The two greatest causes of suffering in our society are: too much thinking, and trying to avoid or escape uncomfortable feelings.
Most of you reading this will be familiar with too much thinking and how trying to stop thinking too much by thinking about it, simply increases the amount of thinking. Have you ever found yourself thinking obsessively about how to stop thinking obsessively? Although it is comical, it can make you feel insane.
Avoiding uncomfortable feelings is more subtle but equally, if not more damaging. It may be that we have suffered an unspeakable trauma which may involve terrible fear, humiliation, neglect, abandonment, profound shame, bullying. The feeling is so great, so powerful that we feel that if we were to fully experience it, it would feel like falling from a great precipice into dark roiling madness. We feel it would obliterate us. It is simply too dark, too dangerous, too horrible to face, so we push it as far down as possible and try to get on with our lives.
As real as this might feel, it is only a reaction to a perception, a belief, a mental model manufactured by the rational mind.
This “pushing it right down” is a strategy of the rational mind, which treats emotions and feelings as problems to be solved. This is a fundamental error, which will inevitably lead to greater suffering. Emotions and feelings are not problems to be solved but are states to be experienced. Only in this way can we understand, integrate and grow. People will create so much suffering as they try to avoid feeling something that they perceive as frightening when, in reality, the end of their suffering lies within that feeling. The only thing that prevents us is fear.
Until we face and embrace these uncomfortable feelings, we remain stuck, and may even resort to some sort of anaesthetic such as alcohol or other addictive drugs (or behaviours such as sex or gambling), in a desperate attempt to avoid feeling the fear. The consequences of this type of avoidance will continue to become more painful and more unmanageable. It stops when we finally face the pain. Carl Jung expressed it quite succinctly:
“There is no coming to consciousness without pain.”
“Neurosis is the natural by-product of pain-avoidance.”
Neurosis – if you are not sure what it means, here is a definition:
Neuroses are characterized by anxiety, depression, or other feelings of unhappiness or distress that are out of proportion to the circumstances of a person’s life. They may impair a person’s functioning in virtually any area of his life: relationships, or external affairs, but they are not severe enough to incapacitate the person. Affected patients generally do not suffer from the loss of the sense of reality seen in persons with psychoses.
Mindfulness and its related practices allow us to create a space in which we pay attention in a certain way: with open curiosity, a sense of kindness to ourselves and a touch of humour. In other words, instead of avoiding what we fear, thereby creating ever greater suffering, we turn and face that fear with a mindful equanimity. We make what was unconscious, conscious and in so doing, we grow. Many discover that what they feared was not the feeling itself but the fear of the fear of the feeling. To develop a relationship with such feelings is to be able to access the wisdom they contain. We expand our emotional vocabulary. We open the door to choosing our response instead of reacting unconsciously in “autopilot mode”. In other words, by “unblocking”, we grow and progress on our path to self-realisation.
We are all fellow-travellers. I wish you well on your journey and leave you with this final quote from Jung:
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious”.