She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!’
Millais’s “Mariana” inspired by word from Tennyson’s poem
Having spent a wonderful and very moving evening singing Mozart’s Requiem with Camerata Chamber Choir last weekend, I’ve been reminded about the power of music and art to stimulate an emotional response.
I’ve certainly struggled with feelings in the past. Battled to feel them, to recognise them, to realise their importance. I’ve often felt life would be easier without them – and tried to create that experience much to my long term detriment.
Psychologists call the avoidance of thoughts, feelings, memories, physical sensations and other internal experiences “experiential avoidance”. It works something like this:
Imagine you have a splinter of glass in your finger – deep inside, close to a nerve. Every time this shard is touched, even gently, it hurts. Really hurts.
You have two choices:
You might choose to look at your situation and avoid anything that gets near to the glass – maybe you walk around with the finger covered up. It’s mildly inconvenient – it stops you playing the piano, but you feel better most of the time. Now and then the finger will accidentally be knocked – so maybe the next step would be to build a protective box around it. For a while, life is wonderful – no more pain and you’re only mildly limited by its presence. After a couple of months you are offered a fantastic new job – but a few weeks down the line you realise that when you sit at your desk the protective device is getting in the way of your computer screen so you set about building a new, more flexible covering…….
The truth is that before you know it, the glass in your finger is controlling your whole life – affecting where you go,who you spend your time with. Your energy and time is focused on producing new strategies to prevent it being touched.
This is how we normally deal the threat of inner disturbance – by protecting ourselves. In the case of feelings this often involves avoidance, distraction, procrastination, trying to change our thoughts, maybe numbing with food or alcohol. In short doing anything to make ourselves feel OK again – or to avoid the possibility of an unpleasant emotional state being triggered.
Many of these behaviours do make us feel temporarily better – but once the “fix” ends we’re often actually worse off than we were before – the discomfort returns together with the negative feelings associated with whatever we used to avoid the pain in the first place. So we set out searching for the elusive “happiness”all over again – convinced that if we uncover the magic key and we will never again need to feel the unpleasant sensations we’ve been fleeing from.
In life, option one works something like this:
You modify life in order to avoid experiencing feelings that are uncomfortable. If you fear being hurt, you must avoid closeness with other people, you must control those around you in order to make sure they behave in ways that you are comfortable with. You may find yourself alone and lonely as a result and the next step will be to avoid this loneliness – maybe you will look for the perfect partner – one who never triggers the uncomfortable feelings of insecurity – but before you know it, a new fear arises – a fear of being abandoned. This isn’t such a great experience either – so you cling tighter – or push your partner away to avoid the new unpleasantness. Eventually the original problem is buried under layers of “coping” behaviours and your life becomes limited by the very protective mechanisms that you thought were securing your equanimity.
The irony is that chasing happiness in this way not only leads to more and more unhappiness, it also leaves the root of the discomfort firmly in place within your mind, ready to be triggered again at some point further down the line. The search for freedom by avoidance tends to result in us residing in a prison of our own making, struggling to maintain a comfort zone in an uncontrollable and unpredictable world.
Fortunately – there’s an option two:
Just as you realise that you’re not the inner voice, it’s also possible to realise that you are not your feelings – you are not the pain and anxiety that threaten to overwhelm you at times. You’re the observer. The watcher.
It’s simple really – to remove the shard that started all this in the first place, you leave the piece of glass alone rather than constantly fiddling and pushing it deeper – it will then work its way out in its own time.
It maybe counterintuitive and takes some courage, but it is quite possible to sit with feelings – to look at how they affect your body, without pushing them away or getting wrapped up in their story and attaching to them. It gets easier with practice – and once you’ve learnt to allow the negative feelings to just be, they quite simply lose their potency. When you begin to trust your ability to experience feelings in this neutral way, you realise that they can’t hurt you.
Ironically very often the search for freedom and happiness often results in a pyschological trap – the more we strive, the more they evade us.
It becomes possible to live without avoidance – to let go of the need to control your environment and to experience true freedom.
I love this poem – it’s pinned on a scrappy piece of paper to my fridge as a reminder when I wake up feeling less than elated:
The Guest House
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 are 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 whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Jellaludin Rumi,
And if you’re wondering about the title of this post – try getting someone in the next room to read the first couple of lines to you… my 7 year olds rendition resulted in baffled teenagers wandering around outside looking for the delivery van.