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Changing a Painful Memory

. I’m not talking about traumatic memories. This is a memory from an occurrence like being flipped off by another driver. The memory takes up space in my head, interferes with my mind and crowds out my peace of mind.

Tom Hartmann has written over 20 books, is a progressive talk show host and has a Ph.D. in herbal medicine. He is a change agent in this world. In his book, Cracking the Code: How to Win Hearts, Change Minds, and Restore America’s Original Vision, he walks the reader through an exercise on changing a painful memory.

Below is what I experienced using this exercise:

I was walking peacefully through a parking lot in a local town and was surprised by a large black pickup truck with souped-up mufflers and revving engine backing up into a parking space. The noise was intolerable and I freaked. I found myself yelling at the driver that his truck was too loud. The young man chose to yell back telling me to get out of his space and took no responsibility for the noise nor his presence in his truck. I was furious.

I came home with inflamed cheeks and pissed off mood. I felt violated and angry, stewing about the incredible lack of respect for others people have in this world. The heat of my anger was blowing through my veins and I couldn’t relax.

My wife pointed out this exercise to me. I could have pushed it away getting madder for her attempt to placate me but I chose to walk through the exercise instead.

Hartmann asks the reader to see the picture of the experience and decide whether the picture is in color or black and white?

It’s in color.

Can I change it to black and white? I did.

Describe in space where the incident happened, in front of me, behind me, where is it? Five feet? 20 feet? To my left, to my right?

It was within ten feet of me.

Move the picture, push the picture to about 50 feet away.

I looked out the window and saw a neighbor’s house and I moved the black and white picture to the house across the street.

Describe any sound I heard which of course it was all about sound.

Was it a moving picture or a still picture?

It was a moving picture because the truck was moving.

Freeze frame the picture to the very end of the scene which I did.

Now play it backward; “and you know how you play a movie backward, everybody moves like in the old Charlie Chaplin movies and everybody talks backward like Donald Duck. And I want you to right now play it backward all the way back to the beginning with everybody going, everything going backward.”

I imagined myself walking backwards and my arms flailing – everything moving backwards on high speed.

Now freeze frame it at the beginning; and do you see yourself in the picture or do you see it as if you were there?

The picture was frozen where I stopped it.

Paint rainbows across that picture now and put bright pink, large donkey ears on everybody in the picture except yourself…

I ran the whole incident backwards in my mind, put donkey ears on all the characters, even the truck and heard the high fast gibberish-like words coming from the scene. It made me laugh and laugh. When I caught my breath, I laughed more.

She then asked me how I felt about the memory I had recounted and I laughed more. I felt relieved and different, more separated from the irritation I had felt earlier.

“In the field of psychotherapy, if you want to heal a negative memory, you can let the brain do that work by moving the memory around. (I describe this technique in my book Walking Your Blues Away; How to Heal the Mind and Create Emotional Well-being [Park Street Press, 2006].) Somewhere along the line, that memory will pass through a part of the brain where there is a resource – some skill or experience – that will be able to change the memory. You’ll know when you’ve succeeded in truly changing the emotional charge and filing system associated with a memory because the story about the meaning of that memory changes.” - Thom Hartmann

Jean Houston teaches similar lessons by manipulating time through exercises that change traumatic memories. If I find myself resistant to change a memory, my next question is why do I want to remain a victim? What’s the payoff for me?

“As long as you think that the cause of your problem is “out there” – as long as you think that anyone or anything is responsible for your suffering – the situation is hopeless. It means that you are forever in the role of victim, that you’re suffering in paradise.” - Byron Katie

Participants’ Reflections:

  • I was in a mall a few months ago and was in a store where they were not handling the distancing well. I was anxious and I had a run in with a man in the aisles. It upset me because I felt justified in my behavior. During the meditation, I changed the image of the situation similar by imagining an escalator with the man riding away. It helped a bit.

  • I loved that. The memory in my mind in the last month relates to a situation on the road where someone called me some names. I’ve never liked my response. So during the meditation, I pictured this person speaking in the character Eeyore’s voice. It changed my reaction to one of compassion and softness. Poor Eeyore is having a bad day. I’m going to keep this in my bag of tools.

  • Thank you for sharing your struggles and life experiences and the tools you use to free yourself of those burdens. Growing up all I heard was ‘you should know what to do.’ All these tools are helpful for different situations. Thank you.

  • Thank you to everyone. Loved the Eeyore idea. I’ve never heard of this exercise before. During the meditation, I realized I could use positive memories and gild them with glitter and draw them closer to me. It works both ways.

  • Thank you for reminding me of this exercise. I’ve harbored a resentment for four years that upsets me because I felt wronged. During the meditation, I pictured the scene in funny ways. I succeeded somewhat. I’m going to work on it. I’d rather be at peace than harboring the resentment. It takes up space in our bodies.

  • I had a run in with someone in a grocery store. I felt wronged because I apologized in the moment. I felt simultaneous shamed and furious and frightened. There was so much negative energy. I felt immobilized. I mulled over it, staying in the anger. I realize where I got hooked was the shame. During the meditation, I realize things like that happen. I don’t know where he was coming from that day. It could have been an engaging spot instead of an inciting incident.

  • I was listening to a meditation yesterday where you put on special glasses which allows you to look at that person with compassion for their situation: Maybe their son just got Covid or they lost their job. It lets one look at them with compassion and sympathy.

  • Thank you for joining us today, thank you for listening to my words. Thank you for taking time for yourselves and sitting in silence with us. Thank you for your presence. I hope you all have a gentle day.

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