The barrier to healing in therapy for us has been the lack of connection among all these rules of healthy thinking. It’s like, here’s your brain (pile of goo) and here is a healthy brain (robust head of cauliflower).
For us, what we think we are discovering is that we need top-down therapy: we need truths that give birth to ways of being. We need a tree trunk to grow as the rooted basis of our Truths and then have branches grow as ways to act in accordance with our Truths.
The way therapy has been going is that we are given ways to act–strategies–and then we have to build Truths from trying them out. That feels like trying to grow a tree by assembling a bunch of disparate branches.
So we have been given thought this past week to the Truths that have taken root as tree trunks in our mind (from reading, learning, experiencing, going to therapy and hospitals, interacting with other survivors). And then we have been trying to see what branches can grow from there, which strategies support the Truths.
We are attracted to Truths that feel timeless. If people felt this way hundreds and thousands of years ago, and we are feeling it, then there is a chance we could invest in it as a Truth. If the feeling is more time-bound, circumstantial, then we put less credence in it as a Truth. It might be a fact or a want or a temporary arising.
Truths that we think we are learning:
Everything is impermanent: feelings, in particular, will come and go. We might notice every time we are scared or angry, and we are not always scared or angry. Our pattern of noticing can create confirmation bias. So understanding and believing in impermanence requires attention, awareness. We have a reminder that pops up on our phone regularly. It says: “There are times when you love yourself.” We do not feel like that can be true, and the me who wrote it and set the reminder was feeling love for self! Proof. Other ways to notice impermanent feelings are to journal your feelings over time as proof or to meditate regularly in such a way that you check-in with yourself to notice and name your different feelings. This works for body sensations, too. You are not always thirsty, cramping, fluish. Even with chronic pain we can notice when it is a seven versus a ten.
Trap: we don’t allow impermanence to become fatalistic, nihilistic. Yes, someday the sun will burn out because everything is impermanent. That is not our burden. It is not a problem to fix, nor does it invalidate the life we have now and the impact we make upon others. If we can free people–including ourselves–from bondage of oppression and suffering, this gives us purpose and meaning.
Pain is inevitable as a part of life and impermanent arising. Suffering is optional: Pain will happen. And if we do not add layers of judgment, it will pass as every sensation passes. We create suffering when we try to avoid the pain, ignore it, push it away, resist. It will not be neglected; it will come back stronger when we are not intentional about it.
Trap: We have maladapted from trauma over the decades by running to the pain to guarantee the worst outcome for ourself. That way, we won’t be let down from hope. This is unhealthy because it creates pain when pain might not naturally arise. This leads to another truth, which is that Expectation is a judgment that influences perception and experience. If we have no expectations, life arises and is interesting and surprising and almost always survivable. When we have expectations (This party is going to be awesome! This person is going to offend us), we look for what we expect. We might see something that isn’t really there (she is giving us the evil eye, isn’t she?) and not see something that is there. This is called delusion. Some might call it confirmation bias. Definitely, this is a form of distorted thinking arising from having expectations. And we will be let down when reality does not match expectation. Imagine that: she did not offend us, so we are let down! How dare she treat us well, lol.
Trauma survivors are great at expecting–the worst. This makes life more painful. We want to practice putting down expectation and letting life unfold, to see with new eyes each Now. Easier said than done. That’s why we practice.
We also create suffering when we try to cling to joy as it is leaving us. “Don’t go!” we cry. We don’t want happiness to leave us! It must go, though, because it is, as everything else, impermanent. It will return, sometime, if you let the natural flow occur. Think of sexual orgasm as the example. It can be rapturous when it arrives, and we must let it go as it ebbs. Get back to making the bed or whatever.
It is a myth of expectation that we are supposed to be happy all the time or that pain means we are living wrong. Those are media-driven, societal inventions that are not true and have never been true. They cannot be true. You cannot always be in one emotion. That denies what it means to be human. We will have a full range of emotions if we allow ourselves to be alive and aware in the present. That is part of the richness that is living. How would we know happiness apart from pain, sadness, grieving? We would not, just as we would not know night without day. There was an old _Twilight Zone_ episode in which the main character thinks he has died and gone to heaven. Every hand of cards he wins. Every shot in billiards sinks the target of his cue stick. Every joke he tells fills with room with laughter. Eventually, he realizes that his perfection means he is in hell. He can’t know joy without some counterbalancing sorrow.
If we let pain and happiness and every emotion come and go naturally without over-analyzing, without judging (such as shaming ourselves), we will suffer less. Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional; we create it This has always been so. Yes, victims of trauma suffer from our experiences. And as part of our most vital, life-saving medicine, we can learn mindfulness and again connect to the rich tapestry of varied emotions and experiences that manage to emerge in the course of our human days. A skilled therapist can assist with this noticing. If we have suffered trauma or other mental health challenges, this notion can seem untrue or out of reach. Try to just notice. Practice. See if these Truths apply to us.
We will keep building our tree trunks of Truths, maybe whole forests. And branches of strategy and skill will bloom some days. We are all imperfect. Perfection is not possible. Striving for perfection, therefore, will create suffering because it is a delusion. We cannot argue with a rain drop: “How dare you rain on our wedding! Go away!” We may not appreciate the rain for our outdoor ceremony, and resisting the reality that it is raining compounds the situation into suffering. If we had no expectation, we might accept the rain as part of the experience. We will certainly remember it!
Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice does not make perfection. Practice makes stronger habits.
Here is a poem by Rumi, a Sufi philosopher and poet from the 1200s, that helps us accept the emotions that we experience with less struggle:
The Guest House
by Jalaluddin Rumi and translated by Coleman Barks
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.