The power in the stories we tell ourselves
As a therapist, I spent years working with abused children, then with adults who had been severely abused as children. I gradually developed a caseload filled with severely depressed, suicidal and profoundly disturbed clients, many of whom had been labeled “multiple personalities” or “eating disorder” or “borderline personality disorder” patients, all regarded as quite difficult to treat.
What I recall most clearly and movingly from those years is not any diagnostic label, but the quite immeasurable experience of spending countless hours listening to stories: stories of the worst that people can do to their children; stories of the harshest treatment one can give another; stories woven by people striving to overcome profoundly painful wounds; stories drenched with hatred, with screams of desperation, with suffocating depression, with inarticulate grief — and with the most astonishing heroic perseverance.
One question continually rang through me: why? These injured people were good, kind, lovable people — what on earth could explain the lives they’d endured. When I searched for answers in my childhood faith, which offered no notion of cause and effect, I was left gasping for answers as a landed fish gasps for air.
My meeting with the Dharma occurred as I was searching for those answers, and also as I was dealing with the death of my father and my sister and an impending divorce after a 26-year marriage. The meeting had the force of a grand planetary collision. It literally shook the mental grounds I walked on. The theory of karma had the profound effect of revealing the presence of order and justice in an otherwise seemingly random, intolerably cruel world.
It was quite an adjustment. In most precious Ribur Rinpoche’s room for the refuge ceremony, I confessed that I carried a lot of anger at the people who hurt the children I worked with. He shook his head, saying patiently through the translator, “No, no you haven’t quite got it. Those children are experiencing the results of their karma. It is the people hurting them, creating incredible suffering for themselves in the future, that need your compassion.” Can you imagine what a radical turnaround this presented to my Western-trained mind? …
Carolyn Hengst was recently ordained by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. She is now Ven. Tenzin Lhamo.