“Your life is set up so that you will come face to face with your wounds. Parents, spouses, children, and friends are here to help you see your need for healing, and you are performing the same function in their lives.”
—Paul Ferrini, Love Without Conditions
“We normally attempt to solve our inner disturbances by protecting ourselves. Real transformation begins when you embrace your problems as agents for growth.”
—Michael Singer, Untethered Soul
“Other people trigger the karma that we haven’t worked out yet.”
—Pema Chodron, Start Where You Are
So, I’ve discovered something over the past few years of dating:
I have issues.
Lots of them.
I didn’t really see them during my marriage, perhaps because I married so young and had grown so comfortable in the relationship that I saw the issues which crept up as just the way things were, or perhaps because I’ve only begun reading some of the things that have helped me to see and face them, but in my subsequent relationships I find them everywhere. I’m deeply insecure, mistrustful, afraid, and I have an extreme fear of abandonment. I can be both controlling and manipulative in my attempts to get other people to solve my problems, and I’m constantly seeking reassurance of someone’s love and commitment for me. In short:
I’m a freaking mess.
But I’m also learning. And one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is how to take care of emotions such as fear, anger, anxiety, insecurity, pain, etc. without seeking to avoid them or make anyone else responsible for them. In his book Untethered Soul, Michael Singer speaks of negative emotions as inner thorns we constantly seek to protect ourselves from by avoiding anything that might come into contact with them. Eventually, these thorns, and our attempts to keep anything from touching them, run our entire lives.
“It affects all your decisions, including where you go, whom you’re comfortable with, and who’s comfortable with you. It determines where you’re allowed to work, what house you can live in, and what kind of bed you can sleep on at night. You feel that because you’ve minimized the pain of the problem, you’ve solved the problem. But it’s not solved. All you did was devote your entire life to avoiding it. It is now the center of your universe.”
This is so true, right? We’re constantly seeking to avoid the things which cause emotional pain and discomfort. But if we really want to be free from these emotions, rather than avoid the things which touch our “thorns,” we must remove them altogether. He says the we we do this is by allowing ourselves to fully feel them. This seems like such a contradiction, but Thich Nhat Hanh says that by paying attention to our emotions we invite the “energy of mindfulness” to care for them “like a mother taking a baby in her arms”:
“The next time you are angry, breathe and concentrate solely on breathing: ‘breathing in—I know that I am breathing in; breathing out—I know that I am breathing out.’ After a minute or two, you practice this way: ‘Breathing in—I know that I am angry; breathing out—I know that anger is still in me.’ Ten minutes later, you will feel better. It is a sure thing, on condition that the energy of mindfulness is really there; and if you keep it up, concentration—and not only concentration but also deep looking- will also be there. You will be able to look deeply at the true nature of your anger. This discovery, this understanding, this wisdom, will liberate you from your pain.”
In her book, Love Warrior, Glennon Doyle describes this process beautifully, in a scene which takes place just after she discovers her husband of over a decade has been cheating on her during their entire marriage (this is long, but well worth the read):
“Hello. I’m Amy. Thank you for coming to hot yoga.”
Hot yoga? What fresh hell is this? Too embarrassed to leave, I sit back down, wipe sweat from my face, and stare at the door longingly as the room starts closing in on me. While I scramble to plot my escape, Amy says, “Let’s decide on our intentions for class.” She nods to a woman up front who smiles and says, “My intention is to embrace loving-kindness today.” The second person says, “I want to radiate sunlight to all creation.” I sit, incredulous, as the next few ask for peace, strength, and clarity. What the hell are these people talking about? What am I doing wasting my time in here when my entire life is falling apart out there? Loving-kindness? I have real problems, people! Then it’s my turn and Amy is looking right at me. When I open my mouth, this is what comes out: “My intention is just to stay on this mat and make it through whatever is about to happen without running out of here.” My voice trembles, and the room gets very quiet. Something about Amy’s eyes makes it clear to me that I’ve just said something important.
Amy breaks the silence by replying, “Yes. You just be still on your mat. Yes.”
She starts the class, and for ninety minutes I sit still on my mat with no escape from my self. It is torturous. All the images I’ve been trying to outrun appear in front of me. Ghosts from the past: There I am on the laundry room floor; there is my baby crying into her cereal; there is Craig taking another woman to bed; and there they are afterward, hugging, kissing, laughing. Ghosts from the future: There is Craig walking down the aisle with another woman; there is Tish as a flower girl—wait, is that bride stopping to tuck my little girl’s hair behind her ear? Is she holding my girl’s hand? No, No, NO! It’s like a sadistic game of Whac-A-Mole in which the moles are my worst fears popping up in front of me and I have no mallet. I have nothing to swat at these ghosts with, no way to distract myself from them, nowhere to run from them, nothing to do at all but be still and face them. I wipe away tears that keep forming in response to my misery and the restlessness that feels like it might actually kill me. Sitting there, unmoving, my body hurts as much as my heart does. I feel so alone with my love and pain.
As I watch the others—people who are not just sitting, but stretching, and posing, and contorting—I consider feeling embarrassed. I try to remember that their intentions are not my intentions, their straws are not my straws, their paths are not my path. My directions were specific and personal: Be still and do not run out of here. A few times I choke back loud tears and I feel embarrassed again. All I can do is let myself feel embarrassed. Let them hear you. We are all here for different things. You are here to learn how to stay on your mat and feel the pain without running out of here. Be still. So the images keep coming and I just let my tears fall and mix into my sweat. I let it all be terrifying and horrible and unfair. I sit there and accept how unacceptable it all is. I just let it be.
Somehow, Amy understands. She comes by my mat to check on me throughout the class, and on her face I see respect. She knows I’m learning something important. I can tell she’s already learned it. Many times, maybe. Every few minutes she looks at me and gives a little nod that means, Yes, you’re doing this right. Don’t give up. Don’t run out. And finally, after ninety minutes, we are done. Amy asks us to lie down, and I lower myself to the floor and open my eyes to the ceiling. I realize that I have allowed myself to see it all and feel it all and I have survived. All the ghosts are still there, but they’re less threatening now. They can scare me, but they cannot kill me. They tried, but I won. Everything is still a bloody mess, yet here I am. Alive. I’d been fully human for an hour and a half and it had hurt like hell. It had almost killed me, but not quite. That not quite part seems incredibly important.
I close my eyes and when the tears flow downward toward my mat, I feel surprised that there’s any liquid left inside of me. Then I feel a hand on my arm, and along with it, an immediate twinge of shame: I am sweaty and crying and snotty and gross and someone is close to me. Up close, touching me. But I do not pull away. I do not wipe my eyes or my nose. I just let us be. I open my eyes and Amy is right there next to me and she says, “That—what you just did? That is the Journey of the Warrior. Now, don’t forget to breathe. You need to remember to breathe.” I do not understand why everyone keeps telling me to breathe. I’m alive, aren’t I? Isn’t it clear that I’m breathing? And what is the Journey of the Warrior?
Finally Amy bows to us and tells us that the God in her honors the God in us. She opens the door and the cool air rushes in. I walk out through the lobby and into the sun and experience an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. The Journey of the Warrior. This phrase rings a bell in my soul, but why? I climb into my van, rush home, and pull Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart off my nightstand. I flip to a page I’ve dog-eared and I run my finger down the lines to a sentence I’d underlined and highlighted but hadn’t really understood until now:
“So even if the hot loneliness is there, and for 1.6 seconds we sit with that restlessness when yesterday we couldn’t sit for even one, that’s the journey of the warrior.”
I sit down on the floor and as I read that sentence over and over, I understand that my entire life has been a race from the hot loneliness. I picture ten-year-old me, feeling my anger, fear, jealousy, otherness, unbelonging for the first time and understanding these uncomfortable but normal human feelings to be wrong, shameful. I thought I needed to hide these feelings, escape them, fix them, deliver myself from them. I didn’t know that everyone feels the hot loneliness. I didn’t know that it would pass. So for the next twenty years, every time anger or fear or loneliness started bubbling up, I reached for an easy button—a book, a binge, a beer, a body, a shopping spree, a Facebook feed—to shove it back down. I’d press that button and find myself magically transported to a pain-free place. Distracted, numbed, underwater, gone. Off my mat again and again. Running out of here.
Oh my God—what if the transporting is keeping me from transformation? What if my anger, my fear, my loneliness were never mistakes, but invitations? What if in skipping the pain, I was missing my lessons? Instead of running away from my pain, was I supposed to run toward it? Perhaps pain was not a hot potato after all, but a traveling professor. Maybe instead of slamming the door on pain, I need to throw open the door wide and say, Come in. Sit down with me. And don’t leave until you’ve taught me what I need to know.
I’ve never let myself trust love because I’ve never let myself trust pain. What if pain—like love—is just a place brave people visit? What if both require presence, staying on your mat, and being still? If this is true, then maybe instead of resisting the pain, I need to resist the easy buttons. Maybe my reliance on numbing is keeping me from the two things I was born for: learning and loving. I could go on hitting easy buttons until I die and feel no pain, but the cost of that decision could be that I’ll never learn, love, or be truly alive.”
I love Pema Chodron’s words about sitting with our restlessness for just a few seconds longer than we were able to the day before. Each time my “thorns” are hit, I challenge myself to sit with them for as long as possible, but also give myself permission to distract myself when I can no longer hold it. And the amazing thing is: it’s working. It’s hard to believe that negative energy can be transformed simply through the act of paying attention, but it’s true. I have noticed that the length of time I’m capable of sitting with pain/anger/fear/etc. has gotten much longer over time, and the more often I do this, the less things trigger me (for a more in-depth discussion of why this may be, click HERE.) I’m still insecure, but less so. I still become anxious, but the effects aren’t as intense. I still experience fear, but not nearly as often. And when I do experience these emotions, I now know how to take care of them.
I am learning to stay on my mat.