When I was about five years old, I was on a trip to the city with my family when I lost my wallet.
Somehow I had saved up fifty dollars at the time - a significant fortune for my five year old self - so the level of devastation I experienced when somehow I wasn’t able to find my life’s savings, contained within my precious wallet, was profound.
A few years ago this experience came to the surface as I was doing some inner work and excavation around feelings of loss, betrayal and scarcity - all of which were certainly cultivated by the episode of my lost wallet.
I remembered the feeling of devastation and helplessness that was so intense at the time - how to my five year old mind and heart it felt like an event of global significance - like all of the light had left, all stability and forward movement cut off.
I recalled the response of the adults around me, which was to rather coldly tell me I needed to be more careful with where I put things. Looking back, the lack of understanding and empathy from my parents at the time was mind boggling. As an adult I understand that many things must have been going on for them at the time: They had their own conflicts, stresses, challenges and financial troubles to contend with. They also did not have the emotional intelligence to understand how psychologically significant an experience like this would be for a child - primarily because they themselves had never been held and nurtured in a way that would nurture such awareness.
Exploring all of this was very interesting, slightly cathartic, and provided insight into the formation of my personal patterns. It wasn’t until a couple of years had passed, however, that I actually did anything about it.
Again, I was doing some meditation, and the episode of my lost wallet resurfaced. This time, however, I was not going to simply re-experience the event and process the emotional fallout from it.
Once my wallet episode came up, I remembered a thought that I’d had many times: “I can’t believe that none of the adults around me knew how to hold me together in that situation - how to make it all okay.”
I had imagined one of them taking me out to get a new wallet, and putting some money inside of it - explaining how important it is to take care of such things, but resurrecting my sense of justice in life.
A part of me even feels self conscious writing about this, having been conditioned for many years to not expect validation on this level - but the rest of me knows very deeply how serious these things are. What might seem like a trivial problem to a cynical adult can, to the tenderness of a child’s heart, be utterly crushing.
Back to my meditation…
This time, I realized that no one was going to take care of my five year old self - nobody was going to validate his tender heart and make this situation right - except for me.
I entered into a dialogue with him, letting him share how disappointed and dejected he felt, listening and understanding, until finally I told him: Enough is enough - I’m taking you to get a new wallet and we’re putting fifty dollars into it right now!
I got up, hopped on my bike and headed for downtown. I spent the afternoon looking for the perfect wallet, and after buying it immediately slipped a fifty dollar bill into it.
All this time I was having a dialogue with that five year old, getting his input on which wallet was the coolest - having a loving, beautiful relationship with him.
At one point he asked if he could spend the fifty dollars on anything - to which I responded of course. He then said he was planning on spending it all on candy - which I said was up to him if that’s what he wanted, but I would not be eating any of it.
It was a really great way to spend my afternoon. And although it was part of an ongoing process, and by no means an endpoint on a journey of healing, it was beautiful and powerful to tap into a past hurt and do something so direct and concrete for it.
It also illustrates really clearly one of the most vital concepts to the art of inner work and the healing of emotional wounds: If you’re going into the past - and particularly if it’s a painful part of the past - make sure you do something good there.
This is something my mentor taught me by example: Whenever we worked on my past wounds or traumas, he assumed the role not of passive witness, but of protector - of guardian of my heart and soul.
I learned, through that therapeutic relationship, how to hold that kind of strength for myself, and for others as a facilitator.
Peter Levine has written extensively about this - in fact his book Trauma and Memory is in many ways a deep and thorough exploration of this key concept: that dredging up painful or traumatic memory and simply re-experiencing it rarely leads to any meaningful healing or change. And, at its worst, it can actually be retraumatizing and thereby have an overwhelmingly harmful effect.
Anyone exploring methods of meditation and inner work is bound to come into contact with painful or traumatic memories at some point - the lesson I’m sharing today is that there is very little merit in simply re-experiencing pain and trauma. What we want is to CHANGE that memory, to bring a level of resourcefulness, a capacity for self-protection, and a life-affirming outcome that may not have been possible in the past.
We go in as guardians and protectors - and if we aren’t capable of holding that for ourselves yet, we find someone to hold if for us in the beginning.
This corrective experience is often referred to as “completing the active response”, and it’s a powerful point of reference for you to remember as you step into the wilderness of your own healing.
The example I have given here demonstrates actually going and doing something physically concrete to protect, validate and nurture a wounded part of myself. However, often one will accomplish the same feat purely internally, through visualization, verbalization, or subtle bodily movements, physical releases and reactions.
This post is just touching the tip of an immensely deep topic, but the central premise is really very simple: If you’re going to the past, make it better. Go as a protector and guardian of love, truth and life.
What about you? Have you had positive or negative experiences working with your past? If so, leave a comment down below or send me a message - I would love to hear about it!