When I first delved into cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as a psychology major, I remember thinking, “This is an evolution for humans.” CBT focuses on examining and challenging one’s thoughts and beliefs, changing related behaviors, and building coping skills and emotional regulation.
Of course, there is a long philosophical tradition of examining the nature of human thought and behavior, but the advent of cognitive and behavioral psychology in the past couple centuries infused these concepts into mainstream culture in a profound way. It’s now common for people to talk about their thoughts as something separate from themselves, and to routinely employ behavior modification techniques in all areas of life.
I had a mentor in my early 20s who was a big advocate of CBT, and at the time I told her I had been exploring methods for healing the memories of traumatic events. I felt both rebuffed and inspired when she said, “You’re wasting your time. We don’t need to go back and relive our childhood or spend the rest of our life lying on some shrink’s couch analyzing everything that ever happened to us! All that matters is, right now, are you going to be at the mercy of your thoughts and automatic behaviors, or are you going to manage whatever comes up in a conscious, intentional way?”
I’ve thought a lot about this in the decades since. My mentor was of the mind that we don’t need to figure out why these painful or dysfunctional patterns keep coming up, we just need to change our response to them, and eventually we’ll transform our psychological makeup in a permanent way. I believe there is real value to this approach, and also . . . sometimes I think we need to go back.
When it comes to our healing and growth, here are three good reasons to revisit your past:
(1) If you’re constantly managing your response to a recurrent pattern, it might be more efficient to get to the root of the pattern and dismantle it (or at least mitigate it) so that it doesn’t come up much, if at all. Of course, you can also use cognitive and behavioral strategies if it does arise.
(2) There is potential for deeper self-awareness, insight, and growth through visiting your past and coming to understand the factors that went into making you who you are. These are opportunities to forgive, correct misunderstandings, reframe our stories, and revise or erase beliefs. While it’s totally possible for many people to be happy without going there, it’s probably not possible to be self-actualized without making peace with your past.
There are some caveats. Analyzing your past can be taken to a self-indulgent degree. It can retrigger old trauma. And most common, it can make us feel worse as we work through it (and experience it without resistance, perhaps for the first time) – though this usually gives way to greater freedom. Thus, it’s important to do this work when you’re feeling relatively stable, with a clear sense of why (what you hope to accomplish), and with the tools and/or support to do it in a way that’s likely to turn out well.
(3) Finally, some people seek total liberation from our programming, i.e., the ego. Once this urge awakens in us, it often never goes fully back to sleep. If you’re in this boat, you may find value in recapitulation.
I read about recapitulation in a Carlos Castaneda book when I was 18 and it seemed unfathomable. Castaneda, a Peruvian anthropologist-turned-apprentice of shamanism, was instructed by his teacher to write down his entire life story, from his very earliest memories, including every person he had ever met. This process, he was told, was necessary to free him from his worldly attachments. It took him years. I remember thinking, “I could never do that.”
Since then, I’ve encountered various forms of recapitulation in my other studies of shamanism, and I now feel it’s more doable than I previously believed. Could it take years? Absolutely. But you’ve got time, and it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. Every time we release some piece of baggage, it’s like dropping a sandbag from a hot air balloon. We’re that much lighter and freer – even if we’re not “done.”
As we go through our history, we find countless moments that have a certain weight or charge. They exist in a state of incomplete resolution. Taken together they have a powerful influence on how we show up in the present. They can make us dwell in the past and fear the future. They can cause us to live within a fraction of the spectrum of what’s possible. In short, they limit our freedom. As we loosen our history’s grip on us, we thus loosen the grip of our ego, and we more readily access our true essence and potential.
I stumbled upon my own recapitulation process while doing somatic releasing practices. In a nutshell, all our history with a charge – everything that doesn’t sit neutrally in us – can be experienced through the body. There is a physical expression and felt experience to all of it. And in willingly visiting it, experiencing it without resistance, and accepting it, we promote its resolution.
If this is unfamiliar territory for you, just try this: Bring up something about your current life or your past that you wish were different. While holding this in mind, expand your awareness to include what you feel in your body. You will perceive a certain unease. As you meet it and even invite it, the unease loosens. (Sometimes this takes a little practice, especially if you’re not accustomed to feeling your feelings. If you’re interested in diving deeper into this process, check out our workbook called Freedom.)
When we do this work we inevitably find layers of holding. We release one layer and discover another layer, and so on. In my case, I began to recognize the layers faster than I could process them, so I started writing them down. Hundreds of cords, linking me to my past, pulling on me, distorting my present self. The list grew at the same rate that I crossed things off it. I’m not nearly done, but I feel much lighter.
I’m not saying a person can’t show up in a clean and authentic way until they release every conflict or resentment they’ve ever had. What I mean is that a thorough recapitulation facilitates ego liberation – something that’s beyond the scope of CBT and, frankly, not of interest to most people.
In my own process, I found that I was sometimes inspired to move my body in certain ways to assist the release of a sticky pattern, which is an integral part of some somatic therapies. Interestingly, it’s also a technique used in shamanic recapitulation. As Sandra Ingerman and Hank Wesselman explain in their book, Awakening to the Spirit World, we can facilitate the “unraveling” of a memory (or the emotional charge attached to it) by spinning. This can also be accomplished by turning the head or twisting the body from side to side, and the authors say they believe this is also why EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) works. They recommend spinning or turning while breathing deep into the memory and its associated emotions, accepting it, and intending to release it.
I believe recapitulation also occurs to some extent automatically, especially when we’re ready for it: in dreaming; in meditation, when we are sometimes spontaneously presented with something from the past that needs to be “cleared”; in yoga and exercise; and very often under the influence of entheogenic (psychedelic) substances, especially when used intentionally as medicine. This is why psilocybin mushrooms are rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the most effective therapies for attaining peace at the end of life.
I’m curious to hear from readers about your experience with the different approaches I discussed. Have you used CBT, and did it help? Have you dug into your past to heal yourself? What methods did you use, and how did it go? Have you done a large scale recapitulation? What was the outcome? Please share.