Trying to be all "Positive"
Years ago when my emotions felt overwhelmingly painful, I became "spiritual" in the youngest sense of the word. I turned to spirituality in the interest of trying to control my moods. Young spirituality can encourage us to use positive affirmations as a way to "wallpaper" over tumultuous emotions that need to be processed with loving presence. In this way, we remain emotionally young, determined to "get rid of" emotional pain through distractions, addictions, numbing and more.
As I meet with more people in therapeutic settings, I can see that it is humanly impossible to feel good all of the time. In our human nature, we are dichotomous creatures of light and dark - full of painful physical symptoms, emotional struggles and puzzling life problems that need loving attention and sometimes radical acceptance.
Whenever we suffer, we can trust some misaligned perspective is coming up from the past and into to our conscious mind for healing. When we are in emotional pain, something limited and not yet known is calling for a kind of love and attention that we were not strong or wise enough to give it in the past.
We suffer for many reasons, but at the root of our suffering is our unwillingness to have a deeper, more loving relationship with what discomforts us. In our kind and courageous exploration of what we have rejected all of our life, we will find all of our hidden mistaken belief systems about life, as well as the more unfathomable soul pain of feeling separate and unloved in a human body.
Spiritual teacher Richard Moss describes this unknown level of emotional pain in his book, "Inside-Out Healing":
"How can you tell if your ego has appropriated a dark feeling? You find yourself compulsively thinking. Your mind will spin with story after story about what is wrong with you, what strategy to pursue or why your situation is hopeless, why your life is ruined or meaningless, or how you can save yourself.
It will find every way to attack you, judge you, blame others, or even attack them. It will make you guilty resentful, terrified, hopeless, impulsive, and aggressive...one after the other. It is frantically trying to create a known (albeit terribly amplified) misery in a desperate attempt to be in control of an unknown and ultimately unknowable feeling that doesn't even realize what it is reacting to.
But the ego can never control what comes from a deeper ground of consciousness....The more your ego spins stories in the face of an abysmal feeling the more miserable you become....Until you can understand what is happening to you and can instead turn your full awareness with focused, spacious attention directly toward the darker feeling, you might as well be in hell."
"After a siege of the Dark Night, when you go back to what can be called normal or ordinary consciousness, you find that your heart has broken open, fear has evaporated, love flows more spontaneously, and you have become more compassionate and forgiving. You have entered previously unknown levels of your being, and it has made you a little more humble and a bit wiser."
Loving What Feels Unlovable
“You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”
~ Sharon Salzberg
Learning to love what is hidden is a fierce transformational journey. Meeting emotional pain with adult witnessing awareness opens the door to self-love.
Full loving attention to emotional pain engenders profound acceptance of the "unacceptable." When we voyage into unmet emotional pain from the past, and meet it with all of the strength that we can muster, we deeply change.
We find inner strength, and our true humanity, when we refuse to flee from uncomfortable emotions. And, at the bottom of all emotional and psychological pain is something that we cannot accept. In the end, it is primarily our our own suffering that must be accepted most of all.
We are made "larger" by being able to sustain deep-breathing presence through difficult feelings. And, after meeting our suffering with such determined acceptance, we are rewarded with blessed relief after the pain finally passes through.
The Willingness to Accept Emotional Pain
Feeling emotional pain without turning it into psychological pain, and without creating stories about what is wrong with ourselves, life, and other people is extremely challenging, but it can be done. Most of us understandably have developed little strength of willingness to "hold" emotional pain in our conscious body awareness without trying to "get it out" or "stuff it" back down.
The need to become more spiritually centered is paramount when emotional pain arises. When the coping mechanisms for repressing emotional pain no longer work, it can feel like agony to sit with difficult emotions and allow them to move through. When my own emotional pain has "boiled and seethed" I found that I needed to amplify my self-care as it felt very easy to become frayed and confused.
We emotionally heal when the strength of our witnessing awareness becomes larger than the intensity of our pain. This does not mean that emotional pain necessarily goes right away, but that we can hold it kindly without shutting down, hurting ourselves, lashing out, or descending into a non-functional state in our practical life.
Pain and Pleasure
During periods of intense emotional pain processing you might find that your sense of soul grows much larger and your awareness of simple pleasures grows much more sensitive. After I have been intensely present with my emotional pain, everything intensifies in color and nuance, and it feels like I can see into the very marrow of life.
I resonate with spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle's concept of the human "pain body." He elucidates two levels to our emotional pain. There is a kind of unnecessary emotional pain that we create from the mistaken thoughts and beliefs that engender our resistance to the truth of life.
And, there are old non-integrated emotional imprints that live in the body mind as unprocessed pain layers from our familial and cultural past that Tolle calls the universal "pain body." Presence to our emotional pain body builds powerful presence:
“Focus attention on the feeling inside you. Know that it is the pain-body. Accept that it is there. Don't think about it - don't let the feeling turn into thinking. Don't judge or analyze. Don't make an identity for yourself out of it. Stay present, and continue to be the observer of what is happening inside you. Become aware not only of the emotional pain but also of "the one who observes," the silent watcher."
- Eckhart Tolle
Emotions Made Manifest in the Body
Each one of us innately knows how to feel "whole" during times of "pain body" processing. As an example, when I struggled with the fire of intense emotional pain, I needed to get out in nature and go for a long run or a walk as I felt like I was going to explode with unprocessed feelings and thoughts.
During an intense period of my life when my heart was aching unbearably, I swam to open up my chest. I had to be careful not to try to soothe myself with too many sweets when I was in emotional pain, and getting to bed early was a must. Intuitive art-making also helped give me perspective, and it brought light and a sense of possibility into what felt dark and unknown.
When we repress emotional discomfort we can become sick. Emotional pain can descend into illness in our body, poison our mind and ruin our relationships. If we stave off our intuitive signals, we might need to process our emotions through a bodily illness. Loving what feels separated, "sick," and alien to the conscious self is a profound way to heal into wholeness and peace.
In my experience, deeper stored imprints of past pain can take hours, days, a week or even years to release into peace. Staying with intense discomfort involves accepting pain to the point of even welcoming it. This non-resistance trusts that there is greater strength, understanding and inspiration on the other end of unprocessed pain.
Helping emotional pain "birth" itself through the body without shoving it down or projecting it out onto others is a fierce challenge but it builds poise and character of the finest kind:
“Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don't know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change.
If there is anything unhealthy in your reactions, just bear in mind that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien; so one must simply help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and to break out with it, since that is the way it gets better.”
~ Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
The Transformational Process of Pain
We all have an inner quota of emotional pain to process in our lifetime. Besides what has happened to us, we have inherited familial, ancestral and soul pain to consider. Meditate on the pain that your mother or father could not process, and consider that you are next in line to take to heal it.
For most of my life until more recently, I struggled with a great deal of emotional pain. I inherited this tendency from my mother as I felt very close to her suffering when I was young. I grew up with a deep longing to find a way to heal emotional pain in a self-loving way as I witnessed the vicissitudes of antidepressants, addictions and suicide as a misaligned "way out" of the human transformational process.
Building Uncommon Strength
The process of loving our non-processed emotional pain from the past forward into present time builds great strength. Most of us experience a deep level of emotional pain that is prior to any reason. When this primal human pain is "presenced-to" it can reveal creative gifts, unusual insights and new life directions.
The inclusion of emotional pain into our witnessing awareness is a part of the essential process of fully embodying our soul in our human body.
When deep and difficult emotions are loved, accepted and embraced until they are over, they engender a depth of compassion that we cannot even begin to fathom when we are self-flagellating, distracting, avoiding or projecting our pain onto other people.
Painful emotions deepen our humanity when we turn to face them. Descending into the emotional memory that was created in our bodies before we developed control over cognitive thought is an exploration of mystery, gifts and new birth.
Joel Rothschild, one of the longest living survivors of HIV contemplates suffering in this way:
"We do all suffer in this life...and I began to wonder if suffering were part of some universal cleansing process. In time I began believe it was. If we are all a cell in the body of God, all connected in this universe, perhaps our suffering functions the way the liver functions in the body: perhaps suffering cleanses the greater being."