I sometimes get the impression that we as humans are no longer interested in experiencing the full range of human emotions – that we only want to have pleasant experiences. When we’re angry, we suppress it, when we’re feeling sad or anxious, we try to find ways of lessening the intensity or avoiding the emotion altogether. I’m not talking about clinical depression – I’m not qualified to have an opinion about the use of anti-depressants to treat a medical condition – I’m referring to the use of substances, whether it is prescription or self medicating with food, alcohol or drugs to avoid feeling emotions that are uncomfortable, or deemed inappropriate.
To be human includes a whole spectrum of emotions, ranging from euphoria and joy to guilt and shame, and it’s the ones that hurt us or make us feel uncomfortable that we try to avoid, sometimes at all cost, but in avoiding those strong emotions we have somehow decided are unwanted, we often also stint our own emotional and spiritual growth.
I strongly believe that the human spirit has two main ways of learning and growing; the one way we grow is through pain and fear and the other way is through love. Unfortunately, it seems that by our very design, our default way of learning and growing is through pain and fear. Think about a time of tremendous growth in your life – I’m quite sure there was at least a measure of pain or fear involved.
Let’s take the example of Hester*, a client who was trapped in a loveless, abusive marriage. Even though she knew she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life married to a man who belittled her at every opportunity and used money to manipulate her, her fear of the alternative prevented her from mustering the courage to walk out. In her mind she was powerless and would end up on the street with no roof over her head and no food to eat.
Hester spent months in coaching agonizing over her decision to leave her husband – struggling to muster the courage to take the plunge. It was only once she realized her true value (and came to understand how her husband was trying to detract from her value in order to prevent her from leaving) that she finally filed for divorce.
The journey to healing was slow and painful, and there were many times when she doubted herself and the wisdom of her decision – but, as a compassionate bystander, I couldn’t help but notice a tender beauty throughout this entire process. There was something profoundly precious in Hester’s pain – something I, to this day, find difficult to describe in words. While I was witnessing her death, rebirth** and transformation, it almost felt as if I had a glimpse into the sacred act of creation – as if I was a part of the caterpillar’s metamorphosis into an exquisite butterfly.
You might know that cutting open a cocoon or chrysalis renders a butterfly’s wings absolutely useless – it needs that struggle to crawl out of the protective casing in order to strengthen its wings. In the same way, I could see how Hester’s struggles to extricate herself from her marriage strengthened her belief in her own worth. Today, six and a half years later, Hester still looks back on that time as one of immense growth – a time she would not have had differently even if she could. She could see the valuable lessons she had learned from that pain and fear.
Pain, loss, anger, guilt, shame. All these emotions are part of the human experience, and despite our efforts to avoid them; they have a way of sneaking up on us when we least expect it. Our unwillingness to experience the darker, less pleasant emotions is also taking away our ability to fully feel the wonderful ones. I’m not saying that we don’t feel, happiness, excitement etc., but if we don’t have the lows, how can we fully appreciate the highs?
I often advise my clients to undertake a little experiment – to sit with their emotion, whatever it might be, and to fully feel that particular emotion to manifest in their bodies. Try it for yourself, if you’d like. Emotions are a little bit like needy children in this respect – they want your undivided attention. Once you allow the emotion to be “heard”, to manifest in your body, to be fully felt, you’d be amazed how quickly it dissolves.
By allowing painful emotions to manifest and to be fully felt and experienced, we start transmuting them into their polar opposites – the opposite of sorrow is joy, the opposite of anger is gratitude, the opposite of bitterness is forgiveness. Of course when we talk about the alchemy of transmuting emotional baggage into pure emotional gold, there is some work required from our side – like facing the emotions we fear to show.
We frequently resist going into what Martha Beck calls the Ring of Fire***. Imagine your emotional reality as three concentric spheres or layers. The outer layer, Beck calls the “Shallows” – the world of form and physical objects and the thoughts clustered around them. This is the material world in which we live and for some people it is the only reality.
The inner core of these three circles Beck calls the “Core of Peace” – that deep seated knowingness and peace we sometimes glimpse when we are fully relaxed and completely in the moment. According to this theory, the only way to move from the “Shallows” to the “Core of Peace” is to go through the “Ring of Fire”.
Some maternity ward nurses refer to that moment when a baby is crowning as the “ring of fire” – because it hurts like hell – but just like giving birth, once you’re in that process, there’s no turning back, and as soon as it is over, there is the wonderfully blessed reward of a new-born baby.
Many people choose to stay in the “Shallows” because they fear the “Ring of Fire” but the point of life is to grow and learn so often we find that life either nudges or pushes us into the “Ring of Fire” to burn away our pretences and self imposed delusions. Just like the Yin-Yang symbol reminds us that there is the seed of sorrow in our joy and the seed of joy in our sorrow, we know that even in the throws of emotional pain, as the fire cleanses us from beliefs and thought patterns that no longer serve us, there is a beauty and the promise of a brighter future.
* Not her Real Name
*** Beck M 2008, Steering by Starlight, Piatkus, Great Britain