and the seminar that anyone who was “in the scene” in the San Francisco Bay Area was taking back in 1982. Why hadn’t I signed up for the “real thing”? I had two reasons (excuses): First, I had heard that you weren’t free to go to the bathroom at EST seminars. If you had to go, it meant that you were trying to distract yourself from “getting it.” Having had numerous infections that had scarred my bladder, I wasn’t willing to prove anything to anyone about my lofty intentions if the pressure was on, so to speak. Secondly, my close friend was doing this seminar because her boyfriend had just done it and raved about it. I was willing to be dragged along to just about anything that mixed psychology and spirituality as long as I could go to the bathroom (or leave). Her boyfriend assured us that the doors to the seminar room would not be locked or guarded.

Saturday afternoon was now becoming Saturday evening and, while I had enjoyed the experience so far, I hadn’t felt that engaged. As I squirmed in my metal chair and offered a dramatic yawn (hint, hint), I heard one of the seminar assistants announce the next process. “For the next hour, one by one you will get up and walk to the middle of the stage. Everyone in the audience will shout out their judgments of you. You will not answer or speak. Just stand there until the room gets quiet again. Then sit down.”

What the @#&%*!? Who gives anyone the right to judge me? I can’t yell mine out at anyone else. They’ll hate me and say worse things back to me. I didn’t sign up for this. What good could possibly come from this ridiculous exercise? These people are full of @%#@&*!

Okay, so maybe I wasn’t really very open to an AHA! in that moment. Sometimes they arrive via two by fours, not magic wands, I guess. I sat frozen in panic, the sweat trickling down my armpits. I thought about getting up and walking out, reminding myself that since I had paid for this seminar, I had the freedom to leave it at any time. Remembering that I had a choice calmed me ever so slightly as the first brave soul walked up onto the stage for his haranguing. At first, no one said anything to him. In fact, you could have heard the proverbial pin drop in the room. The silence was broken by one of the assistants, who shouted some insult that made me wince. I couldn’t look at my fellow participant’s face, imagining the humiliation this barb had caused. Another assistant barked something. Then a participant chimed in. Traitor, I thought. If you hadn’t played into their hands, this would be over sooner rather than later. Suddenly, to my horror, shouts pierced the air from all directions. I kept my eyes on the floor for as long as I could stand it. When I did look up at the participant who was being forced to endure this agony, I was shocked to see him smiling. What is he, a masochist? A minute later the shouts subsided. As he walked off the stage, he said, “That was unbelievably liberating. Thank you.”

This didn’t compute. He had just been verbally abused by people who, minutes earlier, had pretended to be comrades. Why didn’t he feel betrayed? I knew I would if/when it got to be my turn. Which it eventually did…

I tried to hide my shaking knees as I took a deep breath, readying myself for the onslaught of insults. I didn’t want to look anyone in the eye just in case I started crying or my cheeks flushed. So I stared at the red light on the big coffeepot in the back of the room. By now, having warmed up to whatever this exercise was supposed to teach us, everyone began giving me their best shots fast and furiously. I noticed that when people talked over each other, I was annoyed. In spite of myself, I wanted to hear their thoughts and opinions about me. Some of them were pretty far out there. Others were downright funny to me. Others were inspired or witty, even if they didn’t feel particularly “true.” I realized that some people were attacking me with judgments I might have yelled at them if I’d been participating (which I hadn’t).

After a couple of minutes, I thought, I can handle this. It’s not so bad.Then the room quieted down. Each time that had happened before my turn, the seminar leader would say his one and only judgment. I was actually looking forward to whatever insight he thought he might have. I looked at him. He smiled slowly, meeting my gaze, and said gently, “One too many chocolates, Jane?”

Before I had a chance to think, I burst into tears. No, you don’t need to reread what he said. And it wasn’t the way he said it either. It hit me below the belt because it mirrored the biggest judgment I had on myself: I hated my body and shamed myself constantly for it. Yet I wasn’t fat. I wasn’t even really overweight. In fact, I was in pretty good shape. How did he know how I felt about my body? I had spent so much energy staying fit and trying to come across confidently. If a stranger could see through me so easily, what was the use?

AHA! I couldn’t put that moment of enlightened understanding into words right away. I just knew it was profound and that something in me had changed forever. In fact, I’ve spent the last twenty-six years teaching, coaching, giving speeches, and writing about it. If I distill it into one cogent thought, it is what the Buddhists said so wisely centuries ago: No enemy can harm us as much as our own worst thoughts.

There are implications of this realization that are still being revealed to me today. Some of them include:
1. If someone’s judgment hurts or offends me, it is ONLY because it is mirroring a judgment I already have about myself.
2. Whatever I judge myself for, others will pick up on it, whether I try to hide it or not. So I may as well stop wasting my energy pretending anything.
3. Changing the outer me is fine but healing the inner me is necessary for true transformation.
4. Judging myself hurts my Self. The Self is too precious to abuse.
5. I have the power and obligation to choose what I think about myself. No one else’s rejection of me could possibly impact me as much as my own rejection.
6. If I want others to love me, my end of the bargain is to both think and behave in self-loving ways.
7. I am free to take risks as well as make mistakes when I no longer depend on others’ perceptions or approval.

I wrote in Enough Is Enough! that all our judgments are real yet none of them are true. I hope that this has even deeper meaning than ever for you.
Namaste.

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