Why does it hurt so much?

Whether it’s part of our spiritual practice or it began for us after awakening, mindfulness is a subtle shift in focus that keeps our attention held lightly in the present moment. We find ourselves spending more and more time simply being present with what is.

This is a great gift in one sense. Colours can seem brighter, our interest in nature might be renewed. We literally take time to smell the flowers and watch the playful dance of the insects that float over the lawn. But mindfulness has another side to it. Sooner or later we begin to tune into this human form, and within it we start to notice the energies and feelings that are present and which may have lain buried and undisturbed there, sometimes for years.

This new sensitivity can be a shock at first and not a welcome one. We may notice deep pools of fear or anger, sadness or rage, locked up in messy pockets in the throat, chest or abdomen. When we first tap into these sensations it can seem like there’s something wrong and we may even look for a way to get rid of them.

Carole Luby 2015

Carole Luby 2015

But perhaps the best advice is to wait. These feelings have very likely been there a long time; they just haven’t been paid any attention in a while. What do we need to do about them? We really don’t need to ‘do’ anything, that’s just the judging mind firing up like it always does. But if we want to understand, to see clearly then we can start by looking more closely…

In one sense our personality or ego is nothing more than a collection of thoughts, opinions, beliefs, tendencies and preferences. Conditioned by experience, culture, gender, it’s what we think about certain people, certain viewpoints, certain situations. What we’re often less aware of is the emotional energy that we invest into each of these.

If it’s something trivial the maybe that’s not much, but look at any deeply held belief or view. How would it feel if that was challenged? Then the emotion comes up, right? But this emotion was here all along, drip fed day by day through the frequency with which we visit and revisit our most cherished thoughts. Even if awakening has occurred, these building blocks of the sense of self haven’t gone away, they’re just not taken to be a separate whole any more.

Every day situations can arise that challenge us. Usually we’re aware of these on the level of information but not so much on the level of feeling. For instance, your manager comes in at 4.55pm and gives you a pile of urgent work. You listen to their instructions on the level of information but at the same time, there can be a strong reaction happening on the level of feeling that we’re not tuned into.

Because we’re not noticing, not taking the time to be aware and to allow these feelings the space to arise and then to fade away again, they persist. Not only do they persist, they actually build up over time. So when we first start becoming mindful of our feelings, these trapped energies in the body can seem very strong, very painful at first. And if we’re not equipped to expect this we can feel as though something is wrong either with us or with our practice. But really nothing is wrong; we just need to understand how to approach this.

One thing we seem to deal fairly well with as a society is grief. When a person is grieving we often say to them, ‘Let it all out. You have to allow yourself time to grieve, so don’t hide from, just let it be what it is’ and things like that. We know the grieving process can take time and during that time we can experience anger, sadness, denial, and calm acceptance, and that these often crop up over and over again in no particular order until the emotion is played out and fades to the background.

Now let’s consider what grieving is. Without in the least diminishing the value and beauty of a single life, we need to take time to consider that for each of us, that ‘other’ person, is a set of thoughts we have about them. That’s not to say that is the totality or reality of them, we’re just saying our experience of them is a set of stories in thought; or collectively, the story of them.

That story, built up over time and through repeated contact is invested with emotional energy dependent on how close we are to them or how important their story is to us. So when they leave or their body dies, there can be a terrible sense of loss. That story has finished but also the energy with which it’s invested now begins to diminish, and we find this painful.

In one sense, the personality is nothing more than these bundles of energy. So when we lose one we feel, and sometimes even say, we’ve lost a part of ourselves. And in a sense it’s literally true, that collection of energy has now dissipated back down to the background flow of energy.

The thing to note here is that this process of grieving doesn’t just happen when we lose a loved one, it happens when any important story finishes or is seen through. Whether that story is ‘me’ as a separate self, or even me as a smoker; my belief in X, or my identification with Y; whatever it is, once a big or important story goes; one with lots of energy attached to it, there will follow a grieving process that usually includes anger, denial, sadness and calm acceptance, in any order, and quite beyond our control.

So if through mindfulness you come across some terrible pain in your heart that won’t go away, we can use the skilful approach we would take if we were grieving, and that first involves acceptance, not avoidance. What caused this pain we may not know yet, though perhaps that will come out over time.

But what we do know is that this is a perfectly natural experience. It’s not to be feared, it’s not to be avoided it’s just what happens when there’s the loss of a cherished story. And the pain will pass in time as long we allow ourselves to be mindful of it and allow it to be what it is.

And so the lesson here is patience. Nothing needs fixing, we just need to patiently bear with the pain until the energy moves through and it fades back down. Mindfulness may have been what caused us to see the pain, but mindfulness is also the way out of it. So we allow it to be what it is and allow the natural process of grieving and healing to take its course.

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