In the fifth talk of our Fall Program series based on See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love1 by Valarie Kaur, Rev. Joanne encourages us to love ourselves through releasing that which no longer serves us.
Having studied and talked about the first two of three legs that comprise Revolutionary Love - love for the “other” and love for opponents – Rev. Joanne discusses what, for some people, may be the most difficult aspect of practicing Revolutionary Love, loving ourselves.
When we find ourselves in situations where there is someone or something that we view as being in opposition to us, whether it is a specific act of an individual or a set of beliefs with which we do not agree, it can sometimes be difficult for us to remove ourselves from the thoughts and feelings that we have about them. There are many things that contribute to this, including how recent the occurrence and to what degree it affects our daily lives. Kaur tells us that when we are experiencing a difficulty, a darkness of the tomb, it is helpful to breathe in the moment and then push through the work. By doing so, she says, we can transform the darkness of the tomb into a darkness of the womb, where something new can be born.
Breathing is the ultimate way of being in the present moment. We cannot breathe in the past or breathe in the future, only in the here and now. It is also only in the here and now that the work Kaur mentions can be done. The start of that work, says Kaur, is to recognize that when uncomfortable feelings arise, instead of pushing them away, sit with them and simply breathe through them. She uses the metaphor of childbirth to liken the idea that just like breathing through the pain and difficulty of giving birth eases the process, so too breathing through any difficult situation eases the process of our opening to the revolutionary love that will be born in us as a result.
When we have experienced a personal trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse, Rev. Joanne tells us that when we encounter a similar situation again, the amygdala in our brains trigger a fight, flight, or freeze response. This is nature’s way of protecting us from additional harms. These individual personal “biases” will sometimes affect our responses to situations in the world around us that may or may not be analagous to the original experience.
She also cites the Implicit Association Test conducted by Harvard University as showing that we have unconscious biases that affect our behaviors. These biases may include those against other racial or cultural groups, that is, “others.” This test, and others like them, are anything but widely accepted among scientists and academics who study them. While it may be useful to be aware of any potential impediments to our reacting to others in a fair and open way, Implicit Association Tests, by their very nature, have problems. Predictive validity, cultural vs. personal association, repeatability of individual results, susceptibility to conscious control of the test subject, and internal consistency of elements within the test are among the many factors that call into question their usefulness. Such tests do not, and cannot, separate the causality of individual episodic experiences from any other factors that are a part of our overall life experiences. Most importantly, they have an extremely poor predictive correlation between test results and behavior.2
For healing to occur we must first be willing. Individual experiences that effect our responses and behaviors occur in a wide range of magnitudes. Rev. Joanne tells of an experience from when she was four years old, feeling abandoned by her parents when her mother traveled to the Netherlands. Her sister traveled with her mother, and her brothers stayed with their father. She was sent to be cared for by an aunt. Although she received wonderful, attentive and loving care from her aunt, her young mind could not understand the situation. She carried the feelings of abandonment with her for many years. That experience, she readily admits, is not on the same level as the sexual abuse experienced by Kaur. It is important to note, however, that not every person processes similar experiences in the same way. It took Kaur more than twenty years of conscious effort to heal from her experience. Others may heal faster, still others perhaps will never heal.
Among the Twelve Powers that Unity teaches is the Power of Renunciation. Unity co-founder Charles Fillmore (1854-1948) said, “It is just as necessary that one should learn to let go of thoughts, conditions, and substances in consciousness, body, and affairs, when they have served their purpose and one no longer needs them, as it is that one should lay hold of new ideas and new substances to meet one's daily requirements.”
When we have experiences that may be seen as “negative,” there are at least three things we need to release in order to facilitate healing. First is the anger, or even hatred, we may feel toward a person or people we believe are responsible. Second is the power we impart to the experience to control our lives, such as obsessive recurrent thoughts or overgeneralizing our response to outward conditions based on our experience. And third, we must also release any payoff we receive from remaining in victim consciousness. This may manifest itself in unintentional, or even deliberate, manipulation of others based on our self-perceived status of needing special treatment.
None of this is to suggest that traumatic experiences do not, or cannot, have tangible long-lasting negative consequences. Nor is it meant to imply that we can simply decide to “shake it off” and get on with life. Often there is real work to be done. Psychological and spiritual counselling are sometimes necessary. When appropriate, we should seek such guidance and embrace the assistance available.
So what does any of this have to do with love for self? at least two things. First, when we have experienced an event in our lives that has a negative impact, we must recognize that we are not defined by that experience. We are more than just a “survivor.” When we are able to do that, it then becomes easier to also recognize that the person we see as responsible for our trauma is more than simply an abuser. Forgiveness is a key element here. It is said that forgiveness is not about the other person, but is a gift we give to ourselves. In the process of offering forgiveness, it can be appropriate to create healthy boundaries from a person who has harmed us. This is a reflection that we have embraced self-love because we recognize that we are valuable and as such should not be put in a situation for additional abuses to occur.
The second reason this has to do with love of self is that once we are able to release (through the Power of Renunciation) that which no longer serves us, we experience a sense of freedom that can come only from the knowledge that no matter what may occur in our lives, we have the ability to choose to embrace the God-given powers within all of us that provide us with the tools for not just coping with our challenges, but transcending them and thriving. Make the choice to fly free.
Now Go and Be the Light.
Humility is the word, forgiveness the virtue, and sweet speech that magic mantra.
Sikh Guru Granth Sahib
Take a few moments each day to slow down and focus on taking one slow breath after another. Close your eyes, relax your face, loosen your jaw, curl your toes, relax your body. Experience your breath. Feel the cold air as you breathe in and warm air as you breathe out. Set the intention to practice this on a daily basis.
1See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love: Kaur, Valarie, Random House Publishing Group, Jun 16, 2020.
2 Azar, B (2008). "IAT: Fad or fabulous?". Monitor on Psychology. 39: 44
Singal, Jesse. "Psychology's Favorite Tool for Measuring Racism Isn't Up to the Job". Science of Us. 2017-01-13;
Wax, Amy; Tetlock, Philip (December 1, 2005). "We're all racists at heart". Wall Street Journal. 2011-06-09
Ottaway, S. A., Hayden, D. C.; Oakes, M. A. (2001). "Implicit attitudes and racism: Effects of word familiarity and frequency on the implicit association test". Social Cognition. 19 (2): 97–144.