The Root of Suffering
In our human nature, we are dichotomous creatures of light and dark - full of painful emotional struggles, physical symptoms, and puzzling life problems that need loving attention and sometimes radical acceptance.
We suffer for many reasons, but at the root of all of our suffering is our unwillingness to have a deeper, more loving relationship with what discomforts us.
Whenever we suffer, something limited (younger) 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.
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."
“You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”
~ Sharon Salzberg
At the bottom of all emotional pain is something that we cannot accept. In the end, it is primarily our own suffering that must be accepted most of all. We find our true humanity when we refuse to flee from our uncomfortable emotions.
Learning to love what is painful inside is a fierce transformational journey. Meeting "younger" emotional pain with adult witnessing awareness opens the door to warm and abiding self-love.
With loving attention, we can find the negative beliefs that underpin emotional pain. Negative beliefs are false premises about ourselves, life and others that create dysfunction and pain.
Full loving attention to emotional pain invites profound acceptance of what seems "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 are made "larger" by sustaining deep-breathing presence through difficult emotions. And, after meeting our suffering with such determined acceptance, we are rewarded with new strength.
Feeling emotional pain without turning it into psychological pain - without creating stories about what is wrong with ourselves, life, and other people is challenging, but it can be done.
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 up" I found that I needed to amplify my self-care as it felt very easy to become frayed.
We heal emotionally when the strength of our witnessing awareness grows larger than the intensity of our pain. This does not mean that emotional pain necessarily goes away immediately, but that we can hold pain kindly without shutting down, hurting ourselves, lashing out on others, or descending into non-functional states in our practical life.
The Pain Body
After periods of intense emotional pain processing, you might find that your awareness of simple pleasures grows more sensitive. After I have been intensely present with my emotional pain, everything intensifies in colour 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.
1. There is a kind of unnecessary emotional pain that we create from the limiting (ego) beliefs that keep us feeling small and helpless.
2. And, there are also old non-integrated emotional imprints that live in the body as unprocessed pain from our personal, familial, ancestral and cultural past that Tolle calls the "pain body."
“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
Each one of us innately knows how to find our "silent watcher" during times of "pain body" processing. Find ways to stay "solid" enough to witness emotional pain is an intuitive process. As an example, when I struggle with intense emotional pain, I get out in nature and go for a long walk to get grounded.
During an intense period of my life when my heart was aching, I swam daily to open up my chest. During times of "pain processing" I have to be careful not to try to "soothe myself" with too much food, and getting to bed early is a must. During times of emotional pain processing, intuitive art-making also helps give me perspective, bringing a sense of possibility into what feels dark and unknown.
When we ignore emotional discomfort we can become sick. Emotional pain can descend into illness in our body. Loving what feels separated, "sick," and alien to the conscious (social) self is a way to heal into peace. If we continuously push down what needs to come up into the light to heal, we might need to process our emotions through a bodily illness instead.
Our emotional pain body has many layers. Staying with intense discomfort involves accepting pain to the point of even welcoming it. Everything can be loved into the light of conscious awareness. Kindly accepting emotional pain without pushing it back down or projecting it out onto others builds character.
“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
I felt very affected by my mother's emotional 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 "way out" of the human transformational process.
We all have an inner quota of emotional pain to process in our lifetime. Besides what has happened to us personally in the past, we each have familial, ancestral and soul pain to heal. You might, for example, be processing the pain that your mother or father could not process.
Building Soul Strength
The inclusion of emotional pain into our witnessing awareness is part of the essential process of fully embodying our soul in our human body.
When difficult emotions are accepted and embraced until they release, we invite a depth of self-compassion that we cannot even begin to fathom when we are distracting, avoiding or projecting our pain onto other people.
Painful emotions deepen our humanity and amplify our soul power whenever we turn to face them with acceptance.
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 to 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."