I’ve been thinking a lot about the connection between mind, body and spirit. I’ve read multiple books, research papers, TED talks and done a lot of self-reflection on my own life and the experiences I’ve had so far. What I’ve synthesized over this diverse range of knowledge is this: We don’t want to feel pain. As Brene Brown (2012) puts it, we don’t want to feel the “difficult emotions”, such as shame, grief, fear, despair, disappointment and sadness. To avoid these feelings, we engage in “numbing behaviours” (whether its relationships, drugs, food, sex, work, perfectionism, constant change, or the endless stream of information consumption from the Internet). But the problem is, research shows that “we cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions” (Brown, 2012).
I’ve felt my share of both positive and painful emotions this year. I started off this year with my heart completely open (metaphorically speaking). I was lucky enough to experience both sides of the pendulum – joy, elation and gratitude as well as deep hurt and sadness. It is only recently that I realized how much of these “difficult emotions” I was still carrying around. In his book “The Untethered Soul”, Michael Singer writes that “periods of change are not always uncomfortable”. He argues that our unhappiness often comes from our need to “resist life’s events” instead of fully processing the difficult emotions they trigger and letting them flow through you with non-judgemental, conscious awareness. He writes about this a lot more eloquently than I am doing right now, but I’d like to share one example from his book that I connected deeply with:
“Imagine you have a thorn in your arm that directly touches a nerve. When the thorn is touched, it’s very painful. Because it hurts so much, the thorn is a serious problem. It’s difficult to sleep because you roll over on it. It’s hard to get close to people because they might touch it. You can’t even go for a walk in the woods because you might brush the thorn against the branches. This thorn is a constant source of disturbance and to solve the problem, you only have two choices”. Choice #1: Make sure nothing ever touches the thorn. Choice #2: You take it out.
As Michelle Tanner on Full House would say, “Duuuhhh!” Take the thorn out, damn it! Pretty obvious, you say? Well, actually what most people do (including me) is to keep the metaphorical thorn in their arm and adapt their lives to accommodate this thorn. In this case, “the thorn completely runs your entire life. It affects all your decisions, including where you go, whom you’re comfortable with, […], even what kind of bed you can sleep on at night” (Singer, 2007). By keeping the thorn, “you must modify your life to avoid the situations that would stir them up. If you’re lonely, you must avoid going to places where couples tend to be. If you’re afraid of rejection, you must avoid getting too close to people”. In other words, you are “adjusting your life to make allowance for the thorns”.
While Singer’s book is more about spiritual growth and personal transformation, I wondered how his ideas related to findings from academic research. For instance, I recently watched Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk “How to make stress your friend”, in which she discusses some fascinating ideas about changing our beliefs about stress. Her findings remind me of a quote from Singer (2007): “Stress happens when you resist life’s events”, where “in order to resist, you must first decide that something is not the way you like it”. You’ll have to watch McGonigal’s talk yourself, but I want to share a quote she said at the end that inspired to me. In response to the moderator’s question of whether one should choose a low-stress job versus a high-stress job given the choice (and whether it would even matter), McGonigal says that the research shows: “Chasing meaning is better for your health than avoiding discomfort. Go after what it is that creates meaning in your life and trust yourself to handle the stress that follows”.
So that’s the key. Come to peace with discomfort and pain. Become aware of the thorns you’re still holding onto. Feel them fully, process them…
Brown, Brene. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. 2012.
Singer, Michael A. The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself. 2007.