As we are in the last few days of 2018, with January and the New Year just ahead, I’ve taken a lot of time for reflection lately, especially over the last week or two. I find reflection through both sitting quietly and journaling to be so vital to my overall health and well-being, and also for recognizing patterns in my thoughts and behavior, to better identify what is working and what isn’t working in my life. Many times, through this reflection, past pain comes to the surface, and not too often, but at times, even things I thought were already healed revisit me. I’ve also noticed, over the last week or two, that there are many people in my life right now who have been going through difficult times and are struggling with very real and painful situations, some from the distant past and others with more recent occurrences. This has all got me thinking more about feelings and pain, especially as it relates to the purpose they play in our lives; I’ve also been seeing how so many people (myself included) have, in the past or currently, not allowed themselves to really feel their pain and use distractions in their lives to numb and run away from their pain. So I want to dive into all of this a little deeper, and possibly shed some light on why we do this, how we can overcome this, and why it’s significant, with the hope that we can cultivate a greater sense of peace in the New Year.
Why We Don’t Want to Feel (especially pain)
I’m not so sure there is any one single answer to this. I believe the reasons are dynamic and that there are many factors that play into this, both biologically and socially from conditioning. Humans, as a species, want to feel good. We get boosts of dopamine whenever we feel “rewarded”, which also motivates us to take action to keep producing this chemical in order to “feel good”. If we use certain substances such as alcohol or drugs, or something as seemingly harmless as alerts from likes or comments on social media to feel rewarded and begin associating those things with rewards, we become more and more motivated to seek these out because of the increased dopamine production, and this can quickly turn into an addiction if not curbed, especially when one is dealing with something painful in their life. Instead of feeling the pain and processing the emotions, one can turn to whatever it may be – alcohol, drugs, food, shopping, social media, pornography, the list goes on – to increase their dopamine production, temporarily “feeling good” from this boost. However, these feelings are just that, temporary, and once the effects wear off, the pain that hasn’t been dealt with is still there, and then the cycle starts over, with the person turning toward their coping mechanism of choice over and over and over, and usually more frequently and with greater intensity, and before long, there is a full-blown addiction. They continue numbing the pain instead of feeling it and allowing themselves to truly heal.
Socially, especially as a Western culture, we have been conditioned to not feel our pain, or at the very least, not to show that we feel any pain, suppressing it as much as we are able. We believe that showing emotion equates with weakness – the last thing we want to do is be or appear vulnerable. Prior to modern society, being weak usually meant death, as we were preyed upon by other species, and it took a lot of effort and energy just to stay alive and meet basic needs. It was part of our survival to look as strong and initimidating as possible, to not only other people, but also other species. Eat or be eaten. “Fight or flight” is also at play here – so many people are living in this sympathetic mode of the nervous system all or most of the time, feeling like they always have to be ready to defend or run, and this includes fighting against or running from anything perceived as a threat, including pain. And since so many people associate pain with being negative or bad or threatening, they stay in this state perpetually in order to “protect” themselves. This was very beneficial for the human race when we had to protect ourselves from predators and also hunt and kill for our food…
Now, with our modern society, we don’t have to work so hard to stay alive. Most of us aren’t going out and killing our own food, and our basic needs for survival are met pretty easily with abundant food and other resources available, at least in our Western culture. We have more free time, and we are inundated by images from media and advertising telling us what we should do, where we should go, what we should look like, what we should wear, what we should drive, what we should eat and drink, even what we should think. So many of us have bought into this idea that everything is supposed to be picture-perfect all of the time, that we are always supposed to be having fun and a good time, and we should never feel lonely or bored, and we should not only look perfect, but we should be surrounded by fun, good-looking people. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with having a good time, or feeling good, or looking good, or surrounding yourself with people who are having a good time, feeling and looking good themselves. However, reality doesn’t lend toward life being this way ALL of the time, and this being the case, in and of itself, has potential to create pain within people, especially when they are conditioned to believe life can or should be this way, and that it should be all the time. Just like pleasure, pain is also part of life, and it serves a purpose. When we numb ourselves from feeling pain, we are really numbing ourselves from feeling TRUE pleasure as well, as they are only opposite ends of the same spectrum. Unfortunately, numbing and resisting our pain creates a block, and this block creates issues physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and energetically.
How to Overcome This
Again, just like why we don’t want to feel, how to overcome this and the blocks we create from numbing and resisting our pain, don’t necessarily have a single solution or answer that works for everyone. And truly, the only person who can heal your pain is you. The answer is within you and the work is up to you. There are modalities, methods, and people who can assist you and make the process easier in some ways, but, at the end of the day, the only way to really heal your pain is to feel your pain, and allowing yourself to feel your pain is completely up to you. This is not so easy for most of us. Many of us have been creating blocks from our pain by numbing it, resisting it, and running from it for years, and not just one painful circumstance or memory, but multiple ones. The blocks are numerous and strong. How one person works to feel their pain may look completely different from another person. As a yoga instructor, I am regularly in the position of creating and holding space for people – space for people to move, to breathe, and to feel. However, they have to make the choice to show up and do the work. And practicing yoga doesn’t necessarily mean you will feel, although with continued, dedicated practice and really being with what comes up during the practice instead of running away from or pushing it away, acknowledging that the discomfort and the difficulty that arise aren’t going to kill you, much of the time enables people to open up enough and release enough to really start feeling and healing. But again, it takes willingness to show up for yousrself, repeatedly and regularly, and allowing yourself to open and release, being present with all that arises. It also requires patience with yourself and with the process, accepting that it does not all happen overnight. Yoga is a tool, but it does not guarantee healing – one has to be willing to use the tool in order for it to work.
Another tool that I like to recommend and use myself is writing or journaling. After my dad died, almost seven-and-a-half years ago now, I wrote him a letter once a month, always on the 16th, for the first year. I created space for myself to sit down, by myself, and just allowed the thoughts and the emotions to come out in the form of words on paper. This allowed me to get my thoughts and feelings out; instead of creating a block, I allowed it all to flow and I allowed myself to cry if I needed to – and even in the midst of all the pain I was experiencing, writing those letters also helped create a sense of peace and joy within me. I remembered happy moments and days spent with my dad; I expressed gratitude that he was in my life and for all that he taught me. So just as I said earlier, pleasure and pain are really just opposite ends of the same spectrum – they go together – and you can’t know one without the other. Because I let myself open up enough to feel and express the pain, I was also open enough to feel the peace and the joy (very healing in and of itself), which wouldn’t have been possible if I was numbing and running from the feelings and emotions. At the time, I didn’t really even realize how powerful what I was doing was. I didn’t know the term “creating space”. But none of that mattered…all that really mattered is that I was letting myself feel what I was feeling. To me, writing letters to him just seemed natural, as I have always enjoyed writing and it has always seemed to come so easily to me. If writing resonates with you, it could be your tool to help you feel and heal. Maybe you need to write a letter to your younger self, or maybe to your parents, telling them something you wanted to long ago and never did, especially if they are no longer living, or maybe to someone who harmed you or caused you pain. Even if this person never reads your letter, the act of creating this space for yourself and allowing all of the feelings to be released, can bring healing.
So writing and yoga are the two tools I’m most familiar with, and that’s why I practice both of them on a regular basis; as I said at the beginning of this post, I find them both to be vital to my overall health and well-being. I do both almost every day, at least four to five days a week, almost all of the time. Creating this space, and practicing both repeatedly, keep me in touch with my emotions and feelings, and I feel safe in expressing them in these forms, which keeps me from creating blocks out of my pain. Instead, I’m able to feel my feelings and emotions and then release them. However, there are still times that I find there might be something a little deeper or in my sub-conscious that hasn’t completely healed. I may think it has (or I may not even be aware of it all), but then, all of a sudden, it’s staring me in the face. But over time, with practice, I’ve learned to be gentle enough with myself to acknowledge it instead of running from or distracting myself from it, and using whatever tool I need or have at the time to process it, feel it, and heal it.
So the best advice I can give at this time is just to create space for yourself. Even if you just start by sitting in quiet and stillness, with the comittment that you are going to sit and just be with whatever comes about, and allow yourself to feel it, and release it. And if you already know of something that you are drawn to or that resonates with you that allows you to feel safe where you can release and be in the flow with your emotions, then do that. There is no right or wrong here. Allow your intuition to guide you and if something feels right, then practice that, or at least try it. Just the effort of showing up – even once – and creating space for yourself, and allowing yourself to start feeling whatever is there can be very empowering, as it allows you to start realizing that feeling whatever it is your feeling is not going to kill you or destroy you – that it is NOT a threat- is oftentimes enough to help you continue facing and feeling your emotions and your pain, so that you can ultimately heal them.
Why This is Signifcant
In short, it’s significant for us to feel and heal because it transforms us from the inside out. Once we have experienced deeper healing and then peace, we are able to model that to those around us and show others what is possible when you are willing to show up, create space for yourself, and use whatever tool works for you to facilitate feeling, releasing, and ultimately healing. Our healing starts inside and then eventually ripples out to those around us. We shift the paradigm, and instead of living in this place of “fight or flight”, “eat or be eaten”…we start to have more compassion for ourselves and for those around us, and then we are also equipped to show up and create and hold space for others who may be in need of healing. That doesn’t mean we can do the work for them, but we can be an example and assist them in whatever ways we are able – and we can do that because we have already been through it ourselves. Ultimately, this creates a more caring, compassionate world with more people who understand the place of emotions and feelings and appreciate their value – in this way, much of addiction, disease, poverty, and many other problems start to dissipate, as there are more people willing to show up in the world and do the work, whatever work it is they may be called to do, knowing that it’s possible; spending their time creating the world they want for themselves and those they love, instead of spending so much time and energy running away from and numbing their pain.
Wishing all of you deep peace, joy, love, and healing now and in the New Year!
“Running away from fear is fear. Fighting pain is pain. Trying to be brave is being scared. If the mind is in pain, the mind is in pain.” -Alan Watts
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