For the rest of the morning, Luskin takes those of us in the workshop through some basic mindfulness exercises. We practice abdominal breathing. Through guided visualizations, we're asked to picture someone we love and imagine our hearts opening. I think of my mother-in-law, Vivian, one of the "other mothers" I've sought in my life, who died four years ago. I'm astonished to feel tears on my cheeks and warmth spreading through my body. I also feel calmer, which apparently is the idea. But it's not long before my mind leaps back to my anger at my own mother.
"When you think about a wrong someone did to you, your fight-or-flight system is aroused," explains Luskin. "Your heart beats faster, your blood pressure goes up, you feel hurt and mad. But you could be sitting here feeling how good it is to be alive on such a beautiful day. You won't always be alive, you know. So doesn't it make more sense to appreciate this moment, this now?"
It's all I can do not to roll my eyes, and looking around the table, I see I'm not the only one. I want to say: "Yes, but I don't know how to do that! I'm stuck in all these feelings! And my mother really, really hurt me!" Luskin ignores our agitation and asks us to make lists of things we've thought, felt, and done in response to whatever our forgiveness issue is. Therapy, I write. Medication. Talking to my mother. Talking to my father. Talking to other people about my mother. Not talking to my mother. Arguing with my mother. Reading books about mother-daughter relationships.
Then Luskin asks us to put a star by anything that hasn't been helpful. Every item on my list gets a star.
"Does anything on your list solve the problem?" he asks the room. A unanimous "No." "So is your response a skillful, healing way to deal with a life problem?" he says. "And if not, how do you find a better one?"
We stare at Luskin. "This is very simple stuff," he tells us for the dozenth time. "Simple but not easy. If I could boil it down to one sentence—"
He pauses, and a blonde woman sitting at the end of the table pipes up, "Don't worry, be happy!"
Everyone but Luskin laughs. "That's pretty much it," he says. "Don't worry, be happy."
I'm reminded of my first sailing lesson, alone in a Sunfish while a friend called instructions from another boat. "Get closer to the wind!" he kept shouting, to my bafflement. The wind was all around. How could I get closer?
I understand that forgiveness is for me, not my mother; that I'm the one most hurt by my anger and frustration. And I want to let go of those feelings, I really do. I want to "be happy," as Luskin would say. But we've been at this for hours and I don't have even the vaguest idea of how to do it.
At the afternoon break, I snag Luskin for a few minutes to pose a question: It's one thing to forgive something that's happened, that's over and done. But what if the person who hurt you in the past keeps hurting you over and over, in the present? He interrupts before I get the last words out. "It's not happening now, this second," he says in an offhand way. "So try again."
I take a breath, unclench my jaw, and pose a different question: "How can you keep yourself safe with a difficult person?" In response, Luskin smiles—the first genuine smile I've seen from him all day. "That's the right question," he says, beaming. "That gets rid of the blame and the enemy." And keeps the focus where it belongs, on me. "You can probably answer that question yourself," he says.
My answer, I tell him, is to keep my distance from my mother, talking to her maybe once or twice a year. He nods encouragingly. "Now, can you do that with an open heart?" he asks.
I sit back in my chair and consider—deeply, seriously, honestly—what that would mean: No more bitching about my mother. No more whining to friends for sympathy. No more self-pity. Thinking of my mother with as much compassion as I can muster, but not necessarily getting any closer to her. Accepting our relationship as it is rather than wishing it were different.