If you want to get to the light bit, skip ahead. First, I’m going to talk about pain and pressure.
At times these days, I feel a psychological pressure, deeply personal to things going on in my life, yet at the same time ‘in the field’. The whole atmosphere on earth feels pressured. Yesterday, it got to me. I became so heated that I had to drive out somewhere wild, where I could shout and stamp and throw branches around without frightening the neighbours.
Whether you’re into the astrology of this moment or the aboriginal elders in ceremony with Uluru, or you’re following the mainstream news, there’s a lot going on.
For me, knowing how to express myself emotionally is a vital life skill. There’s what’s often called emotional intelligence: being intelligent about emotions, able to speak articulately about what we feel. That’s all very well, but it can easily get terribly heady. Then there’s speaking from the heart, where you don’t only articulate what you’re feeling, but you do so with that feeling as a kind of substance filling the vessels of the words. Then there’s the non-verbal expression, which is literally essential for our emotional well-being. I say ‘literally’ because emotional energy is in its essence non-verbal. Emotion is energy in motion, and motion is a physical thing. We need to move.
When I got angry yesterday, it was triggered by several personal events coming one after the other within a few hours, which knocked me completely off balance and before I knew it I was in a terrible state. I was hurting. I knew I was in trouble when I started feeling the urge to hurt myself physically. That’s not happened for some years, and is a big red flag; I know the pattern. It happens when I’m in a high level of emotional pain, deep down absolutely furious, but for some reason that anger is blocked by a belief that I shouldn’t be angry.
I reluctantly began to engage in movement, breath and sound practice to find the anger. It was very hard at first. It had already got impacted inwards, so it was a grind to let it out instead of turning it deeply within and self-harming. At first, I tried at home. I needed to use my voice loudly, so tried shouting into a pillow because we do have neighbours close by. But it just wasn’t enough, so as I said, I got in the car.
Once safely away from people, as the anger came out, I tracked it to find its purpose. Within a moment, I was raging at God for the state of the world, and the extent of our suffering. I screamed at Presence, let my fury pour out. I’ve learnt not to value being rational in such moments. Intellectually, I don’t believe there’s a God in the sky who’s responsible for my/our pain. But that was the truth of my momentary reality, and I trusted the process enough to just go through it, following the energy.
It took the rest of the day, a good night’s sleep and a good dose of light to properly integrate though. Early this morning I got on my bike and rode up to my favourite sunrise spot. It was spectacularly beautiful, and it was there, watching golden light stream across the valley under-lighting huge dramatic clouds, that I knew I’d write about this. Because finding the light is such a vital piece of integrating painful emotional experiences. It’s great to embody our discomfort or pain, leaning into it, expanding around it, learning how to simply be with it rather than avoiding, suppressing or numbing it. It’s healthy to be able to express stuff, letting it show, releasing it into movement, sound, words, or other art forms. But there’s another step.
That next step involves light. For emotional pain to integrate fully, we have to move beyond it into pleasure. Mostly, opportunities show up as a moment of grace, very specific to what you’re going through. It helps to know what to look for though, and to recognise when it’s time.
Here are some of the ways I’ve known it show up:
Appreciation — sometimes, you may get a window of opportunity to recognise a strength you have, or the fruit of hard work, and simply appreciate yourself for that. It helps to mark that gesture, making it physical by putting your arms around yourself, or placing a hand on your chest, or saying out loud “I appreciate myself for . . .”
Pleasure — sometimes, it’s time for a hot bath, or a good book, a favourite movie, a walk in the woods, or calling on a trusted friend. Not for nothing does Harry Potter learn that chocolate is the medicine for a dementor attack.
Beauty — early morning sunlight, trees, ocean, time with a loved one, great art, music, to name a few. What do you find beautiful?
Gratitude — it just works. Get specific, naming precisely what you’re grateful for. (Not just “I’m grateful for my kids”, but “I’m grateful for the smile my daughter gave me when I called her yesterday”.)
Giving — this is probably the most powerful light bearer of all. The moment will come when someone or something needs a hand, and you’re there. When you can offer something to the world, particularly if it comes from the experience of going through your pain, that’s deeply healing for you too. To give generously from your heart, just because you see it’s needed.
Pain carves out a deep receptivity to life if we are willing to go through it thoroughly, holding nothing back. Where have you found light, like that?
With thanks to Nick Headly for teaching me the value of appreciation, and my grandfather Hewlett Johson in his lifelong search for light.