I've come to understand that the answer for anyone is, Only if you make it that way. Only if you believe it to be. If you interpret things as punishment, if you respond to things with punishment.
Focus on punishment as a thing, and it's a thing. Make it a Big Thing, and it can define your whole reality. (This is true of anything. I like to say that whatever you put under a microscope fills your whole field of vision.)
I think it's profound and powerful for most anyone, raised in most any way, colored by any religious tradition or belief system, to ask yourself if you live in a punitive Universe. I'm serious: Pause. And ask. And watch for what arises.
If you get any whiff of yes, breathe into that. Feel that energy of punishment and castigation in your body, and breathe into that. (This is the pain-body work.) Ask yourself if it's true. (This is the tend-the-mind work.) Ask yourself if you'd like to experiment with the possibility that it's not true. Ask yourself if you'd like to take responsibility for creating a reality that isn't informed by punishment and the whole mess that goes with it (unworthiness, hypervigilance, perfectionism, defensiveness, needing to earn things that are your natural birthright—like love). (Living into that responsibility will be the choose-your-focus work.)
I did a lot of work around this later in life, long after I had consciously declared myself not to be a Christian or to subscribe to the beliefs of the brand of Christianity I was raised with (fundamentalist, or specifically, Southern-Baptist flavored). I started considering the possibility that I still (unconsciously) saw the Universe as punitive when I noticed something important and simple and super-recognizable by a lot of human beings. I realized that I felt myself being punished when things went badly (or not to my liking). I paused, breathed it, asked again (I did this again, and again, and again, each time it arised): Do I live in a punitive Universe?
For me it was the last undoing (with many repetitions) of the long-ago teachings instilled in me (and then presented as Truth, so my attachment to them ran deep even after I no longer consciously intellectually saw them as true). While fundamentalists in the Christian tradition (and probably others) give a lot of lip service to grace, there's a ton of emphasis on concepts that counter grace (and its twin, unconditional love): being inherently sinful, needing to constantly watch for the workings of the ego and somehow eradicate that aspect of ourselves (actually not possible or desirable), etc. There's also the disingenuous (a nice word for BS) "love the sinner, not the sin" thing, which is almost never actually applied with anything that feels or looks like love. If you have no experience with this yourself, ask anyone who's queer who's also been on the receiving end of this so-called spiritual concept.
I took total responsibility to uncover my punitive Universe AS IT LIVED IN ME. I found:
Honestly, as with EVERYTHING else, I've found the undoing is less hard than we think it will be.
The undoing takes wayyyyyy less time than it took to originally instill these wrong concepts in our minds and hearts and sometimes the cells of our being.
The undoing is set up through strong, clear intention (I'm going to notice where I live in a punitive Universe, take responsibility for that, and engage in the undoing), followed by choices now and now and now that align with that intention. (Back to the process described above—catch any whiff of it and pause, so that you can work it on both the body/breath and the thought levels; a few simple questions, just sitting with it till it seems absurd—that's enough to undo one hook right now, in this one moment.)
Nonjudgmental awareness is your best ally in the process: you get to simply notice your own punitive mentality (the punitive Universe you live in) that will always look like typical human stuff—which you therefore don't need to take personally: I'm punishing my partner right now for not connecting with me the way I want connection. I'm wishing horrible things for our so-called president. I'm making my kids feel bad about something instead of having an open conversation in which I invite them to tell me their experience, including what feels off to them. (Thus you could teach them to honor their own guidance system, not follow your beliefs that you keep reinforcing through punitive means.)
Thus, the undoing happens one moment at a time, each moment that the issue presents itself, not by a single unplugging. But people miss the extent to which this is a great process to be in. It's easy precisely because you know exactly when to go in with it (when it presents itself). You basically open the door and look it in the face when it comes knocking. The rest of the time, you're as free of it as you need to be. Ah, the power of NOW. (Thanks, ET.)
I invite you out of any model of a punitive Universe. If you choose a love-based, expansive, forgiving Universe, you get to live there. That too, requires living into your vision, now and now and now.
Please look below where I've given you a clip of writing describing my dear friend & colleague Kelli Younglove's indoctrination into a punitive Universe. I share it because our work together was part of the undoing for both of us. I share it because she may be your right coach. (If you're an Enneagram Two or need support with boundaries, standing strong, or speaking up, she may very well be your gal. She's also gifted with supporting cisgendered men to do their best personal-growth work. And ... she's a powerful, gentle healer.)
love & blessings, Jaya
p.s. An addendum featuring Kelli's writing follows. If you'd like another one from me on releasing guilt to get out of a punitive Universe and back to present time, follow this link.
ADDENDUM FROM KELLI:
Specifically, this is from Kelli Younglove's blog post on a healing she set up using a surrogate listener (when the one she wanted to say things to, in this case a parent, could not hear what she had to say). The part copied below describes her own indoctrination into a punitive Universe:
In 1971, my parents moved to a Bible Institute on the isolated prairies of Alberta, taking me and my sister with them.
Back then, it was the largest Missionary Training Centre in Canada.
Imagine an army barracks with its own school system (everything from pre-kindergarten all the way up to Bible College) and you'll catch a glimpse of my childhood.
The Institute was based on an authoritarian system with a top-down hierarchy that put children on the bottom rung.
And what I experienced and witnessed there (and after) went directly against the church's message of love and forgiveness. Corporal punishment was used to to break children's spirits and force them to submit to the will of the parents.
Signs of independence were commonly met with force.
The loss of self was devastating.
See the entire post here. I love the healing event it describes that could serve any human being who can't get the listening they want from a specific human being—while staying open to getting exactly what they need in another form. You may also want to look around on her blog: there's such good content there.
Out of Guilt, Back to Present Time
When you hold to guilt, some part of you that stays connected to truth will not agree that you’re bad or wrong or suddenly undeserving. And a less evolved, more pleading part of you—needing to object to the injustice—will defend: it’ll defend mentally to self; it’ll defend out loud to third parties or to anyone involved. It’s gotta do something!
Would you like to defend less? Accuse yourself less. Quit believing you’re guilty.
This includes refusing to carry around vague feelings of guilt/self-accusation that never get properly looked at or dismissed. (How I wrote about this in Scooch!: Don’t just swat the fruit flies! They swarm back in and keep hovering.)
So how do you get out of this familiar accusation-and-guilt cycle when you’re in it? How do you just drop a well-practiced default?
I happened upon a brilliant question recently, which does something all by itself to support you to quit swatting the fruit flies. Taking you beyond guilt and defense, it also happens to bring you back to now, and I don’t believe there can be too much of that.
I was innocently riding my bike one morning and noticed I was carrying around something that felt bad, something a bit cringing and small, something clearly not aligned with the present moment! That now-moment was all about a vast blue sky, big, full trees at a positively gloating level of summer foliage, a soundtrack of joyful, singing birds, and just enough freshness in the air to feel skin-delicious on a bike. Why, riding through this scene, would I allow any bizarre, niggling feeling to kind of whine inside me?
So I felt into the sensation. I breathed into it. I realized it was guilt about something I’d consumed that my body wasn’t happy with. In truth, it wasn’t a big deal on the physical level. It just made me feel not my best—okay, it made me weirdly bloated, which I hate—and, if past experience served, it was likely to affect my sense of wellness or ease in my own body for the whole day. It was also true that I know what to put in my body to feel good, and still, I’d made a choice that doesn’t work for my total well-being.
I’m using an innocuous example because it’s ridiculous what we walk around feeling guilty about—and have you noticed that the guilt can exist nonverbally, as a vague sense of being wrong and bad, without having many (or any) thoughts attached to it? Just enough quiet, hissing presence to ruin your peace?
So I rolled my eyes at the guilt (because I also believe that guilt is a liar) and this question came in as I leaned into the left turn onto Utica: How long do I have to do penance for this?
The question was gorgeous. Seriously. Wow. Ask yourself this for the stain on the new shirt, the affair, the forgotten email, the failed job that changed your career trajectory—ask yourself this for guilt of any magnitude, anywhere in your life.
Let me quickly decipher perceived guilt from actual guilt.
Guilt is often not real! That is, when you check in with yourself about what you’re guilty of, you may find that you’re guilty of nothing. Your parent might think you’re guilty for not calling more often, but you’re actually in self-care and choice. Your friend might think you’re guilty for not listening to her ongoing complaints, but you’re actually minding your feeling states, which you rightfully don’t want to turn over to someone else. Your partner might think you’re guilty of not giving something you should know they want, but it’s actually their job to ask and ask again, and yours to give an honest yes or no. I could go on. Let me simply remind you that feeling guilty doesn’t equal being guilty, and that someone else declaring your guilt doesn’t make it a fact.
But if you’re actually guilty—you’ve done something you’re not happy with, as human beings are sometimes known to do—then ask yourself, How long do I have to do penance for this? If you go by the rules of your religious upbringing, or give yourself the treatment doled out by the worst manipulator you’ve come close to, or use any external authority or judge—well, maybe for quite a while. But if you pause and tune in to how long you actually need to do penance to be a valid human being here and now—you’re just done with the whole thing. Make amends if you need to; course-correct however you see to do that; and carry on in present time.
In that moment on my bike, here’s what felt truer than needing to do penance: there was a natural consequence for ignoring my dietary restrictions, which was simply that I felt how I felt, for as long as I felt it. That’s it. I wasn’t suddenly unworthy or bad. I didn’t have to have a bad day because of either what I’d done or how I felt. My well-being isn’t predicated on perfect adherence to an experimental diet imposed on me by me.
No kind of perfect is required for anyone to be worthy of well-being.
Hey, I didn’t end up feeling bad all day. Untethered to a past action, I was set free to act within and respond to things happening in the present moment. At some point, it dawned on me that I felt normal and was having a great day.
Please join me in greater clarity about what guilt does to you, and commit to responding to it more quickly and more consciously:
1) it requires some part of you to defend (so you can stop defending by actually processing your guilt more consciously);
2) it seems to ask for penance—and there's no need! (note: holding on to guilt itself is a form of penance);
3) it takes you out of present time. Now you’re stuck (by yourself, by your guilt), in something that’s past, while the rest of the Universe has moved on. Sure, it could be that some other people haven’t moved on: only because they share your human tendency to hold on to what’s gone by. The rest of the Universe, though, is done with that past moment.
I invite you to play with this question when you face your own guilt: How long do I have to do penance for this? Then you don’t have to accuse yourself or defend, and you’re free to live in present time (where you have the most power, clarity, agency, connection to your guidance system, and on and on).
Love and blessings, Jaya
For a look at whether you live in a punitive Universe, see this later post from July 2020.
I so often say these words to clients: Bring it to now.
There are so many brilliant ways to apply this phrase to step into greater ease, to drop torments, to teach yourself your life is manageable—in short, to set yourself free. Some examples follow, but I invite you to come up with your own, and lots of them. Apply this to anything!
How do I deal with the overwhelm of this huge, horrible challenging project (assignment, creation) I'm up against?
By dealing with the part of it that's before you right now. Don't deal with the whole thing from start to finish. Don't deal with tomorrow's part or next month's part or the part you have no idea about five steps down the line. DON'T EVEN CONSIDER THE OUTCOME. Deal with the one doable part before you here and now.
Sometimes, it's time to look at the whole, get the overview, map it all out on a timeline, define and delegate the parts, and so on. In that case, the one task of the moment is taking that bird's-eye view. Then and only then do you need to get out the whole kit and caboodle and spread it out for your perusal. But notice how often you do this out of turn, checking again to rev up the angst and to make gloomy-doomy predictions for a bad end you don't want! Bring it to now: do what's really up for you to do right now, and bring your best presence and greatest sense of ease to that endeavor.
What do I need to work out about my past?
Nothing—unless something from your past shows up right now. Then meet it head-on. Meet the pain, meet your thoughts that intensify the pain, ferret out anything you've decided about life, yourself, or other people because of that story you lived. (“Mind the Pain Body, Tend the Mind” is the substantial and super-practical third chapter of my book Scooch! that treats this topic.) I've come to phrase this, The undoing happens in the moment. That moment is now. All you need to process your pain well and untangle the stories it's tied to; all you need to live your life well (and joyfully!); all you need to get your needs met—it's all right here, right now.
How do I stop dreading the future?
Bring it to now. Is there something you don't like right now? Be with that. Be with it well. Be with it kindly, and don't tell yourself any lies. That's enough. When you're energized and excited about your life and all that's possible, all you'd like to create and connect to next—that's a fine now moment to take a little trip into the future, and then come on back to consider how to point yourself that way right now.
I'm so ashamed about … I'm so thrown off by …
When some small embarrassment or warped, oversized shame-thing grabs you (we've all got one, we've all had one activated in the not-so-distant past, maybe earlier today), come back to now. What are you in charge of now? What can you control (that's truly in your realm of control) right now? Can you forgive yourself more deeply right now? Can you soothe yourself like a kind, loving parent practicing unconditional love right now? Can you get out of someone else's head and what they saw and what they thought and what they think of you right now?
Bring it to now, and see how much kindness you can step into in this moment. Quit dragging yourself back to some shameful, painful, confused moment that does not (it absolutely does not) define who you are. I love how Byron Katie says that she loves being slapped, because it's over. The slap happens once and fades quickly, but we replay it again and again mentally, reliving the shame and all that a slap in that moment from that person before those witnesses means to us. She points out that the person who slapped us once turns out being much kinder to us than we are to ourselves, because we slap ourselves a hundred times over. Come back to now and what's actually happening now. Come back to the kindness of the moment.
How do I keep all the turmoil in the world or political process from getting the best of me?
Bring it to now. It's fine and good to have times you witness what's happening in the world, but never forget that the news isn't giving you a balanced view of things, and don't keep hanging out in the dismal spot it last took you to. Remember that the media displays the most provocative and sensational of what's happening out there, always slanted a certain way in the presentation. When you're not consciously seeking to be informed as best you can, get present.
Life is also a sink full of dishes, a walk with the dog, a moment to listen to your kid tell you something you wouldn't even care about for a moment if it weren't this particular human being doing the telling. Life is a good cup of coffee, a dance down the hallway, a moment of hard laughter over the purely absurd. Get present to the mundane beauty and magic that's right here, right now, and truly validate and value it: this is your personal life, the specific one you were given to tend, yours to mind in the moment with as much love and presence as you've got, even as the storms happening out there rage and simmer on.
Here's a bedtime trick for bringing it to now (and waking up in a good, clear space, and living a more powerful life):
Get out of tomorrow. If you must review what needs to be addressed tomorrow, do it before you even enter your bedroom, never mind climb into bed. Get out of today, but do that after you've spent a bit of time going over triumphs and completions large and small. Notice with appreciation all you did that was good, or brilliant, or even good enough. Take a moment to feel and really take in what you moved through and brought to the next step or even to a close. (Do you, like most people, deprive yourself of acknowledging and celebrating what you've accomplished?) You might also notice all the kindness that came your way. Byron Katie taught me to notice all that supports me. Start counting the supports that came to you today, and it may be hard to stop. Did clean water really just come out of a faucet because you turned a knob with minimum effort?
Once you've been with the day in that way, let it go. Come back to now. Find how the mattress supports you, how the pillow allows you to let go, how the blankets envelop you not just in warmth, but a sense of safety and well-being. Find how the darkness holds you. Imagine you're lying in the arms of love. Let go of every muscle you don't need (all of them) for holding it together right now and let yourself be held. Let go of thoughts, even if they won't let go of you, by not following them sequentially. Get off every thought train you catch yourself in. Come to love the unfinished thought! Use the breath to support you. Drop your awareness into your belly (not once, but again, again, again, now, now, and now) and watch the belly go up and down with the breath. Find what's soothing and kind and life-giving in your breath. There's nothing like connecting to the breath to help you connect to here and now.
love & blessings, Jaya
"Sorry if …” and Other Sorry Apologies
I’m not an advocate of perfection in human relationships, so the purpose of this writing is not to generate more perfect apologies. As a life coach, I often encounter people’s guilt, real or imagined, and I’ve come to have a deeper respect for the importance of forgiving ourselves: we hold ourselves back by holding onto guilt and, thus, holding onto stained, sorry perceptions of ourselves.
Forgiveness is ultimately something to work out with ourselves. When we want someone else’s forgiveness, we really ultimately need our own, and must forgive ourselves whether others do or not. They may or may not forgive us; their forgiveness may or may not come quickly. We’re free when we forgive ourselves; we're free when we don't require their forgiveness to access our own.
That said, in the name of keeping things clear with other human beings, it's a good thing to ask for their forgiveness on the way to self-forgiveness. It does help to know what constitutes a good apology in order to apply it as needed. Quite simply, a good apology is specific, direct, and brief, followed by a margin (perhaps a generous margin) of silence. This allows the recipient to take it in, release the sting of whatever went down, and grapple with their own inner tugging between forgiveness and unforgiveness. A sampling of unappealing, ineffective apologies follows.
Ay. Really? What for? Do you even know why the other feels so stung if that’s all you’ve got? Do you just want the tension to be over? This level of apology often garners a flimsy or false forgiveness. A good apology states clearly what you’re sorry for.
Mea culpa, mea culpa, I’m sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I'm still sorry.
A good apology doesn’t grovel. This means it doesn’t need to keep repeating itself, as if you were more worthy of forgiveness if you’re sorry several times over or for a very long time. It also means you don’t need to call yourself names, overstate or inflate your crime, or make yourself small in any way. A good apology is clean and clear, and then it’s over. (That doesn't mean further listening to someone is out of the question! They may want to tell you more about your impact on them, and letting that in as you keep yourself grounded and stabilized by conscious breath can be a huge gift to another.)
Sorry if …
Sorry if I hurt your feelings, for example. Did you or didn’t you? Perhaps their feelings were hurt and you don’t feel responsible for that. Fair enough. In that case, express what you're truly sorry for. You might truthfully say something like, I’m sorry your feelings were hurt by what I said. I didn’t mean to say that in a hurtful way. If you find you want to tell more, ask permission: I’d like to clarify what I meant—May I?
Sorry but …
As soon as but comes in, you’re justifying or defending, and also diluting the force of the apology. Are you sorry? Just be sorry, with that brief, clear statement of what for. If you have more to say about why you did what you did, express that you’d like to explain something. Perhaps something feels fuzzy or unclear or messy or complicated that makes a simple apology feel false to you. It may well be worth a conversation but … the moment of apologizing may not be the time for that.
Another thought is that the defending and explaining could happen with someone else—like a friend who won’t treat you like a victim, or a therapist. I’ve certainly helped clients work out their defensiveness so they don’t feel compelled to share it elsewhere, or can distill it down to a clear message to take to the other party involved. I pay close attention to my own defensiveness and seek neutral help if I need it. As soon as I hear a defense mounting in my mind, I'm motivated to clear it out, because I find defensiveness to be painful and demeaning. It’s nothing to judge: we’re all capable of defensiveness. It’s also not a good idea to let it dictate what you need to tell someone. Work it out between you and you and see if there’s anything left to tell.
Sorry and …
Just because you’re sorry doesn’t mean the other party needs to process with you all this brings up for you about your family of origin and that time you were falsely accused by the fourth-grade teacher who smelled like pepper spray. Gauge how much is said beyond a simple apology by the intention you have for this relationship and its level of intimacy. When you feel the need to apologize to someone not so close, like the customer-service worker you just chewed out because of the maddening robotic loops you got trapped in before she showed up to help, there’s not a lot more needed: she doesn’t need to get you or somehow come to an agreement with you about how understandable the whole episode was. You don’t need to land on the proverbial same page with everyone you apologize to. If the apology is directed to someone you’re close to and intend further closeness with, much more could be appropriate.
Again, look for the right timing—this could involve simply asking--so that you don’t dilute your apology with an onslaught of related issues that the other may not be ready for until they’ve assimilated the apology and landed in forgiveness. You may need to get comfortable with your discomfort about how they perceive you, even as time passes while they’ve got gaps in the story of you.
I'm sorry for my part.
Whether you mean to convey such a thing or not, this reads like shorthand for, Yeah, I had a part, but so did you, and I'm saying sorry for mine, so now you’d better say sorry for yours. (Which I secretly believe to be worse than mine.) When 12-step programs and other excellent sources suggest that you apologize or make amends for your part, this means, step into what's yours and deal with just that. The idea is that you want to take full personal responsibility for what you do that feels off to you or violates your own ethics; and leave others alone to do that for themselves if they will. Apologizing for your part does not mean to do a global reckoning that breaks down all the parts and doles them out on balance scales so that you don’t land alone in the wrong. Apologizing for your part is meant to constitute a whole event, not a part. It’s not the Marco to their Polo.
I once sat with a client who was at odds with herself in seeking to understand her part in a family feud. It was like looking through a blurry lens to get clarity. As she elaborated on her preoccupation with her part, it became clear to me that she was unconsciously operating out of some unexamined, almost cliche idea that it takes two to tango, so everyone has a part, and somehow the parts must be inherently equal. This all amounted to her seeking to beat herself into submission to own up to her part—and as long as that part didn’t look as big and ugly as theirs, she must not be done with the reckoning (or the self-flagellation). Sometimes it’s good to notice the model you’re in, notice it’s just a model, and step outside of it to look again from another angle. Instead of ferreting out her part, it turned out to be far more useful for her to determine what she was and wasn't okay with in what had gone down, and whether she wanted to change her boundaries with her family. Whatever she did or failed to do, what was ultimately needed had nothing to do with locating the right measures of blame or even delivering an apology.
What if you’re tripped up on their part? Things in life just won’t neatly fall into black-and-white, sometimes, will they? You may on occasion find yourself knowing you need to apologize but feeling stuck with your own sting about what the other did in the same scenario. Perhaps as a non-realized human being, however conscious and well-meaning (I’m sure we’re in good company belonging to this club), you can simply be honest and say that you’re aware of where you need to apologize but can’t get past where you need their apology as badly as (or worse than) you need to give yours. This could mean one of those way-past-bedtime conversations, but sometimes it’s really true that (sing it with Elton) sorry seems to be the hardest word. Better to grope toward what needs to be said, murky as it may be, rather than speak a half-meant sorry while swallowing resentment down the wrong pipe.
A slightly different scenario is when it’s hard to apologize to someone because they’ve done this exact thing to you or other not-so-similar things that weigh on you as you helplessly seek to form the apology that won’t take: this is a sure sign that you’re not current. Maybe you’ve been letting things slide that aren’t really okay with you, you’ve been avoiding hard conversations, you’ve been devaluing yourself or holding low expectations of how you get to be treated by others. See if you can locate what allowed this build-up for you and deal with it separately. Could be a long-term project, and well worth your time beyond this moment.
Sorry because they made me.
Did you have in your childhood the kind of caregivers or teachers who stood over you and demanded in their clueless-giant way, “Say you’re sorry!”? If you were trained to mumble an apology on demand that has nothing to do with your inner reality, it’s high time to retrain yourself into something else. There’s nothing gained from the apology that means nothing.
I once heard Byron Katie talk about moving into each new moment with no trace left of what went before. This was during a program on making amends, so she was directly addressing the tendency to get stuck in guilt about past wrongs. What if we really lived that way? What if we gave our apologies appropriately when appropriate, made amends where possible (Katie uses the simple question, How can I make it right?), then truly let go of what we’d done so we could do the next thing, and perhaps do it better?
When we’re small and marred by guilt, we really can’t step into our best selves or interface with others from that perspective. Outdated and unnecessary guilt puts a ceiling on how big we get to be. It limits the possibilities we see for ourselves. It causes weight and density in our minds, in random interactions, in entire relationships. It keeps us from realizing our potential or just plain being as light, free, and happy as it's possible to be.
So how much do you believe in forgiveness? Do you live in a punitive Universe, or one that’s forgiving? Do you need to keep atoning if you don’t like something you’ve done? For how long? Could you be done with it before they are? Are you done yet?
I love the model of moving from one moment into the next without a trace. I invite you to play with it. It could make things feel lighter and more current, which means you get to be present in the moment, showing up as your best self. What’s done is done. Now what’s possible?
I want to close with the Forgiveness prayer (which I created based on some ideas from Marianne Williamson, elucidator of A Course in Miracles). This is recorded in the Notes on my Facebook page if you ever want to find it again. The obvious beauty of this prayer is that it doesn't require you to be ready to forgive—only ready to let the Universe bring in its endless supply of forgiveness, freely given to anyone under any circumstances. There's no issue of merit in the Universe's capacity to forgive. You deserve it, as anyone else does, just because you're here. This prayer can help you get to forgiveness when you're not there yet, and helps make it more tangible and complete when you are. (I offer it below toward the self, but you can equally use it for others.)
I forgive myself. And where I can’t or don’t know how, Universe, you forgive me for me, and hold that while I catch up to it. I acknowledge that it is done. Somewhere beyond time and space, the forgiveness is complete.
Love and blessings, Jaya