Leave No Traces
I hate the idea of writing things for you to do. It repels me. Hairs stand on end. Yet, here I am. I don’t pretend that humans are one size fits all. I don’t think that anything can serve everyone, and I often find myself rolling my eyes a bit when someone starts to shriek from the rooftops about how they have found THE way – the right way of eating, the right kind of exercise, the right spiritual path, the right thing to believe in. I do believe that there are certain lines of inquiry that can serve many people well. The answers that will arise will be varied, but they will be equally valid. This is one such line. The inquiry of what kind of traces are holding me to the past?
I was surreptitiously issued a challenge during the last retreat that I participated in. Ok, maybe it was an invitation, but I took it as a challenge.
The idea, the mental construct, of ‘Leave No Trace’ instantly brings to mind burners chasing sequins across the playa screeching “MOOP! MOOP!” or cute girls who make YouTube videos about how they can fit all the trash that they created in the last year in a jam jar, or solemn Californian requests to respect the Beauty Way and leave places better than you found them.
And I dig all of it. The idea of not leaving traces, that we wouldn’t leave a negative impact on our surroundings is simple and devastating at the same time, because if we could do it, everything would change. In terms of physical reality this was something I had knocked around in my head quite a bit, and it inspired me. But this proposal, or, as I interpreted it, this challenge, was taking this to much deeper levels. This time it extended past just my physical impact and started to consider the energetic and emotional traces I was leaving as well. The challenge was – could I get clarity about what things from my past I have not yet left behind, and could I move forward in a way that didn’t create messes or entanglements that I would later need to clean up or unravel?
Some connections and interactions leave us feeling free – like those friends that you can go seven years without seeing, and when you are together again you pick up where you left off like only a few minutes had passed. And some connections and interactions are loaded and keep us bound, ones where we don’t feel like we can express our needs or be ourselves, ones that are filled with guilt, expectation and which don’t give us the space to say what we feel.
The idea of Karma in spirituality is easy to misunderstand. We often think of it as some kind of retribution, a mystical big-bother’s-watching which lets no deed go unpunished. In truth karma is just a law of physics, what you put out, comes back (or, like we say where I grew up – what goes around comes around). I do something to hurt someone, they do something to hurt me back, then I retaliate, then they retaliate…and so on, into infinity – or until someone decides to stop.
And what was being proposed in this retreat was that we decide to stop. That we give up the war, that we finish what was unfinished and that we move forward without dragging any baggage with us.
Presence is the result of a lack of traces
Presence is the Holy Grail of spirituality, everyone is seeking it, some think they’ve found it - but it just turns out to be their grandma’s old wine glass, or a football trophy. We know that it’s the key, where happiness and eternal life reside, and we look everywhere for it, or fool ourselves into thinking that we already have it, when what keeps us from it is simple – the past.
The more tied I am to the past, the less possible it is for me to be here. Unfinished business and unresolved issues force my mind into an endless loop which keeps me moving from past to future without so much as a pit stop in the now.
The less traces that I leave, the less ties that I will have and the more possible connection with the present becomes. Lofty idea, but what does it mean practically?
The ‘challenge’ is the following; to say what needs to be said in the moment that it needs to be said, to do what needs to be done in the moment that it needs to be done and to clear up anything in your life that is ‘pending’; any unfinished business. If we could do that, we wouldn’t have a to-do list hanging over our heads dragging our attention away from what’s actually happening.
I have been vibrating in this possibility for a few months now, and in the attempt to commit myself to it. And in that endeavor, it’s become something quite concrete. There are steps. There are actual things that you can do to help you to understand what traces you are leaving and to help you to sever ties and clean up your movement through the world.
The first step is to make a list of everything that is sticky in your life right now. Everything that is unfinished, left-over, pending. This can range from very simple material things like finishing that website or paying that bill to much more subtle things like – something is weird between a friend and I, I’m not sure what it is, but it doesn’t feel good. From the obvious to the barely perceptible, sit down and list everything in your life that would fall under the category of unresolved, everything that gives you the feeling of not being free and clear.
We are often carrying a charge from something that happened a long time ago, sometimes a wound that was created over decades of unhealthy interaction with a person and it’s not as simple as identifying something that needs to be said, or something that can be done. In this case you might just write the person’s name to note down that there is something pending.
Then take a look at the list and ask yourself “What can I do to resolve these things?” In some cases, like the unpaid bill and unfinished website it will be a straightforward Nike “JUST DO IT” and in others, where it’s stickier and deals with emotions and leftovers, the course of action may be much less clear.
Sometimes we are faced with the need to resolve something unresolvable. We need to say something to someone and we know that they are not open to hearing it, we need to do something that is physically impossible; we need to go back in time, or to end a war with someone who deeply wants to stay at war with us. Sometimes a relationship feels so deeply damaged that you can’t even think of what could be done or said that would make it shift because it seems to be irreparable. In this case the work becomes a quiet inner shift.
Something that has been invaluable to me has been to write letters. Need to say something to someone who has left the body, who never wants to speak to you again or who you haven’t seen in twenty years and have no idea how to locate? No problem, grab a pen and write it down. All of it. Set aside a good chunk of time, go to a secluded, quiet space where you won’t be interrupted and write.
Often sending the letter would be either futile or damaging, but writing it can be profoundly cathartic and can bring clarity and levity to a situation which might have been festering for ages. Start with their name and then just allow yourself to say everything that you haven’t yet been able to say, do this without censoring yourself, let it be a catharsis in which the emotion behind the words comes to the surface. Chose a space where you could cry if you needed to, or have a pillow near to chuck across the room or scream into. If there is a big charge of anger that comes up, give it space. Anger needs to move through the body, so either shake, dance, or go for a walk or run, don’t let it just settle into the body, move it out.
It’s not only anger and sadness that fester when not expressed, gratitude and affection can also remain stuck in our system, stopping us from moving forward. For some complaining and confronting are easy, but saying thank you or I love you are impossible. Sometimes we withhold affection because we don’t think it will be received, we withhold love out of fear of being rejected. We will choke on whatever we hold inside us and sometimes precisely what needs to be expressed is love.
And sometimes – maybe even most times - we have the need to express both of these things – sometimes even to the same person. I love you and you hurt me, I trusted you and you let me down. I want to be close to you, but I’m afraid. I love you and I hate you. I love you and I am so hurt that you don’t love me back.
Allow yourself the space to write whatever needs to come out
Once the letter is written figure out some way to complete it. You have written it with no filter, just allowing yourself to say what you really feel. It’s quite likely that you will decide that (at least this version of) this letter is not for the other person, it’s for you. This is often a step toward organizing your feelings and releasing some emotional charge. It may help you to decipher whether something really needs to be said to this person or if writing this has been enough. This may be to burn it, to throw it away, bury it, anything but giving it to the person unless you are really sure that is what needs to happen.
The first incarnation of this article was 50% longer and included various ways to go deeper into this process; questions to ask yourself, coordinates to set your sights to and a whole set of ideas to chew on But then I read it to my dear friend and longtime assistant on my courses, Else, and her response was – “Are you writing a book?” “Is this a book?” which made me reflect a bit on how long an article can get before it starts to pretend that it’s a book and how much a person can ingest in a single reading.
So, I have decided to cut this beast in half and give some time to these practices before introducing the rest. The “deepening” will come in the next newsletter, where we will open into the revelations that came from this first round of work. I’m really happy to be opening the conversation and am looking forward to hearing how this resonates with you. Please leave questions or comments below! Happy Spring Cleaning!