Gain without the Pain
Society has long been sending us the message “No pain, no gain” as it relates to physical fitness, weight loss, or pretty much any new endeavor we undertake. Perhaps this stems from our protestant work ethic. Pain is a natural part of life, and it is true that we will encounter it from time to time. However, we don’t need to experience pain in order to grow. Yoga is a physical discipline that encourages us to go just to the edges of our comfort zone, again and again. It is here that over time, we experience gains in our balance, flexibility, strength and centeredness. This “stretching” is accompanied by the instruction to listen to our bodies, to know that each body and each day is different, and to modify as necessary. These same instructions apply to our spiritual growth, and our life’s path.
Stretching occurs when we move outside our comfort zone and try something new. When we suspend denial and distraction in favor of experiencing the now and all it contains. Stretching is anything that causes growth and evolution. Sometimes that looks like pushing past fear, or like taking a leap or perhaps just sitting with whatever is going on inside, neither expressing nor repressing it. People think changing is hard, but not changing is even harder. What does it cost you to constantly censor the parts of you that want to stretch, adventure and express themselves? How does staying in a rut affect your body, heart and mind? What regrets would you have if today was your last?
We all have emotional experiences that terrify us, but we must be willing to experience these emotions to grow past them. Peter Levine writes about the physical effects of repressing or disowning our emotions in Waking the Tiger. When we have physical reactions to fear or trauma, but we do not release them, they are trapped in our body. For example, if someone hurts you, and to shout back or run would be to risk greater violence, you might hold back. Thus, the physical fight or flight reactions were stimulated (adrenaline pumping, increased heart rate, cortisol, muscles tensing) but never get discharged. So when you don’t express grief or anger, or don’t stand up for yourself, it can create holding patterns in your body that can become chronic over time. This can lead to feelings of exhaustion, anxiety or depression.
We all know the feeling of being “hooked.” We’re going along and suddenly something triggers a strong emotional reaction. We get caught in a loop of obsessive thinking and we can’t let go. In the language of Eckhart Tolle, our “pain-body” is triggered. The pain-body is the accumulated residue of emotional pain suffered in one's own past. There is also a “collective pain-body,” accumulated in the collective human psyche over thousands of years. What to do when we are “hooked” -- if we’re not going to repress our feelings or have a habitual knee jerk reaction, what is the alternative? The first step is to notice we are hooked. In this pause, there is a space, and in the noticing there is a moment of presence. Then we can observe the pain-body, rather than identifying with it, which causes it to lose its power. We recognize that our true identity is deeper and more essential than the accumulation of our pain and the stories we have created around it. And then you can work on your side. If you’re hooked, then you need to work on your side of the situation, no matter how outrageous and unjust the other circumstances might seem. If you’re hooked, this is a clue that you have some work to do -- and only you can call yourself back. (The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle)
When you find yourself caught in an emotional attack-- having a strong reaction-- ask yourself how much of this is really happening on the outside, and how much is in your own mind. Then you can lean in, and even ask for clarification for the person/persons involved. Brene Brown calls this “Rumble Language.” If we use this language we will not escalate the situation, but rather we will gather more information. Your query might begin with -- “The story I make up…” I’m curious about…” “Tell me more…” “That’s not my experience…” “I’m wondering…” “Help me understand…” “Walk me through that…” “What’s your passion around this…” “Tell me why this doesn’t fit / work for you…” By getting curious about the situation, you begin to release your victim identity. Victim identity is the belief that other people and what they did to you are responsible for who you are and what you feel right now. This belief necessarily gives away your power. Of course, we are all connected and affected by each other. Just because we don’t want to assume a victim identity doesn’t mean we want to blame the victim either. Ultimately, the only thing in your control is yourself. You can reclaim your power by realizing that you can affect and are responsible for your inner space right here, right now -- nobody else is. The past cannot prevail against the power of “Now”. (The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle).
Another powerful tool when we are “hooked” is to separate our emotions from our thoughts. We usually associate our emotions with thoughts -- we’re scared of something, or we’re angry at someone. Our emotions are frequently paired with a lot of mental conversation. In my experience it’s often hard to discern between what is the thought and what is the emotion. If we want to stretch ourselves and grow through the situation, it is helpful to pause and take a step outside the storyline we are creating around our situation, and simply feel the feelings. We can interrupt the conversation in our head long enough to notice the experience’s physical effects on our body -- tightness, clenching, a sharpness in the chest or an uneasiness in the stomach. You can then allow the emotion to be there without being controlled by it. You no longer are the emotion, you are the watcher, the observing presence.
As we observe our reactions we might come across some self-limiting underlying beliefs. These prevent us from moving in the direction of our dreams. They keep us from stretching and growing-- it’s like coming up against a wall. Luckily the cure for this ailment is observation as well. Become aware of your stories. We call these “stories” because they are just that. They are not the truth, and they can be rewritten. You are the author of your own life -- not your parents, not society, not your partner, not your friends, not the bullies. Once you see what’s really going on, you can start to expose your limiting subconscious beliefs and kick them out.
Begin by listening to what you say and what you think. Look specifically for sentences that begin with “I always,” “I never,” “I can’t,” “I should,” “I wish,” “I don’t have,” and “I’m trying to.” Next, become aware of what you’re gaining from your stories. We pretty much don’t ever do anything that we don’t benefit from in some way, be it in a healthy way or an unhealthy way. Perhaps it's an excuse to skip obligations, or an excuse to indulge. It can be embarrassing to admit there are payoffs for our stories, but it is a necessary part of moving past them. Once we’ve come face to face with our stories and what we get out of them, it is time to get out the red pen and rewrite them. Create new stories that affirm you and set you on your chosen path, and repeat these positive statements to yourself over and over.
After some practice, we might come to see our obstacles as our friends. (Start Where You Are by Pema Chodron). On the night Buddha attained enlightenment, he sat under a tree. While he was sitting there he was attacked by the forces of Mara. Mara shot swords and arrows at him, but all the weapons turned into flowers and landed softly at his feet. The moral of the story is that if we habitually regard obstacles not as enemies, but as friends, then we do not suffer. Rather than experiencing an arrow or a sword, we experience a flower. Obstacles teach us where we are stuck and help us grow.
All these teachings are well and good, but what happens when we are tired, or juggling too much and all our careful won lessons seem to fly out the window? Similarly, nothing we have learned seems relevant when our lover leaves us, or when our child has a tantrum in the supermarket or when a colleague insults us. This is an exceedingly important place in our practice. When we find ourselves in the squeeze, we begin to look for alternatives to being in the moment. However, if we can stay there in the awkward tenderness of the moment, we will begin to learn the meaning behind all the concepts and the words. So the next time there is no ground to stand on, don’t consider it an obstacle, consider it a remarkable stroke of luck. Right there in that inadequate, restless feeling is our wisdom mind. We can simply experiment, there is nothing to lose. (When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron)
Of course, our ego will come up with a litany of excuses and tactics to keep us from moving past our comfort zone. One of it’s favorites is procrastination. Remember that “done” is better than “perfect” and if you notice the road-blocks that make you stall out, perhaps you could call in some support. Our self-saboteur also likes to tell us that there isn’t enough time. The truth is, you find the time when you need to, which means the time is there all along, but we’ve just chosen to limit ourselves by believing that it isn’t. For example, you may say you don’t have enough time to clean your office, but when you’ve lost an important paper in the mess you suddenly have 30 minutes to search for it! Similarly, if you have six months to do something it will take you six months, but if you have a week, it will take a week.
If you want more time in your life, you must respect the time you have. Be on time -- set an alarm on your phone so you can get ready early. Don’t constantly change or cancel plans-- make dates and keep them. Notice when you time is sucked away by social media or television or whatever it is for you, and take steps to limit them. When you feel overwhelmed, break down your task into pieces. Just try and get a small chunk done at a time, or set a time limit. Rather than thinking you have to work indefinitely until you are done, just set the goal of working on it for 30 minutes a day. This limits overwhelm, and stimulates a feeling of success! We all feel busy and overwhelmed, but if you keep telling yourself these self-limiting stories, nothing is ever going to change. Really be present in your down time -- make it count! Ask for help and delegate. Make time for the things that inspire you first, before you schedule all the rest. Remember, you don’t have to single-handedly do everything in one day! You are a Badass by Jen Sincero)
Once we work past our emotional triggers, our fear and pain, and our delay tactics and finally move in the direction of growth and evolution, we may not always be met with the parade we deserve. Other people may be triggered by our brave choices and they may try to rain on our parade with doubt and worry rather than unconditional support. Just remember, that the times you go for it will be way more exciting, fun and rewarding than the times you played it safe and stayed small. Each morning, rededicate yourself to the path of growth and expansion, whatever that means to you. Pair awareness with a bit of dare-devil and see where the adventure takes you. Growth doesn’t have to be painful. It can be fun!
** If you would like to delve deeper into this topic, check out these insightful works which informed this article: You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero, The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, Rising Strong by Brene Brown, Start Where you Are and When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron.