Two weeks ago, I went to Esalen, the retreat center. It had been a while since I had been there. I wanted to get away from my busy Third Age life (How did I ever have time to work?) and have time to reflect. A weeklong course caught my eye – “Gratitude and Kindness.” Since I have come to believe that forgiveness and gratitude are major roads to contentment and joy, it seemed like the perfect choice. I could just envision my week. I would ride up to Big Sur with the top down, playing music and riding around the curves of Highway 1. Then I would have a massage, and start my course. Between sessions I would lie in the hot baths that hang out over the ocean and eat healthy. During the sessions I would have structured exercises and meditations designed to help me focus on Kindness and Gratitude. What a joyous week that lay ahead!

The first part worked as planned. There was sunshine up the coast – I was finally out of the fog of Santa Barbara. I had my massage and I was prepared for my course. However, the session was totally different than I expected. It was designed to use deep trance exercises, done with one person at a time to help surface and heal deep, historical psychic wounds. Within minutes, the first participant, an unmarried man of about 40, was lying on the floor in a deep trance, screaming that his head was on fire. Actually, the leader handled him very well and the client came back to Earth in a whole state. It was unclear to me how improved he was, although he said that he now felt calmer. Later I found out more about the difficulties he faces in his life: he had trouble keeping relationships, and his career, while successful, didn’t meet his expectations. No attempt was made to connect the deep emotions with the current problems.

Well, it also turned out that the leaders of the group, a husband and wife, had included the husband’s daughter and her husband into the group, which only totaled nine. Eventually, a deep conflict resulted between the daughter and the wife (her stepmother) about the daughter’s real mother. I will make a long story short, but eventually I ended up doing some couples work on the two leaders during an evening break because they were screaming at each other and wanted help resolving what was going on. The conflict they were fighting over involved how the leader had dealt with the first wife, second wife and daughter – potentially explosive issues for everyone. You will be happy to know that the problem got resolved and the leaders and their daughter are fine. Part of the problem, according to the stepmother, was unresolved feelings left over from her own family. Whenever she doesn’t feel heard, it activates her rage left over from not being heard in her childhood.

I must admit that I was left conflicted. I admire the courage and openness of the leaders in being willing to take the risk of addressing emotional issues. I just wonder about the approach. The stepmother is 70 years old. Longitudinal research shows that those raised in the worst or best families are indistinguishable by age 70. This would suggest that most people are over the impact of their family of origin by 70. The stepmother had been working to resolve these early issues for more than 30 years. Yet, is focusing continually on the past the right approach?

Certainly a lot about modern psychology would contend that the approach is incomplete. With the advent of cognitive therapy, the old assumption that we have to face each slight of childhood was questioned. There is absolutely no evidence that focusing endlessly on the hurts of childhood does anything but make the pain greater and deepen the hurt.

Present Prison, Future Fears

At the Third Age Foundation, we work on ghosts of the past. We define ghosts of the past as regrets, recriminations and reprisals for things you’ve done or failed to do – or for things others have done or failed to do. Third Agers need to draw energy out of these ghosts to use in the present. But we also focus on forgiveness as the main road to healing. However painful or hurtful or destructive your past was, it is over. It is time to forgive yourself or the others who have hurt or disappointed you. By failing to forgive, you only hurt yourself by staying in pain. The other person may not be present or alive. You are probably not punishing them. And failing to forgive yourself means that you expect yourself to be perfect. A major task of life is to learn to love that which is not perfect, including yourself.

Beyond the past, we also focus on prison of the present and fears of the future. When the energy is available we turn to helping others find fun, meaning and joy in their lives. We focus on the positive. A major turning point in modern psychology has been the movement toward positive psychology – the study of what causes people to be happy. Future columns will present some of the research and insights of this important development. But regarding the issue of this column, my concern is that if you keep focusing on what was wrong with your childhood and how it creates your current unhappiness, you are likely to never chase away your ghosts of the past. That means you will have ever more unhappiness to deal with. Again, I am not saying that understanding your past isn’t helpful, just don’t get stuck there.

What To Do?

1. Face what happened to you. Face the emotions also.

2. Forgive yourself and all others involved – we are all just human.

3. You can forgive someone who hurt you deeply without wanting to be close to them again.

4. Watch out for continuing resentment. The only way you can really stay resentful is to continue to be unhappy. For some people it becomes a part of their identity to be a victim – it becomes their way of life.

5. Spend at least part of every day focusing on what is good and right about you, your life and the world. While there is much misery in the world, there is much beauty and love. Gratitude is vital to happiness.

6. Get on with living.