“Pain is not punishment, pleasure is not a reward. Both are just natural occurrences. Kindness, kindness, kindness.”
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche to a bride and groom at their wedding.
Sometimes, life can feel like a whirlpool and you are being dragged into the vortex of hell. Hell can be dissonance in a relationship, financial or physical woes, or lack of purpose. Intense anxiety comes from thinking you can’t handle it and catastrophizing about how much worse things will get.
At those moments, the last thing you want is to delve deeper, or even allow the downward spiraling energy to carry you along, but that is exactly where freedom and relief lie. For what is at the end of any plunge but solid ground?
Allowing yourself to surrender to the inevitable, whether it be the dissolution of a relationship, facing an illness, dealing with debt, or acknowledging a sense of purposelessness, all have the capacity to jolt you into a new way of being with yourself and the world.
Unfortunately, the natural tendency is to fight tooth and nail to avoid an emotionally chaotic landslide. But fighting reality only creates more pain, anxiety, depression, anger, guilt, and feelings of worthlessness.
Instinctively, humans are designed to avoid what is fearful. Since cave dwelling times that helped us survive and evolve. Yet, even thousands of years ago, the Buddha realized running from reality (unless it was from a hungry tiger) only deepened fear. While the Buddha was not privy to current research on neurobiology, he was ahead of his time. We now know neurons that fire together wire together. Whatever you habitually do gets stronger until it becomes almost automatic. Thus, anxiety begets more anxiety until it can feel like living in a roiling sea of dread.
At first glance, it may seem that running away from what scares you, whether through an addiction or with other, less harmful, distractions keeps the demons at bay, but avoidance only makes your fears grow until you can no longer deny them. The greatest kindness you can show yourself is letting go into the free fall of life knowing you will land on solid ground. The terra firma of your own center.
While it may go against your grain to face your fears, this habit develops courage, perseverence, and self-discipline, the very trio that help you navigate life more easily.
One way to strengthen your ability to sit with reality is to start small.
First, give yourself a cosmic permission slip to feel whatever is true for you now.
Notice when you are disappointed. It could be your plans were cancelled, you sprained your ankle, or the grocery store was out of your favorite treat. Watch your reactions. Which parts of your body have tensed up? What are you thinking? Are you angry? Do you suddenly feel defeated? Are you projecting a bleak future?
Write them all down. Starting with your body, describe your physical feelings as best as you can. Then, breathe into the spaces that feel tight and see how they change. Next, look at your thoughts. Are they helpful? Are they true? What would you prefer to think? Finally, go inside and feel your feelings. Where did they come from? The two most likely places are your thoughts and your past experiences. What happened in your childhood when your desires were thwarted? Remind yourself, you are no longer that little child. You have amassed a slew of coping mechanisms, new ways of thinking, and behavioral interventions (like talking a walk, breath work, listening to music, having tea, calling a friend, etc.), any of which can be retrieved when you feel out of kilter.
Do you have a history of trauma? If so, even the slightest current challenge can trigger a cascade of negative bodily reactions and unwelcome emotions. For example, someone canceling a plan because they are ill can bring you back to other times when you felt abandoned. This is an unconscious process that can flood your system with a variety of sensations, thoughts, and feelings. The good news is accepting what is true for you now and gently moving towards it shows you you can handle more than you thought. That said, if you were abused it is important to get some help. You do not need to navigate those turbulent waters alone.
Goethe once said, “Words are a raft when the mind is at sea.”
If you don’t already keep a journal, please get one and write in it. Many mind-body practitioners, including Dr. John Sarno and Dr. David Hanscom, attest to the value of journaling for treating a variety of psychogenic and auto-immune issues. A key ingredient here is to write out all your thoughts and feelings, no self-censorship. Psychologically, writing down whatever you are thinking and feeling cleanses it from your cranium.
University of Texas at Austin psychologist and researcher James Pennebaker contends that regular journaling strengthens immune cells, called T-lymphocytes. Other research indicates that journaling decreases the symptoms of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. Pennebaker believes writing about stressful events helps you come to terms with them, thus reducing their impact on your physical health.
The act of writing accesses your rational, analytical left brain. This frees your right brain to create, intuit, and feel.
Writing also helps you:
Clarify your thoughts and feelings.
Gain self-knowledge; especially regarding people and situations that feel unhelpful, or even toxic, to you.
Release the emotional intensity from feeling angry, grief-stricken, or overwhelmed.
Become more mindful and present.
Because writing uses both sides of the brain it is an excellent way to solve problems and figure out creative ways to deal with difficult people. You might even find your perspective shifting as you write.
Keeping a journal allows you to track patterns and growth over time. One of the greatest benefits is how your own notes remind you of all you have already handled in your life. When current circumstances appear insurmountable, you can look back on previous challenges and see how you coped.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang