How I Found Forgiveness and Compassion When I Felt Hurt and Betrayed

“I can bear any pain as long as it has meaning.” ~Haruki Murakami

I’ve always felt like someone on the outside. Despite having these feelings I’ve been relatively successful at playing the game of life, and have survived through school, university, and the workplace—although, at times, working so hard to ’survive’ has impacted my emotional well-being.

I have been lucky enough to have healthy and supportive relationships with a few loved ones who have accepted me as I am (quirks and all). To anyone else I’ve come across, I suspect I’ve been perceived as inexplicably normal and inoffensive.

Like many of us who have suffered with our mental health, I’ve always been curious to learn more about who I am beyond the surface level experiences of life. Spirituality is a big umbrella, and in my quest for truth I explored various modalities. I eventually found a home within a small yoga community.

I find many of us seekers feel deeply and have a tendency to overcomplicate things that just are. In my mind this style of yoga worked; quite simply, I followed the practices and life felt a little bit easier, I felt more acceptable as I was, and I believe it made me a better human being to people around me.

The deeper I went into the practice, the more I began to observe its pitfalls. As is common in many spiritual lineages, it’s quite often not the methods and the teachings that are fallible, but how humans interpret and relate to them.

In my particular lineage, the leader was found to have physically and sexually assaulted students over a period spanning decades. Those who were brave enough to come forward were silenced, and it took many years before the evidence became so undeniable that the community (by and large) finally acknowledged the truth.

The revelation and realization that the leader was fallible caused significant pain to many during this time, and is sadly an experience not unique in spiritual sanghas.

At this time some conversations were had regarding the student-teacher dynamic, and the propensity for abuse in our lineage, but no cohesive and collective safeguards were established or defined. Small fringe communities developed during this time in an apparent greater commitment to change; however, it was by no means the status quo.

The leader, at this point, had left his body, and it appeared as if many felt it was this man alone who was the problem, and therefore the problem was no more.

I loved the practice, and I felt my knowledge of the history of the lineage equipped me with an awareness of the propensity for harmful power dynamics to occur. I was fortunate in the early years of my journey to have teachers whose only objective appeared to be to support students by sharing what they knew.

For the first time ever, I didn’t feel like I was an outsider—I felt acceptable as I was. Sadly, however, due to a teacher relocating, I joined a new community with a new teacher, and this is where my story of pain begins.

My new teacher must have been suffering. The specifics around my experience are not relevant for this article, but I understand now I was bullied, belittled, and manipulated. Maybe it was a misunderstanding? Maybe I asked too many questions? Maybe I was too direct? Maybe I wasn’t obsequious enough? I went over and over in my head to try to understand, why me?

I still loved the practice and wanted to be welcomed like everyone else. Throughout my experience I remained respectful to the teacher, but it was a confusing time. Eventually, I can only assume, the teacher got bored with playing with me and played her final card, banning and ostracizing me from the group. I was also labelled to the community as abusive and an aggressor.

And, oh boy, did that bring up a cycle of emotions. Written down on paper like this they are just words, but I can promise you they felt intense and consuming and relentless. I felt…

-Humiliation: I have been misrepresented. I can’t show my face ever again. People don’t believe me that I did nothing wrong.
-Shame: Why am I the person who has been ostracized? There really must be something really wrong with me.
-Rage: How dare someone cause me this much hurt? How dare they claim to be a spiritual leader?
-Resentment: No one else in the community has stood up for me; none of them can be good people to let this happen.
-Grief: I have lost a practice I really loved. My heart is broken.
-Depression: My path gave me purpose, now what?

Subsequently, my life unraveled, and I can honestly say the period following was the darkest of my life. Family, friends, and my therapist allowed me space to explore and accept my pain.

We all experience the world through our own lens, and I appreciate I may have personal defects that clouded my experience of the situation. However, I do see now that I was wronged. No teacher will perfectly match my personal disposition, and that’s okay. However, they should offer a safe and inclusive space for spiritual discovery. I wasn’t given that, and that wasn’t good enough. 

So many times, well-being supporters would tell me, “You need to move on, forgive, forget, find another yoga space.” I understood but I didn’t know how to go about that.

At the time, a good friend was going through recovery from alcoholism and working the twelve steps. She told me that she was praying every day for people who had harmed her.

“How can you do that?” I remember asking her. “I couldn’t wish well for those who have harmed me.” My friend told me that, to begin with, she didn’t believe what she was saying, but that over time she began to feel compassion and forgiveness toward those people.

So that’s what I did. I made a commitment to myself to start practicing daily forgiveness meditations.

To begin with, I worked on forgiving the teacher. I learned more about this teacher’s past and learned about a significant life event that I believe may have caused great pain. We all have shadow sides, and I spent time reflecting on the occasions where I may have hurt people to project my own suffering. With time, I was able to see and accept that her actions towards me came from a place of hurt.

I also spent time reflecting on the positive things the teacher gave me. I acknowledged how she’d held virtual space for our community through covid lockdowns, which undoubtedly helped many of us during those isolating times. I appreciated how she had introduced me to several authors whose words I continue to find great richness in, and whose books I have since recommended to others. The teacher also helped me to advance my physical asana practice, through encouraging me to find possibility in movement which felt impossible.

It didn’t happen overnight, but I was gradually able to find space in my heart for compassion toward this teacher. However, I wasn’t fully healed.

I began to understand that there lay deeper hurt and anger directed at other community members, some of whom were aware of this abuse and either denied it or chose to do nothing, believing it had nothing to do with them.

It was through those interactions that I began to understand the pain of victim denial and gaslighting. I felt angered by the lack of collective action by the community to hold harmful teachers accountable, and to enforce better safeguards to ensure greater student safety. I knew there were others who, like me, had been hurt, and that broke my heart.

So that’s what my current practice is focused on—healing and forgiving institutional betrayal.

I am lucky to have joined a new community that feels much kinder. It has taken time, but I am now able to separate my feelings toward yoga from the hurt I felt from individuals in the yoga community.

I recognize now that many of those who silenced me when I tried to speak up about my teacher were just ignorant; they weren’t cruel. There is still pain, but with time I can see how this experience is a gift; it has taught me how to find forgiveness and reminded me of the importance of compassion toward all beings.

About Emma Callaghan

Emma is a city-living accountant, slowly transitioning away from the corporate sphere. She is passionate about community and inclusivity and maintains a daily yoga sadhna.

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