Intimacy with ourselves

When someone seeks out a therapist, it’s usually because they’ve identified “problems” they want help with. They experience a problem or life challenge that somehow separates them from a contented life. The identified problem can really be just about anything within the conditions of human experience. The person seeking help often thinks and feels that they’re unable to resolve their difficulty on their own, and so they reach out for help, often seeking out a “professional” in the form of a counselor or psychotherapist. There is a hope that the therapist can do or say something that will help– a faith that this professional sitting  before them has the power to alleviate their pain and suffering. Naturally, the therapist indeed does try to help, using particular words, questions, suggestions, and directives.

In therapy lingo, these helping gestures are termed interventions. One such intervention, seemingly ordinary and unsophisticated, is simply listening with an empathetic ear to the sufferers anguished narrative. Another might be to help the client meticulously dissect the problem in order to understand it better, trusting that a deeper analysis will reveal the problem’s origin. By increasing awareness of the problem’s origin, newfound insights may come forth and lessen suffering in the present moment. Yet another strategy may be to encourage the client to experience their repressed feelings in the hopes that this will resolve the current distress. While all these interventions may temporarily diminish the severity of the client’s problem, there is another way to relate to human suffering which is all too often overlooked because of it’s near invisibility.

This way doesn’t begin with action steps, strategies, treatment plans or interventions. Rather, it begins with the therapist and client asking one simple question: How do we relate to suffering? Your suffering, my suffering, collective suffering. Are we unconsciously colluding here, identifying something as a problem, then working hard to get rid of it? For instance, for someone with anxiety symptoms, great efforts may be made in order to lessen the anxiety. Psychotropic medication, daily yoga and meditation, positive affirmations, cognitive restructuring, eating healthfully, learning to express feelings, and exploring childhood traumas may all be utilized in trying to loosen the grip of anxiety. However, while all these strategies may reduce anxiety in the short term, they firmly establish an anti-anxiety orientation where “anxiety” becomes a disease that must be eradicated as soon as humanly possible. It’s a subtle yet powerful orientation, one that positions the suffering person in direct opposition to their present moment experience. In this example, demonizing anxiety symptoms reinforces an anti-what-is-present orientation, solidifying it further into place with fear and aversion.

When we call our inner conflicts “demons,” they often dutifully obey us by becoming just that and more.

If an inner conflict didn’t exist already, it has now been hammered into solid form by the well-meaning therapist. A showdown between the sufferer and his “problem” soon follows, which we will soon see, only compounds suffering. In desperation (and perhaps guided by the therapist), the sufferer and therapist may reach for a variety of strategies to diminish or destroy the anxious symptoms. While these strategies may work in the short term to reduce symptoms, they ultimately only serve to strengthen anxiety over the long haul.

Why is this? Because when we look closely at many good-faith strategies to diminish anxiety, we realize we’re actually saying “NO” to anxiety. How often have you heard someone say, “I just hate feeling this way?” What’s really at play when we say “no” is a subtle yet powerful form of rejection– the anxiety sufferer is rejecting a very real and personal aspect of his experience. Though this may sound extreme, this is actually a form of self-hatred. Self-hatred because the sufferer is hating their very own feelings, which is a core aspect of who they are. Even worse, their anti-what-is-present stance actually intensifies suffering because of a simple, natural theorem that is not common knowledge in popular culture: resistance to unwanted experience keeps that very experience alive.

This can be illustrated with a simple analogy. Think of trying to hold a beach ball under water. The further we push it down, the more pressure it exerts in rising up. The more we resist something, the more it nags and persists for our attention. The more we say no to unwanted, unpleasant thoughts and feelings, the more they clamor for our attention, incessantly nagging at us in so many frustrating ways. Days of suffering may turn into weeks, week into months and even years as we fall victim to the mind’s relentless avoidance of our present moment experience. This is not to say that external problems, such as being abused by an intimate partner, require mere acceptance. A situation like domestic violence requires a sober recognition of the problem and decisive action steps on the part of the victim.

However, when it comes to distressing internal experiences, such as anxiety, anger, or depression, there is another way to respond to this “beach ball” that keeps on pushing upward. Gradually, we can let it rise up to the surface, inviting it into this present moment. We can notice the degree of fear we may have about simply allowing it to be in the here-and-now. Perhaps there’s even terror that our anxiety, depression, or anger will totally consume us, leave us wounded, dead or insane.

The question then becomes one of degree. How much of this nasty stuff are we willing to look at – and when, and how – without losing our minds or feeling hopelessly unhinged? To what degree can we gently let ourselves feel into the edges of this pain, getting to know it’s flavor in our body and mind? This is not a shielded, intellectual exploration where we analytically talk about and around our “problems,” seeking a elegant mental solution, but rather a direct sensing into how pain expresses itself in this very moment, in our bodies and minds. In this moment, I invite you to trace the contours of your personal pain and listen to its words. Can you feel its unique rhythm and vibration in your body? Take note of how much you don’t want these thoughts and feelings, how much you unconsciously push them away when they arise; and most importantly, how this stance only supports the continual arising of suffering, despite your best efforts to get “over it” already.

The irony here is obvious. Overwhelmed with suffering and at his wit’s end, the client calls up the therapist only to have the therapist encourage the client to more deeply experience his prison. However, there is a subtle distinction here that should not be overlooked: The client was never truly aware of his prison. Rather, he had his eyes closed, his hands over his ears, yelling loudly as his body clenched in fear and anxiety.

Yet there is another way. By slowly cultivating a space that allows anxiety (or any other distressing internal experience) to simply exist as part of life, one learns how to gently receive unpleasant experience. Rather than try to silence the voice of distress, we listen to it. Rather than reject it, we give it room to express itself. At our own pace, and oftentimes with the help of a trusted therapist, we allow the beach ball to rise to the surface, getting to know it more intimately. Exploring our pain in the present moment may seem like the last thing we want to do, and there’s no blame in that; it sure isn’t an ice cream sunday carnival ride. But it does lead to a new experience, to a different self-orientation where we’re no longer running away from ourselves, forever escaping towards a promised salvation that never seems to come.

A psychotherapist is someone who can help us stop running away by holding our hand with compassion as we slow down, pause, then gradually turn towards what we’ve been scared of for so long. A therapeutic guide is someone who holds that space of courage and care where our fears can be known and felt all the way to their core. Over time and at our own pace, we can become intimate with all aspects of our experience by learning how to peacefully coexist with everything we once fearfully rejected. The need to run far and fast gradually falls away because what we’ve been running from has been finally and mercifully unmasked. When the true nature of these fears are revealed, they no longer pose a threat because we have finally come to learn that behind the masks of anxiety and depression may lie the converse qualities of confidence and joy. Though this process may move swiftly at times, it usually takes time, patience, and commitment to fully bear fruit.

Along this journey we may come to learn that, paradoxically, our personal suffering is the actual doorway into the fulfilling life we’ve been yearning for. We may find that life doesn’t need us to add anything to it, because it is already perfect. Just as the sun always shines perfectly – even behind the grey clouds – our freedom is always shining, but its oftentimes obscured by the clouds of our suffering.

If we are willing to look into and through our personal obscurations, we will discover a transformative power that can shine forth like the sun. We may be quite surprised to discover that a lasting redemption from our personal “problems” is actually hidden on the other side of our clouds of suffering. It is a journey of gentle, gradual self-exploration, ideally traveled alongside a therapeutic guide. Over time and with courage, we can learn to finally let go of the twin struggles of fighting and fleeing, which keep us in perpetual conflict and separation, further distancing us from the healing we really need. Choosing acceptance over rejection, mercy over judgement, courage over avoidance, we come to rest ever deeper in a greater totality of our being. That which was once hated, unwanted, and feared is finally known and fully integrated. With this direct experience comes a more complete understanding of ourselves in the world, allowing us to rest in the totality of our being.

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