One of the skills I’ve had to develop is the ability to feel painful emotions without running from them. Glennon Doyle in Love Warrior calls these feelings the “hot loneliness.” I find that extremely descriptive.
I recently heard Pema Chӧdrӧn, an ordained Tibetan Buddhist nun, explain her method for experiencing the “hot loneliness” as “compassionate abidance.” First, she advises, locate the suffering in your body and “just feel it completely.” That reminded me of my trainers saying to “embrace the burn” of a workout.
I love the parallel between a physical workout and doing spiritual work. I grew up in a very religious world, but I somehow had the hardest time wrapping my mind around how spirituality worked in real day-to-day practice. Focusing on my spiritual development with an eye to how the physical body develops is very helpful for me. Exercise tears down our physical muscles so that they can be built bigger and stronger through healthy food when we rest. Emotional suffering tears us down to be built back stronger, as well. But it doesn’t work if you don’t feed the body the building blocks of protein. And spiritually, it doesn’t work if you find an escape from the pain in the form of a self-destructive pattern.
Embracing the moment of discomfort is paramount. Pema says it’s step one. I think there’s another part to it, though. I had to embrace that pain was a normal human feeling. I believed it a punishment from God. I thought if I was good enough, I would never have the hot loneliness. Thus, a pattern of not only running from pain emerged, but of self-deprecation simply because I was having a human experience.
To go back to my workout analogy, it’s like I tried to lift a 100 lbs. weight on my first day and then berated myself because it was heavy. I am not the weight, and I am not my pain. I can feel it, without it defining me.
No one likes pain, but without it, no one grows. Pain avoidance is an epidemic, and the side effects are addiction, spiritual stagnation, and just plain failing to live.
We distract ourselves from our very own human condition with busyness and social media (preaching to myself, friends!). We numb ourselves from feeling, because we’ve bought into the lie that we are the only ones flawed by emotions. We try and soften the world for our children and then scratch our heads and wonder why they aren’t more resilient. We tend to our physical bodies (well, sometimes). We over exert in our professional lives, and we are still unfulfilled. We are mind, body, and soul, but we don’t appreciate the soul-growing necessity of the full spectrum of human emotions.
And when I say “we,” I mean me. I’ve tried to eat myself out of feeling. I’ve tried to self-harm my way through the hot loneliness. I’ve tried to drink myself numb. I’ve stayed in bed and tried to remain unconscious to it all. Anything to avoid surrendering and being present in the moment.
Being able to feel, without judgment, is step one, and there is no growth or recovery without it.
“It takes bravery to train in unconditional friendliness, it takes bravery to train in ‘suffering with,’ it takes bravery to stay with pain when it arises and not run or erect barriers.” –Pema Chӧdrӧn