The Memories that Hold us Back


Three years ago, in the middle of the night, I woke up to my neighbours. A female voice said, “Stop attacking me.” Then a male voice said, “I’m not attacking you, just walk with me.” I sat up suddenly in bed and started to think, What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?

Do I call the police? Will calling the police lead to more harm than good? At my job where I run workshops for youth about the justice system, I hear a lot of stories of police brutality. I was hesitant to call.

I went outside to see if I could see what was happening, but they were long gone. She had walked away with him.

I couldn’t fall asleep. Later in the night, around 4 am, I did call the police when it sounded like two other men were breaking into the same apartment the first two people had emerged from.

Around 7 am the man and the woman returned, the woman screaming obscenities at the man and then going into her apartment.

I was very shaken up. My mind started running trying to figure out what had happened. Was she a sex worker who was trying to quit the industry? Where had he taken her? What happened??

I wanted to help but I didn’t know how. I talked to a friend who was studying social work, about what services were available for the woman. She let me know that there wasn’t really anyone other than the police. Social workers don’t respond to calls from concerned neighbours.

I wasn’t able to sleep well after that night. Whenever I heard any noise, someone closing a garbage bin or the sound of a male voice, I would sit up suddenly. Phone in hand, ready to call.


There had been other incidents so I was just waiting for the next shoe to drop. I was working full time. I wasn’t sleeping. I was exhausted.

I decided to move in with some friends for a week to get some sleep. And as soon as I was out, I realized I couldn’t go back. Every bone in my body wanted to stay away, stay somewhere else, anywhere else.

I moved out.

But then, even in the new apartment in a completely different neighbourhood, I would still wake up suddenly sometimes. The sound of a voice or someone closing a car door was all that it took. I would lie in bed trying to fall asleep, telling myself that I was safe, but I was tense. I was jumpy. I didn’t know how to get back to normal.

How do we overcome the memories that hold us back? What happens when our experiences lead to anxiety? How do we find our way back to a place of innocence and trust?

Buddhist nun, author and teacher, Pema Chodren, recommends an exercise, which she describes as a variation on the Tibetan Buddhist practice of Tonglen.

The practice involves bringing forward a memory of a fear that cripples you. Once you’ve connected to the feeling, breathe it in, open to the feeling, breathe the feeling into a large space. She says it’s as if someone asked what this fear feels like and you really wanted to find out.[1]

Typically, she says, when we connect to painful emotions like fear or aversion we try to either push them away or we act out yelling at someone else. This practice is the opposite. You don’t push it away, you don’t act out. You sit and breathe. You feel the emotion as fully as you possibly can.

I discovered this practice shortly after my move out of that apartment and it was a life saver for me. I listened to Pema’s voice describing the practice over and over and over again. Her voice felt like a medicine to my tense body and frightened mind. When a car door slammed and I woke up panicking, I would breathe in the panic, opening my body to the fear completely. Then exhale letting it all go. Slowly over time I got better at relaxing and panicked less.

Pema says it’s not that these powerful emotions will go away, it’s that we won’t be controlled by them. Everyone feels fear, she says, even enlightened people feel fear, it’s just that they don’t allow it to control them. “The point of this practice is not to get rid of fear or to get rid of emotions, it’s to no longer be disempowered by them, to no longer be under their control, to no longer have them sweep us away.”[2]

What do we do when our emotions sweep us away? What do we do when our memories hold us back or stop us from getting the sleep we need? The practice of Tonglen can help.  It helped me return to innocence, to trust and to begin again.

Do you want to:

  • Get more sleep?
  • Stop feeling so drained?
  • Have more time for what you love?

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Take care of yourself!!

Bryn Bamber
Career Burnout Coach
The Courage Compass

P.S. To learn more about this variation of the Tibetian Buddhist practice of Tonglen, please see Practicing Peace in Times of War by Pema Chodren.


[1}Chodren, Pema, Practicing Peace in Times of War: Four Talks (Shambala courtesy of BetterListen, 2009).

[2] Chodren, Pema, Practicing Peace in Times of War: Four Talks (Shambala courtesy of BetterListen, 2009).

[3] Chodren, Pema, Practicing Peace in Times of War: Four Talks (Shambala courtesy of BetterListen, 2009).

Author: Bryn Bamber

Career Coach Bryn Bamber helps people like you find a career that’s aligned with your goals. Her Burnout to Brilliance program teaches you how to make small shifts that will free up tons of energy for the things you really love. Start today with your FREE Checklist: Decrease Stress and Get an Hour of Your Day Back! Get it here - Learn more about Bryn & the Burnout to Brilliance program at

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