loving what limits

So many popular strains of spiritual healing and coaching, frequently referencing popular spiritual modes like The Secret, are revamped and de-Christianized forms of Evangelical prosperity teachings that wealth and success go to the spiritually adept, and those who experience pain or suffering in this world have manifested it through their own failings. Like many popularized teachings, I think there were one or two profoundly insightful truths that at some point got blended up and watered down to be accessible (and marketable) to a wide audience.

Nearly every religion and spiritual system has something in it that we can use to try to avoid, minimize, or rationalize our suffering, just as most or all of them also have teachings that we could use to deepen, strengthen, and bring more resolve to times of difficulty. Even in the same church or coven you might hear one person saying a chronic illness is a sign of poor practice and another saying this is the time when one most needs their practice.

United States culture is not particularly friendly to limitations, restrictions, restraints. Like the capitalist system we tout, success to us looks like a continuous upward path of constant growth. When we experience contractions and constrictions, we respond as though these are crises engendered by some bad actor and not something inevitable when living in mortal bodies in a finite planet.

Image of a green snake curled up upon a thin branch in a forest.
Photo by Chris Barton

We’re not here to grow upward and outward indefinitely. Sometimes we must move downward and inward. Sometimes we must experience those unpleasant, messy, painful feelings to discover the next path of growth. Contraction, grief, anger, resentment—none of these have to be anybody’s “fault”, but they can very well point out larger causes of suffering that need to be addressed for future health. Like pollution of our lands and water sources. Like cultures of sexual coercion and entitlement that elevate a narrow range of human experience and demean the rest.

Or, more personally, those experiences of grief, pain, and anger that have secretly ruled us for years, things which we’ve taught ourselves not to look at too closely. Those sources of envy and jealousy that show us our secret insecurities, the things we long to achieve but are too afraid to risk trying for.

Few people are excited to face unpleasant, toxic truths about ourselves and the cultures in which we live. Naming our poisons helps us to discover the antidotes. These “dark” emotions are connected to our deep needs, needs we have yet to know well enough to meet. These needs are not the face they wear—my envy won’t be satisfied by my neighbor being less, but rather by me becoming the more that I am afraid to be.

Sitting in meditation, some days I find myself lost in thoughts not matter how much I practice. Other days, when I sit I feel pain and discomfort in my body. The pain roots me in the moment, it calls me back to presence. Parts of me despise it, but this limitation is no longer allowing me to move through life like an automaton.

This does not mean I simply endure it, believing this suffering is warranted and I should just suck it up and not complain. This pain is something to work with, to learn about, to discover where it leads for healing. This pain is a wakening.

 

 

 

Forming Solutions from the Center

When I began working with a therapist, I expressed that my problem was being indecisive. He looked up the definition of “to decide” and found its etymological origin of decidere, “to cut off.” What he suggested was that I was “indecisive” because every choice I could think of involved cutting off a piece of me, and none of my pieces wanted to be cut off. When I attempted to cut something away, it rebounded with greater intensity.

Developing a center creates a space in which these parts can speak and be heard, which enables us to find more creative, flexible, and creative choices. So often groups become toxic when people feel unheard and left out of choices that affect them, where those who are making the choices feel that they cannot possibly please everyone and want to push forward or avoid choosing anything.

Most of us understand that nothing can meet all of our needs, yet we long to be heard, seen, and included in the choices that affect us. It costs less, in the long run, to slow down and acknowledge the validity of each person’s perspective. The importance of each part of me, especially the ones that seem irreconcilable. To sit in the messiness of the problem. This allows for a richer solution to form.

In a solution, each part dissolves and integrates into a new whole. We could not separate out its parts without great effort. This person’s need meets this person’s fear and this person’s anger. One’s skills, longings, fears, and resources meld together.

So often we become attached to finding the “right” solution that we think we can decide what elements to exclude. Those exclusions become weaknesses to the solutions we enact. With this kind of solution, emerging from center, often people feel a sense of stillness, of rightness. They may not be able to say why this choice is right, and it may not be the choice they would make at another time, but this is the solution emerging from this confluence of time, place, and perspective.

There’s a lot of anger and fear in people’s’ hearts. Much of it comes from our experiences of being unheard, unseen, cut off, marginalized, deprived of an opportunity to have a say in the choices that affect our lives. Or from our fear that we’ll be put into that situation if someone else has their way. There’s risk that allowing one person a voice will mean someone else’s gets squelched. There’s also a risk that finally allowing someone to have a voice after ignoring them for a long time means learning some uncomfortable and painful truths that are hard to integrate. The avoidance of these fears and risks prevents us from finding solution.

More and more I’m coming to think that people and organizations that are run by rigid, legalistic systems with rules and processes for everything arise in part by avoidance of this conflict. When we are unable to tolerate honest sharing of our experiences, rigidity and tension arise.

People deeply want to be heard and seen. When we feel heard and seen, we feel more safety and trust with each other. Feeling scared, anxious, or afraid of being hurt, we might be inclined to avoid or attempt to control anything that makes us uncomfortable. We respond by not hearing, by invalidating, by mocking. We respond by controlling, threatening, coercing. All of these responses engender mistrust, powerlessness, and rage in the people being marginalized, ignored, and controlled.

Image of John F. Kennedy with the text:

4 Principles – Desiring and Fearing Presence

3. We desire and fear presence.

I define presence as the experience of being in full awareness and acceptance of one’s immediate physical, emotional, spiritual, relational, and cognitive experience. In action, presence is simple. It is experiencing the present moment as it is. Engaged in life as it is unfolding. Connected to the environment and beings we are in relationship with and connected to the inner experience. This is in an aspirational capacity that most people do not have without effort and practice, but I think it is what we long for and forget we long for.

Experiences of grief and loss awaken us to this longing most acutely. When something or someone important to us is lost, we face the reality of death and the realization that we have not been wholly alive. We think of how much we missed out on, how we failed to savor the moments we had, how taking for granted the existence of these important people and experiences also meant allowing us not to be fully engaged.

This is one facet of the human condition. I might spend hours planning and preparing the perfect meal for the perfect dinner party, only to spend most of the evening caught up in my anxious thoughts and worries about whether the party is going well, whether the food is really okay or if people are pretending, whether people are having a good time. At the end of the night, I might realize that I did not actually attend my party. I forgot to savor it, and now it’s over.

Mental, emotional, and behavioral problems intensify this struggle. People stuck in a deep depression are both disconnected from the moment because of their depression, and also struggle to find the motivation to become present, because being present means feeling exactly how poorly they feel. Anxiety pulls us out of the moment. Addictive behavior is in part a turning away from presence, chasing an experience that is only fleetingly glimpsed through substance or behavioral abuse and avoiding the raw immediacy of being.

Full presence also comes with a feeling of intimacy and vulnerability that might be painful for those unused to it. This reminds me of the moment in the Adam and Eve story in which they gain the knowledge of good and evil, and God wants to speak with them, but they feel ashamed because they are naked. One might read that as the dawning of conscious awareness, realizing that one is a human being among other conscious beings, seen exactly for who you are, unguarded, unprotected. Most of us want to run away from that. Most of us don’t want to see ourselves exactly as we are. And yet I believe we also have a deep longing for this, this experience that we try to describe through phrases like “being seen” or “being heard.” Both point to this experience of authentic, vulnerable connection in presence, witnessing and being witnessed. This state is in itself healing. Those parts of us that are fearful of rejection, criticism, and shame flourish when they are finally recognized within a state of full presence and acceptance.

Accessing states of presence happens to all of us in moments, but we need practice and diligence to really cultivate and expand them. Many religions offer such practices, whether that is the stated intention or not, to help people become more connected to the here-and-now and less imprisoned by habits of thought, feeling, and action. Psychotherapy offers its own tools and practices, in part by helping to name and dissolve the blocks in our personality that make presence so painful and challenging. Presence is also a modality of healing. Therapists offer this witnessing and presence to the client, who ideally begin to internalize this and develop their own capacities for self-witnessing and becoming present.

A Practice with Love at the Center, Part 2

Love is a combination of six ingredients: care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust. – bell hooks

As I practice compassion and coach others in empathetic listening, one mantra I keep returning to is, “You don’t have to agree with a person’s experience of the world to have empathy for it.” The Gottmans have an excellent suggestion for a simple practice of empathy, simply to try to understand the person’s experience and then say something like, “I can understand why you’d feel that way.” This understanding gives nothing away, it does not yield one’s own truth and perspective, but it is a balm for the person benefiting from the understanding.

In my experience, people caught up in an emotional response have difficulty receiving and processing feedback when they don’t feel understood. Someone who’s feeling particularly angry, sad, depressed, or even happy become more hardened and defensive against someone who seems to be attacking their emotional experience by disagreeing with or criticizing it. Imagine a good friend who is in a relationship you think is horrible but they seem blissed out. How well do they hear your concerns? But approaching someone first with understanding helps them to soften that emotion and then hear what you have to say. Often I find that when I offer that empathy and understanding, the person then feels safe enough to share the concerns they have about the situation, which would be all the concerns I would have said.

What does this have to do with loving practice? I think it defuses an unspoken fear that people have about love, that if we act with care and respect toward a person who is doing something harmful then we become naïve and susceptible to harm. This is also where the confluence of all six of bell hooks’s ingredients is invaluable. I can offer caring and respect to a person but also maintain an attitude of responsibility and knowledge. “I can appreciate why you feel that way, and what you are doing is causing harm.”

hooks’s ingredients of love suggest a process that refines and heals, and not an outcome or prescribed set of acts. I might look at a story of brokenness or self-hatred and rethink what it would mean to approach that facet of life with love. Body-hatred comes to mind. There are ample discussions of how media and culture creates body hatred, particularly for people of color, queer people, and female-bodied people, so I’m not going to get into that. Instead I want to look at how it could be if instead of trying to “fix” my body I could act with love toward it.

Care – Can I start from the perspective that my body is worthy of care and wellness? That it is a precious resource and deserves to be treated so?

Knowledge – What actions support and strengthen my body? Where does my body need comfort or rest? What food and exercise helps my body to feel its best? What food or activities seem to harm or deplete my body?

Commitment – What steps will I take to give my body the support and rest it needs? What will I do regardless of how I feel on a given day? What promise can I keep to my body?

Responsibility – How can I claim more responsibility for my body? Can I call into myself the authority to decide what is best for my body? Can I set aside all the media and cultural images of what my body is “supposed to” look like and see my body for what it is, what shape it wants to take? Can I take responsibility for my choices, whether they harm or help my body? What resources do I need, and can I ask for them?

Respect – Are my choices aligned with what I know and understand about my body? Am I pushing myself too hard? Am I letting myself off the hook too often? Am I making the best choices I can for my body, given my life and circumstances as they are today?

Trust – Do I trust myself to act in integrity? Am I showing up consistently to my commitments? Are there particular commitments that I regularly find hard to keep? If so, could I scale back the commitment to one that is more realistic and more likely for me to keep? Trust is something that is built with consistent action, and succeeding at doing something small every day is better for trust than regularly failing at a large goal. With a foundation of self-trust, you can increase your commitments with time until you meet that big goal.

One lesson that comes from acting with love is learning to see an innate worth to nearly everything and everyone. This, again, does not mean that we have to accept every action with naïve acceptance. What it does mean is that we get to listen to the parts of ourselves that feel angry, that feel joyful, that believe something about the world, that know something different about the world, and from this inner democracy make a loving choice. It means we don’t have to, for example, swallow  anger when we feel hurt and spiral into a story of “if I wasn’t so weak then I wouldn’t feel hurt,” but we can care about ourselves enough to tell the person how their actions affected us.

Understanding Your Blocks

There is a meditation I use when I want to explore places that are blocked or stuck on deeper levels. I think of feeling stuck or blocked as occurring inevitably, sometimes signifying places where who we are and what we’re doing with life are not in alignment. When feeling blocked, it’s easy to focus on the frustrating and defeating sense of being blocked and not the awareness of the parts of us in flow. If energy wasn’t moving, then it couldn’t be blocked. It would simply be still and contained.

I’m not, at this point in my career, a person who promises tools to help you get unstuck. There are great teachers out there who do that work. What I’ve found is that when I feel stuck the best way to get unstuck is to start doing the thing I feel stuck with. Yesterday I felt blocked about blogging and started to write a blog post about quitting blogging because I no longer knew what to write about, and as I wrote that entry, something in me shifted and I decided to write this instead.

Not everyone seems to respond to this approach, and I’ve experienced blocks that are very deep and ingrained. My approach to these–when I’m not myself feeling frustrated or beating myself up for being stuck–is to wonder whether this block is here for a reason. Is there some deeper purpose to being blocked? Is there something about the way I’m approaching this situation that defeats my intention? Is there something about this situation that is blocking me? Is this block a way of protecting myself from making a choice that could harm me, whether due to bad timing or a bad reading of the situation? Is this stuckness simply sloth, or coming from a fear of change?

Here is a contemplative practice that I use to get more information about blockages or places of stuckness. It is a variation on a meditation called the “Thousand Petal Lotus.”

Get into a comfortable posture with your legs crossed or your feet resting on the floor. With every inhalation, breathe in more slowly, more deeply. With every exhalation, breathe out more slowly and completely.

Consider a word or image associated with a place in you that feels stuck or blocked. Hold that word or image in the center of your mind. Notice what thoughts or memories arise. When you notice a thought or memory, acknowledge its presence, acknowledge its connection to the core word or image, then return to the core word or image. Continue this process of noticing and returning for several breaths.

Imagine that this word or image can sink from your mind, down your throat, coming to rest in your heart. Notice what feelings or emotions are present. When you notice a feeling, acknowledge its presence and connection to the core word or image, then return to the core word or image. Notice even if no feelings seem to come up, or places of numbness. Continue this process of noticing and returning for several breaths.

Lotus flower in Korea, by sarang 사랑

Imagine that this word or image can sink from your heart, down your solar plexus, coming to rest in your belly. Notice what physical sensations are present. When you notice a sensation, acknowledge its presence and connection to the core word or image, then return to the core word or image. Continue this process of noticing and returning for several breaths. Notice places of tension or ease, places of discomfort or places of numbness.

Let the core word or image stay in your center, but allow your field of awareness to soften and expand. Let yourself notice sensations, feelings, and thoughts, imagining that each of these connects back to the core word or image. Let these connections be like a spider’s web, connected to each other and back to the dense central core image or word. If you find yourself trying to analyze or make sense of your experience, breathe in and allow your awareness to soften, simply noticing what is present. Allow understanding to arise from this awareness, and not imposing meaning upon it.

Whether understanding comes or not, thank yourself for being present and engaging in this work. Acknowledge the work you have done and let the central word or image go. Bring your awareness back to your surroundings. Touch the edges of your body. Journal whatever information came up.

 

Publication Announcement: The Star of Opening

71sZABbSL9LI’m proud to announce that The Star of Opening, an anthology of spiritual writings from Morningstar Mystery School, is now available on Amazon.com. I co-edited this anthology, and one of my essays, “The Stillness About Which the World Spins,” is included as well. (Fancy that!)

The material ranges from esoteric to deeply personal, showing the breadth and depth of how each contributors’ spiritual work moves through their lives. Topics include establishing a daily practice, ethics and values, death, stillness, astral visions, and presence. I am excited that we have created this document of thought and work from our early years of development as a school.

Please get yourself a copy!

You are the Cup

In several recent conversations, I’ve heard and contemplated the divide between spiritual orientations of “working on one’s self” and “being in service” to something greater than the self—deity, community, or human liberation as examples. This separation, to me, is unfortunate and unnecessary, although I recognize the value of certain critiques.

There is no doubt that many spiritualities today have become a commodified and defanged way to make one’s self “feel better” and enjoy “prosperity,” cut off from one’s larger relationships to systems of inequality, human suffering, or the costs of our prosperity to the environment. Much of the pop “New Thought” technologies, like The Secret, capitalize on what often look like ego-level wants and not soul-level desires: manifesting thinness and not a health in a body-affirming culture, manifesting material luxuries and not a life of gratitude and connection. Christian “prosperity” work often looks no different.

In response to this trend, I notice spiritual practitioners who seem to eschew work on the self as hubristic, indulgent, and a distraction from being in service to that which is greater than one’s ego wants. They make comments that make other people nervous, prioritizing service and the needs of divinity or the Earth above human needs. (Which is not a problem, really, as human needs may well fit neatly within the circle of these larger needs.) They are sincere and devoted practitioners, and yet sometimes one can glimpse the immense personal costs of their work. I think the danger of this approach is neglecting or minimizing one’s own needs and human worth. Humanity is one thread of existence rather than the apex of Creation, as Western theological thought once attested, but we matter in the web of existence, we are here for a purpose and we have our own worth and value. Being in integrity with ourselves helps us to be in service.

Ace of Cups, from the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot

“Know thyself” is an injunction passed down from the Delphic maxims, and for me this is the basis of spiritual work, though it is not the end. If our purpose is service to something larger than ourselves, then we are like the chalice into which rich dark wine is poured. The wine is not of ourselves and not for ourselves, yet that does not mean the self is irrelevant. We must make our selves into a cup suitable for this work. We can recognize the filters and toxins through which the wine must pass into ourselves, and we can make ourselves conscious and cleansed so that the wine can move through with greater purity. We can learn to discern between good wine and bad wine. We can keep our vessels strong so the work continues. If our foundations are weak, or our boundaries cracked, then the influx of power and energy that comes from this divine wine may well further crack and break down the cup.

Stepping away from the analogy, to some extent I think we need to know and honor our basic needs, even our ego-level needs, to be of good service. If I am not aware of and addressing my needs for friendship, for love and acceptance, for intimacy, then I am in danger of meeting those needs covertly in ways that would be harmful. We can easily see this when we look to all the abuses of spiritual leaders and priests who cross boundaries and exploit their positions of power to get their needs met by students or laity.

When I think of working on the self, I think of going deeper and deeper, layer by layer, always finding new ways in which my biases and complexes inform and deform my perception. There is no end to this process, so I cannot wait until I’m “done” before I act, but I can begin building habits of thought and action that support me in doing the work of self and service. The more I work on self, the more I see how deep and wide the Self extends. If I see in myself only an atomized individual, disconnected from the world and my communities, then I am very limited. Self ripples out to larger and larger circles of being, including my family, my communities, my planet. Self and Other are interdependent, and caring for one supports caring for the other.

Yet even with this larger perspective, I remind myself that I am not the ocean but a drop. I am separate, that I might be in relationship. If I were the ocean, I would not be suited to the task of being in service. I am a cup that I might bear the holy wine.

Freedom With

For the past three days I’ve had two different songs stuck in my head, alternating. When I grasp a piece of music that excites me, I tend to overdo it, and I heard these two songs together for the first time and then listened to them both repeatedly. Apparently whatever within me responded to these songs and has opted to keep them going, ad nauseam. My head feels very noisy, which is nothing new. I’ve always tended toward the head and have had to work to feel and understand my heart and body, work that continues. Though I prized my intellect, I also hated what my active brain cost me. Sometimes I feel like going to a concert is a waste of money because my mind takes me on a journey and out of listening. I envied friends who seemed wholly immersed by the moment, riding the waves of emotion evoked by the music.

What I most longed for, for much of my life, was some way to escape this mental prison that kept me out of my experience. I turned to meditation and discovered that the key to freedom is accepting that there is no escape. Trying to escape the experience of the present moment causes suffering. The quickest shortcuts to numbing the heart and shutting down the brain are the substances that cause problems when abused—drugs, alcohol, media, food, sex—in truth, any substance abused will create problems. None of them make problems go away. They might take your mind off your issues for a moment, at great cost: the cost of your innate ability to be with pain and still live in integrity, and the myriad costs that such patterns of self-abuse inevitably create.

“A wretched man with an approaching depression; represented by encroaching little devils.” Wellcome Images.

Instead of getting out, we find freedom when we learn to be with the difficulty, which starts by going in. We cannot become free with anger, for example, without letting ourselves experience and work with anger. It would be like trying to learn how to ride a horse by reading books about horses, watching movies about horses, watching other people ride horses, but doing everything in your power to avoid actually touching a horse.

The language of becoming “free of” or “free from” something implies that eventually we can get rid of it, which further chains us to suffering. I would rather be “free with” something. The more I try to get rid of these songs in my head, the louder they seem to get. The more I fight with these songs, the more irritated I feel about the situation. I try listening to the recorded song and get a moment’s relief, but then they’re back. It’s like having mental hiccups.

This is a minor example but not irrelevant to other “sticky” feelings. If I wait until I am “free of” these songs before I can go out and live, I’ll be waiting for a long time. I’ll have given the prison keys over to these random neurons in my brain that are wholly out of my control. I would rather be free with the songs. I hear the songs, I feel irritated, and I am typing this blog post. I hear the songs, and I am breathing. I hear the songs, and I am listening. I notice that I get caught by distraction, and bring my attention back. I forgive myself, and I return my attention. The song continues. The practice does not end.

Refilling the Empty Cup

Recently I have begun thinking that I’ve lumped together several different needs and cravings into this larger mental category of “needing to rest”—or, more typically, “feeling overwhelmed.” Feeling overwhelmed and depleted is perhaps the worst time to develop a plan of self-care, given that the experiences labeled thus often leave me wanting to go for immediate cravings or numbing activities. Expressions such as “work/life balance” or other “balancing” type phrases address this from the end of reducing tendencies of overworking, but I have lacked a rich vocabulary for what I need in the times when I’m not working. At times, I have dutifully made “to-do” lists of self-care activities intended to make me “better” and make life fulfilling, which in some ways is effective, in other ways leaves me further in automaton mode, simply doing the next task and feeling this concern that I’m not so much living my life as performing life tasks.

All of which is my personal expression of a pattern of avoiding my experience in the moment. I experience things that I label “tired,” “cranky,” “overwhelmed,” or clusters of emotions that I group together as “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” Over time I’ve developed go-to habits to soothe or avoid these experiences, sometimes in ways that feel healthy and supportive, other times in ways that feel even more draining, disheartening, or numbing. Coming home from a long day and sitting in front of the TV for hours—not really watching anything I care to watch, just whatever’s on—feels like one example of numbing activity. Other times I might come home and snack on a bunch of high-calorie, low-nutritional foods.

The Ace of Cups from the Visconti-Sforza Tarot deck.

When I hear people say things like, “I need a drink,” or “I need to get laid,” I suspect they’re coming from a similar place of avoidance or numbing. It’s the “I need” that gets my attention, the way we describe activities that are pleasurable as though they are basic needs like food, water, or sleep. When I was drinking a lot of coffee, I would get to the midday energy crash and find my thoughts fixated on “I need more coffee,” when drinking more coffee ended up leaving me feel even more tired and depleted. One day, someone told me to try drinking water when I thought I needed coffee. I started to experiment with this and was somewhat shocked. Not only did drinking water leave me feeling more energized than the coffee, but I could almost feel my body relaxing and saying “thank you.” Now I wonder what other habits I’ve developed as poor substitutes for what, at a deeper level, I truly need. When I come home and want to snack on junk food, I might really just need to take a nap. A need to “get laid” could mask a deeper need to connect emotionally to someone. It’s not that people are “bad” for wanting or needing these things, it’s that doing anything to avoid feeling something means we neither enjoy what we’re doing nor get our deeper needs met.

All of this has come to bear when I think about my relationship to rest. When I feel depleted and overwhelmed, I become fixated on this need to “rest” and become fairly passive. Sometimes I feel like I’m either in “work” or “rest” mode. But I’m coming to see, “rest” isn’t really rest. “Rest” might be letting myself be passively entertained by TV, zoning out with a video game, or checking social media repeatedly, none of which actually allow my mind and body to relax and be—and if I do either too late in the day, the light and stimulus interferes with my ability to sleep. I’m starting to think that “rest” might be too big of a bucket into which I’ve placed a number of needs—a need for genuine rest; a need for play or fun; or a need for inspiration. The new project is learning to discern between these three and other needs.

What are your needs?

Descent and Healing

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the protagonist must descend all the way through the nadir of Hell before he can begin to climb toward Heaven. In terms of Dante’s Christianity, the journey suggests that coming into knowledge of one’s sinful nature creates the possibility to transform and shed those sinful habits, via Purgatory, before finally ascending into Heaven. This geographical and poetic mystery evokes, for me, one process of psychological healing. Fully healing and transforming our suffering requires a descent, a conscious immersion into the pain and every layer deeper until finally emerging into its resolution. To me, this is depth psychology.

My tendency, historically, has been to withdraw and watch. If I felt I could be invisible and simply watch, I could notice all kinds of things about a group, a person, a situation, and offer great insight. What was terrifying to me was taking action and being emotionally present. I was an intellectual-based person with no sense of my emotions or my body. I used to “joke” that I had no feelings, and with this lack of feelings was a heavy depression. My mind could understand and argue many things, but when it came time to take action or put it into practice, I would balk. What I needed to become whole was my heart and my body. To manage my anxiety, I took up smoking cigarettes. I was in college and dealing with all new kinds of stresses and anxieties, both socially and academically. Because I felt so uncomfortable at parties having spontaneous interactions with people, I preferred to go outside and have a cigarette with a smaller group of folks.

Allegory of Hell, photo by Wolfgang Sauber.

Here is where unhealthy coping strategies compound suffering. We have the core pain—my anxiety at being in social situations with others. If I had a therapist at the time and some better strategies, I could have begun to learn being with my anxiety and my ambivalence about intimacy, sink more deeply into the experience, and find ways to connect. Instead I avoided my anxiety through smoking and added more problems—reduced lung capacity, smelly fingers and clothes, a money-draining habit, and the potential for long-term health problems. Smoking became my go-to habit when I felt upset or anxious, and I got anxious a lot. I also kept myself from adventures and new friends, as my smoking buddies tended were usually the same from event to event. They were absolutely wonderful people and dear friends, but after a while it seemed there was no point in going to a party of strangers if I was not meeting new people.

This is how our automatic and unconscious habits become what I think of as “Devil’s bargains.” In many stories, a deal with a devil figure usually means one gets a short-term gain at a huge long-term cost. Smoking cigarettes helps avoid the feeling of anxiety now, but the anxiety remains, and the economic and health costs add up. In college, a dear friend introduced me to a track called “I Might Fall” by the band Fetish. In the lyrics, the singer says, “To be free from the pain / you have to be free from the painkiller.”

To step away from the painkiller is to begin the healing descent through Hell. For people who continue to avoid their inner work, this descent manifests as “hitting rock bottom,” reaching that point where they no longer can avoid or deny the costs of their habits. For those willing to engage, this descent into Hell is a conscious work of healing. We work to let go of the numbing agents and feel our true feelings. Dante’s protagonist had a guide, Virgil, who knew the ways of Hell and loved the protagonist well enough to steer him through. Guides might appear as a sponsor, a therapist, a spiritual mentor, or a trusted friend who knows the ways, but such guidance is invaluable.

When we let go of these patterns and begin to feel the pain we’ve been avoiding, we might feel insane. “Why the hell am I doing this?” What helps me is to connect with my core desire—to be joyful, to be present in my life, to be loving and connected to others. Going into my pain, examining myself, and beginning to name what harms me gathers power within. Discomfort, slowly, lessens as we learn to be more at home within ourselves. We convert our unprocessed pain and stuck feelings into something more fluid, energy we can use to live, not just survive. Pain stops being something terrible to be avoided at all costs. It simply becomes one more texture of emotion, one we can experience with the rest. We can tolerate more life, we can learn to embrace it gladly. We find our way through the forest into the great open plain of possibility.