I feel close to you when you let your pain show. A protective shield inside me slides away. So often I didn’t even know it was there, not until I feel myself softening, my heart opening to you. In such a sacred moment, I feel a resonance with you in the vulnerable core of my being. I have allowed you deep inside. There, I quiver with you. It is the kind of closeness I treasure. I recognize the divinity of the moment. Pain has bonded us.
I know how the pain of grief feels, the searing tenderness, the helpless longing for relief. I remember the hell of being alone with it, cursed to suffer all by myself. I had no hope of relief, no knowledge on how to let it pass. As a child I saw my mom, overwhelmed with her distress, whatever it was about. I had no idea. I saw my dad, stoically insensitive to pain, not just his own. He also seemed indifferent to the pain of others, especially when he chose to cause it. I was always alone with my pain, trying not to feel it, trying not to let it show.
I remember the moment in my own healing journey, when it seemed clear as broken glass to me, that the worst thing about pain was being alone with it. And so I began to experiment with feeling and sharing my own pain. I noticed again and again how deeply connected I felt with anyone willing to metaphorically – or actually – hold me in my pain. For years I had already often remarked on how closely connected I felt with anyone who was sharing their pain. My understanding of intimacy grew out of these experiences. I describe intimacy as “tenderly shared vulnerability”. It is sharing the experience or the possibility of pain that draws us into sacred space with each other.
Perhaps, antithetically, the tragic gulf that isolates people, one from another, is the fear of pain. If I let myself feel it, I’ll be lost in it forever. If you’re in pain and I let myself near you, my own pain will thaw, and I’ll have to feel it. If I’m in pain, and I let you near, you may end up hurting me even more deeply. When one or the other of us is in pain, moving closer is a risk. It seems easier to keep a safe distance. And so, there I sit, tucked away inside my shell, never to be hurt again, forever alone with the pain I cannot let go. At least I’m not feeling it.
The risk to choose connection in the pain may be essential to the healing journey. It could be that only in the arms of the beloved can I let go of my pain.
My first discovery of the healing power in the arms of compassion came when my daughter was an infant. I remember the moment. Amanda was wailing. When I picked her up, her body was writhing in tension. She continued to wail. I held her softly, receiving her distress. And then, suddenly, the magic happened. She let go. Her pain passed. She melted into my arms, completely at peace. No tension. No pain.
Again and again it happened throughout her childhood. The blast of distress filled tension led to the comforting arms, and resulted in the softening that eased the pain. I have come to believe that softening into the comfort that releases the pain is an archetypal human experience. It is natural to every one of us. In my experience, even when the “softening reflex” has been unlearned through being too much alone in pain, it can be relearned.
In my early thirties I went through a whole year where I was taking pain killers and decongestants every day to ward off crushing headaches. Then I read about headaches and muscle tension. It suddenly hit me that I was dramatically increasing my own pain by tightening up against it. I had forgotten how to relax, to soften my muscles, and let painful tension pass. And so I began a year of weekly therapeutic massage. I discovered that my skin hunger was directly connected to my lost ability to deeply relax. The touch of another’s hands showed me how to let go of my tension.
I stopped taking painkillers when I started massage. For many years thereafter, I did not use painkillers. Whenever, wherever I was experiencing pain, I breathed and let my awareness into the pain, inviting it to soften, radiate, and flow away. Twenty years later my ability to soften and radiate was profoundly tested during a heart attack. I breathed softly, fully aware of the supernova of pain radiating outward from my chest. The emergency room doctors weren’t convinced I was having a heart attack because my blood pressure did not spike. I got through the heart attack without damage to my heart. I believe this happened because I did not tighten up against the intense release of pain.
Massage and the lesson of physical softening was only the beginning of my journey with pain. Before long it became clear to me that I had extremely deep layers of tension where I was holding untold distress. And so I began body-oriented psychotherapy, steadily learning how to deepen the softening, so that awareness could return to the places where I’d stored so much pain. I found my way back to my feelings. This was a journey I could never had made alone. Michele provided the compassionate arms. I learned to soften into them. I came to understand pain as the felt experience of the need to let go.
One profound moment of the journey stands out in my memory. I had been learning to soften into feeling and releasing the pain in my own sadness. At this time I went to one of the most pain-filled funerals I will ever experience. The twenty one year old son of a dear friend had been suddenly killed in a car accident. People were openly crying on and off throughout the service. I sobbed the entire time. I had finally found a place where it really was OK to let out my pain. I was in complete solidarity with everyone there. We were all in pain. It made us one. It gave us release.
An Exercise in Emotional Discipline
- Spend a little time becoming conscious of the space within your body. Begin with a simple bodyscan, starting with your feet. Notice places that are tense, in pain (discomfort), or numb (lacking awareness). Connect the flow of your breath so that you are noticing ever more clearly where the tension, pain, or lack of feeling lies.
- Choose one particular internal location upon which to focus awareness. Continue following your breath and noticing what the energy is like in the area of concern. Simply notice whatever you notice. Don’t try to change anything.
- While maintaining awareness around the area of concern, begin to slowly and steadily allow your breathing to deepen. Let the soft flow of your breath brush up against the edges of the tension or pain. Allow the softness of your breath to flow all around the area. Do not try to make anything happen. Simply allow breath to flow softly where it may.
Stay with your breath, allowing the softening to continue, even as you let an image of a safe place come to you. Visualize yourself in a place that is entirely yours, that you can now make just as you need it to be, so that you can be perfectly safe there. Make it so the time of day, the season of the year, the quality of your surroundings, the sights and sounds are just right for you at this moment. You are giving yourself a wonderfully comforting place to be with your pain. Return now to allowing your breath to gradually soften the inner place where your pain is held.
When you are ready, begin to imagine that a Healer is coming to join you, someone with whom you can continue to feel completely safe. This person is someone strong enough, wise enough, and loving enough to be able to be with you in just the way that you need. Allow the Healer to be present to you in the way that perfectly helps you to soften completely as you breathe through feeling the pain. Let your body mold into whatever is supporting you. Each time you breathe out, choose to soften and let go ever more completely. Your pain is steadily passing.
WAYS OF AVOIDING PAIN
HOSTILITY: INFLICT PAIN (“Its under my control..”)
THREAT: expression of the intent to inflict pain.
ABUSE: the insensitive infliction of emotional or physical pain.
RIDICULE: exposing flaws in an attempt to painfully humiliate another.
REVENGE: abuse as a way to get even with someone perceived as an actual or possible source of pain.
BLAMING: the pain is your fault, not mine!
PASSIVE AGGRESSION: indirectly causing another pain as a form of payback.
DEPRESSION: INGEST PAIN (“I’m at its mercy . . .”)
VICTIM (POOR ME): helpless identification with relentless suffering.
SHAME: the judgment of myself as unworthy of love, deserving pain.
GUILT: unreasonably holding myself responsible for the pain of another.
WITHDRAWAL: disconnecting from another to avoid feeling pain.
TOUGHNESS / INSENSITIVITY: the refusal to be affected by pain.
WORRY: anxiously obsessing over the pain that may be around the corner.
ADDICTION / SELF-SABOTAGE: engaging in self-defeating behavior that brings more pain.
Allan Schnarr, M.Div.,PhD. makes his writing available on his website feelingeverything.com. on Facebook, and on Twitter @feelingitall.