A few months ago I received an email from a guy who was ending a relationship with the woman he’d been hoping to meet his entire life. They had a great thing going, looked at the world in a similar way, had no shortage of laughter, great times, passion, real conversations and the ability to relax with each other. They’d taken trips and met each other’s families (he met her entire family, she met his mom and sister, but he doesn’t speak to his dad), and everyone felt they were a great match.
However, this man had grown up watching his dad abuse his mom verbally, emotionally and physically, and he couldn’t get past the fear that eventually this great thing he had would turn into that painful thing he knew; that one day he’d find himself throwing a pan at the head of this woman he adored as their kid stood there watching, or saying things to her that he wouldn’t be able to live with, or doing things that would make him feel terrible about himself. He remembered feeling helpless and enraged as a child, and throwing himself between his mom and his dad as he got bigger. He said he did have a temper, and had managed to keep it in check for the two years he’d been with his girlfriend, but he didn’t think he’d be able to do that for 60 years. So he was going to say goodbye to her to save her from a life of pain. (I could say a lot about how we get ourselves into trouble when we try to manage other people’s paths, but that can wait for now).
The other day someone asked me to address the difference between sitting with your pain (non-reactivity), and processing it (liberation). I think this is a huge and important distinction. Sitting with your pain means you don’t run or numb out when uncomfortable and intense feelings arise, such as rage, grief, fear, shame, loneliness or despair. You don’t race out the door, pop a pill, have a drink, play a video game, go shopping, take a hit, open the refrigerator, pick up the phone in anger, or shoot off a fiery email. You just allow the feelings to arise and you observe them. You notice sensations in your body, like maybe shallow breathing, or that your shoulders are up around your ears, or there’s tension between your eyebrows, or a literal ache around your heart or deep in your belly. You let the feelings wash over you without acting, and with the understanding that they aren’t permanent and they aren’t facts. They won’t kill you, and you don’t have to act on them. They’re just feelings, and they will arise, peak and subside. By sitting with them you open to the possibility of learning something essential about yourself — the why of your rage, fear or shame — and by facing those feelings you own them, they don’t own you; they don’t run your show, you run it. You choose how you respond, you don’t allow yourself to lash out in a state of reactivity and end up with a mess you have to clean up. Working on becoming less reactive and more responsive is huge, it’s a life-changer.
If you want to process your feelings — if, for example, you find rage is coming up for you all the time, then I would recommend that you find yourself a great therapist or coach, someone you trust and feel safe with, so you can dive into the source of what’s causing you so much pain. That’s as subjective an undertaking as finding a great yoga teacher, someone who resonates with you, and with whom you feel comfortable. I know so many people who say they tried therapy once (or yoga) and it “wasn’t for them.” You may have to call a number of people to figure out the right person to work with. Having someone who can kindly hold up a mirror for you so you can see your pain clearly, but also your light, also your power, can be so helpful. Combining that with a consistent yoga practice so you can work on feeding a loving voice while you’re on your mat is really powerful. The other thing I’d highly recommend is seated meditation. When you sit, and there’s nothing coming in, and nothing going out, you start processing what’s inside you. It’s kind of like emotional fasting, not that there’s an absence of emotion, just that the emotion is arising from deep within you. Eventually, if you stick with a seated meditation practice, you become more interested in the fact that you’re thinking, and not in the thoughts themselves. Eventually you find some peace in the space between your thoughts, which will increase if you stick with it. I’ve been practicing Vipassana (insight) meditation for almost two decades, you can check it out at dhamma.org if you’re interested.
The thing is, there’s no easy way around this stuff. Whatever your pain, you’ll have to go through it, but there are so many tools and healing modalities that help. You just have to explore and figure out what’s going to be helpful to you on your path toward healing. For me, yoga, seated meditation and therapy are a great mix, along with reading and writing. For you, it may something else, but there’s no reason your particular frame of reference has to rule your life. You can only know what you know, right? Whatever you’ve been through makes up your frame — the lens through which you look at the world and process data. Sometimes that lens is bent, or cracked, or covered over with a thick layer of despair. You work with your lens so you can see clearly. That’s the liberation I mentioned above. It’s not the that pain goes away, it’s simply that you recognize it when it comes up, and the force of it has been so diminished by your work, it doesn’t rule your life anymore. You don’t assume that what you’ve known is all there is. You have the freedom to imagine something else for yourself, to create something that maybe you’ve never known or seen, but you know in your heart is possible. You have the power to forge a different path.
Wishing that for you, and sending you love, as always,
If the posts are helpful, you can find my books here, and my yoga classes and courses here. If you’d like to sign up for one-on-one online coaching with me, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.