Monday, August 18, 2008

Conscious Suffering

I've been watching TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talks since they started posting them online. Tonight I stumbled upon a remarkable talk that both summarizes and confirms most of what I've been posting about these last few months — that peace springs from being fully present in the moment, and that our troubles stem from identifying with our past and future. Brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor explains in her TED talk that when she had a stroke, she consciously observed the total shutdown of the left hemisphere of her brain, and with it all her cares, fears, anxieties, and troubles evaporated. It is an amazing 18 minutes, well worth your time to watch:

I think it is really neat that I watched that video the same night as I read a fascinating article on conscious suffering. As I've written about many times on this blog, we need to allow our emotions to be, and we need to also allow those emotions to fully manifest themselves. Fully experiencing our emotions is a major component of our grief recovery.

Yes, I understand that this is a scary prospect. It requires a leap of faith. Faith that we will survive the experience, faith that we will not be overwhelmed, faith that we will not be destroyed. I took that risk, and I can attest to the healing power of the experience.

Assuming that you're willing to take the risk, it helps a great deal to have a good guide through the process. The process of conscious suffering is simple, but it is not easy. I'll quote a few excerpts from Chris' article entitled Thoughts On Conscious Suffering, and I highly encourage you to read it in its entirety. Here are the four key points:

I want to share the peace this approach has brought me with others. Thus, in this article, I'm going to describe the process of conscious suffering as I understand it. I hope it's as helpful and transformative for you as it's been for me.

As I said earlier, when you start experiencing an intense, uncomfortable emotion, if you have the time and space, find a place to sit alone and undistracted. Begin to breathe rhythmically and deeply as the sensation moves through you. If this process is frightening and painful, as it may be if you haven't been through it before, keep your mind focused on the four guideposts I discuss below. These are intended to give you comfort and perspective as you immerse yourself fully in your experience.

1. Your suffering is finite. One of the reasons we'll usually do anything to avoid intense feeling is the worry that, if we fully allow it to be, the feeling will never end. We may be entirely consumed by our rage or fear, and lose control of our actions or permanently curl up into a whimpering fetal position. Thus, when strong sensations arise in our bodies, we tend to numb ourselves with distracting activities like watching TV or diving headlong into our work.

The process of conscious suffering requires a leap of faith. It requires the belief that there is a finite amount of pain, or difficult emotion, trapped in your body, and that you can draw nearer to the end of suffering by letting yourself fully experience your pain. There’s no way, in all honesty, to know in advance that your anguish won't last forever. All you can do is look to the experience of others who have transcended their pain through conscious suffering, and trust that you can bring yourself closer to the same peace.

2. Remove your labels. Much of the suffering we experience around "difficult emotions" occurs because we label those emotions as negative or unwanted. We learn early in life that the tension and heat in our bodies we call "anger," "anxiety" and so on are bad things we should avoid if possible. Thus, when those sensations come up, we tend to fight them, whether by tightening parts of our bodies to choke off the feelings, shaming ourselves for "getting too emotional," or distracting ourselves from our experience. This resistance can be physically painful and add to our discomfort.

To release our resistance and let our sensations be, it's helpful to peel off the labels we put on our emotions and simply view them as forms of energy arising in our bodies. There’s nothing good or bad about this energy — it's just a substance that moves through us and passes away. When we let go of our judgments about the way we feel, it’s easier to allow our emotions to arise and subside.

3. Let go of the need to explain. When we experience intense sensation, often our first impulse is to look for a reason — whether in ourselves or the world — for the feeling's existence. From a young age, we're conditioned to believe we must be able to justify or explain our feelings. Otherwise, we must repress our emotions. For example, some of us learn early on that, if we can't convincingly explain why we're angry, we have "no right to be angry," or that we aren't allowed to "bother" our parents by crying unless there's a real emergency.

Our search for an explanation for our feelings usually takes the form of looking for someone to blame. If we're "feeling bad," our instincts tell us, someone or something must be responsible. Some of us blame ourselves — perhaps calling ourselves weak if we feel afraid, or overly irritable if we're angry. Others blame the outside world — for instance, perhaps they blame their parents for doing an inadequate job of raising them and saddling them with rage and guilt; or maybe they blame their spouses or children for being too demanding.

Ultimately, the only thing blame accomplishes, other than creating more conflict in the world, is to divert your attention from what you're experiencing. When you become lost in thought about who is responsible for your suffering, your attention drifts into the past — to what others may have done to "make" you feel this way — and you lose consciousness of your experience in the present...

4. Your sensations can't kill you. Particularly in our early journeys into conscious suffering, we tend to worry that fully experiencing what's going on in our bodies may harm or even destroy us. This is one reason many of us rush to the doctor or psychiatrist to medicate our strong emotions away — we worry that our bodies can't survive that sort of intensity and will fall apart under the strain.

However, on an unconscious level, we're already experiencing the sensations we're afraid of. Conscious suffering, as its name suggests, only brings those unpleasant sensations into your conscious awareness. We're only unaware of what we're feeling most of the time because we spend much of our lives looking for ways to divert our attention from our experience. If the energy flowing through our bodies could kill us, it would have done so long ago.

In reality, focusing our attention on the uncomfortable sensations in our bodies, and allowing them to pass away, doesn't hurt us — in fact, it leads to a richer experience of life. As we release our pain through conscious suffering, we become more open to and able to appreciate the rich and varied sensations life offers us.


Chris Edgar said...

Hi Vic -- I'm glad to hear you found my article helpful. Thank you for your shares about your journey. -- In gratitude, Chris

Anonymous said...

My husband died of ALS. He was not there for me in my hour of need. I am glad he is dead.

Anonymous said...

My husband is dead too and I am glad!!He died of ALS lou gherigs disease. He abused me. I am so glad he is dead...

Anonymous said...

Maybe now 3 years later I can finally have a life! That makes me happy!!

Anonymous said...

How do you get over hating your dead husband. I thought he was my best friend in life, but it turns out he wasn't my friend at all. I helped him with every problem and every illness/disease he ever had, including the one that took his life. Everyone praises their dead/husband or wife, or puts them up on a pedistal and says how great they were and how they were the best. Well mine wasn't the best anything!!!!! HE wasn't there for ME!!!What about ME??? I am the one that went through it all and I am the one that is still fucking here!!! I am the one that deserves to be put on a pedistal for all that I went through and all that I gave. I recieved nothing in return. I am tired of being a fucking SAINT! And I am tired of smiling and nodding when someone tells me how great my dead husband was and how much I must miss him. The truth is I am glad he is gone. I just need my peace of mind back. That's all I want and need. I am a good perso, actually a great person who was always loving and giving. I know I have been brain damaged by anti-depressants, but I am fully functioning. My husband did not take care of me when he was well, and did not address any of my problems like I did for him. It is best that he is gone, and hopefully I can get on with my life. But it is proving to be difficult. I cannot get past the hate of my supposed "best friend" not being there for me. He really wasn't my friend at all. This shatters and devastates me. I am just too good of a person for this to be happening to. I have always preached love and peace to all. I have never known hate before, and I am over a half century old. I will say that the hate gives me a strenngth that I have never felt before. I like the strength, but it is not really for me. I am a lover at heart and always have been. I deserve and will get better. I am an amazing person and hopfully will recover. Suicide is my only other option. Thank goodness there are ALWAYS options. .. We will have to see which one I pick. If I cannot get back my peace of mind, I know which one I will pick. But I do not want to be with my dead husband in the afterlife. If he wasn't there for me in life I certainly do NOT want him there with me in the afterlife. So we will just have to wait and see if I decide to stay on this earth or not. Goodbye dead husband, and good riddance! Here'e to me!!! Finally here's to just ME!!!! YEAH ME!!!!!!!!Q!!!!!!!