A sunrise on a morning beach, no longer cut Adrift on the night storm The bullying voices cast to the wind. A claw back to the even keel, away from the fright. Just me and the rising moon, hugging the skyline.
I was at Cape Town International Airport when he said that I should be grateful to the person who triggered my series of crises and, boy, was I furious with him.
In saying that he had absolutely no clue about the actual pain of the experience – the almighty disruption that had flipped me out. That had hung me out to dry. I literally had had no inner resources to deal with the flooding of my feelings that had nowhere to go.
That is why the therapeutic experience is so very important to deal with those feelings. Good therapy enables the crisis to be experienced in a way that is held. A kind of holding environment, a container. It is the place where extremely difficult feelings can be known, named, explored, excavated and dived into.
This is not to make it sound easy. It is emotionally and spiritually exhausting. Importantly though, the one to one experience with my therapists, gave me the time and space to get some kind of calmness and stability knowing that, although mine was fairly prolonged, ultimately the therapeutic environment is temporary.
Inevitably, I believe (although this may not be true for everyone) we have to fall back on our own inner lives. What therapy did was to give me the language to name the feelings and the emotions and ultimately helped me to see the universal truth that suffering is something that each of us do in varying degrees. Jack Kornfield amusingly states in one of his podcasts, some of us are quite loyal to suffering and I can relate to that experience.
What is key though is what Mark Epstein says in The Trauma of Everyday Living about the examination of our own trauma: ‘While the things that bother us cannot always be eliminated, we can change the way we relate to them.’ I am not sure what I am imagined when I first went into therapy – whether I wished to find a way to escape from the pain – but I thought six or seven sessions would fix me. Not so. Over four years later I am not fixed but I am in an environment where I have at long last acknowledged my suffering in all its awfulness. I am in a much better position to be the sovereign of my own destiny and not yanked about by feelings and emotions. The key thing, too, is that I am not alone.
The disruption has led me down all sorts of roads and discoveries of contemporary psychotherapists and philosophers, thinkers and wise men and women who have an extraordinary understanding of the human condition.
I have learned a lot and it has been tough – on reflection there is no single truth except perhaps the line from Pema Chodron’s book, The Wisdom of No Escape. All the wisdom points in this direction. It is in the examining of the feelings, rather than running away from them and acknowledging trauma and suffering instead of pretending that everything is normal, that we can begin to walk into a wider view of how we live and deal with our stuff.
I wrote Raw-Red Bone of Memory in the midst of my own extraordinary pain which was both spiritual and mental and on re-reading, I have a new perspective. I had had a sharp memory of physical pain and in some kind of weird way this experience became, without sounding too pompous, allegorical.
He called out in a distress forged in the tangle-metal of an accident. Only the songbird-needle of morphine could ever so briefly-fleetingly extinguish the misery of the wide-open unhealed wound, gaping with flesh and blood.
I lay in the next bed to him in the hospital, having been admitted in the morning, doubled over with my own pale version of pain. An emergency had whipped out a fetid appendix (yes, I know, I am being dramatic) and my only experience then was of post-anaesthesia dullness and the odd stomach muscle smarting slightly in a sudden movement.
Summoned, the nurse was unable to ease his pain. He half-shouted out that he didn’t care about being addicted to that songbird in a vial. He simply needed the sweet relief, even if it only glanced him, took the edge off.
Until today, I had completely forgotten about those midnight hours lying in a hospital bed listening to a man who sobbed in his pain, and who cursed and swore at the world. I had been remembering my own pain, gliding in on a songbird of hope, blowing away the awful what-have-beens that sometimes fester in the raw-red bone of memory when, startled, I thought of that hospital ward thirty four years ago.
Which leads to the bit where, now looking back, I can be thankful to the bastard that triggered my shit. I have come full circle from that conversation in Cape Town and see this differently too.
Epstein posits that if trauma does not destroy us, ‘wakes us up both to our own relational capacities and to the suffering of others. Not only does it make us hurt , it makes us more human caring and wise’.
That’s my wish for myself and anyone who is in crisis and pain.
”Where ever you go, there will be people who will be difficult. You know they are waiting for you.” Jack Kornfield, Podcast: The Garden of the Heart
Writing is the good enough mother who answers to my yell for help from my crib and need a change, some kind words to soothe me from a strange dream, to pick me up and say the right words, to straighten out the crinkles of anxiety and to find a container for these feelings that have feelings but no words to name them.
Writing is the therapist that sits with me and seems to know a way to call me out from the dark side of the moon, where I have been these past countless years, a marooned space ship, the life support systems draining bit by bit, helping me to name, at longfuckinglast, some of those feelings.
Writing is my wife who lies next to me and whose breath at night is the sign of life that the morning will come on the sunlight or on the mist and that there is no need to fear the dark.
Writing is the Buddha who releases me from the fixed state, the large ego that is too fat to fit through the door, that no longer needs to be prodded and pushed, that makes me present – even when I forgot, which is often – that lightens the heavy lifting of being who I am: fuckedup-neurotic-and-emotional.
I wrote this at a time that I was dealing with stuff and how we can have break-throughs. Dealing with pain can be startling and then something changes …
Bone-dry, sand-blasted soul-sahara. There is no escape to green springs, no oasis in the stinging dust-storm of things unexpected. And then the rains came: the footprint of the memory of pain was washed away until the next dry season. Now a time of colours flowered and the bone-dryness drip-dried into the forgotten.
I am looking at ways to turn anger into something that does not harm and debilitate. What I am writing is provisional. I am not quite yet there with my thinking.
It is true to say that grief not dealt with, despair that has no where to go and a fear that sits with us by brooding and corroding us – all three can end up as anger.
What happens to anger that has no place to go? It turns on itself, leading to depression. In the wrong hands it can become uncivil, possibly violent and massively painful.
Anger and fear are on the same side of the coin. Maybe they are on the opposite sides but they are part of the flight or flight.
Too much fear can shrivel us, make us lose our sense of self. Equally, not feeling any fear is problematic. Without fear we become manic, self-destructive or even hubristic. The key is being self-aware of the feeling of fear or the lack of it. The same thing with anger.
Anger that has no self-awareness becomes self-righteous or self-loathing. Anger that is not looked after and not dealt with can become depression. It can go underground and can seep in the places where it becomes toxic and kills the goodness of the person.
Pema Chodron and others argue that we are responsible for creating all of our emotion. Pema refers to the work done by Jill Bolte Taylor:
“An emotion like anger that is an automatic response lasts just ninety seconds from the moment it is triggered until it runs its course … When it lasts any longer, which it usually does, it is because we have chosen to rekindle it.”
Alex Miles, writing in Elephant Journal picks up the same theme and says, quite clearly, that we are responsible for making our own emotions: “Although we may not want to admit it we are responsible for creating all of our own emotions. Every thought that we think causes a chemical reaction and that reaction causes a physical response.” Alex Myles, Elephant Journal (It’s about the Mindful Life)
Is it true to say that no one makes you angry? That you make yourself angry? Anyway it is something to reflect on and become aware of next time you have that sensation. I think that someone or something makes us angry. It does have a context.
Here’s the thing – the radical thing to think about – the emotion of anger lasts only ninety seconds and then we make up the story around that emotion and it can remain with us for decades.
At that moment of anger, be aware of what has made us angry. Give the feeling, the moment, oxygen and space to open us up. Stop there. Don’t act out. Don’t repress. Don’t blame it on anyone else. Don’t blame it on ourselves. Make it open-ended. It will pass in ninety seconds. Listen to yourself. Listen to your own suffering.
Being self-aware of our suffering gives us the gift of the chance to be kind to ourselves.
This next line has shattered my view. I always thought with anger – get it out.
Thich Nhat Hanh says, “When you express your anger you think you are getting anger out of your system, but that’s not true.” When you fan your anger and don’t stop to work out why you are angry then that’s a difficult place to be.
Attend to anger. Be aware of it. Have self-awareness. Befriend it. Sit with it. Don’t try to suppress it. Surrender to it. This is the renunciation. It is not allowing anger to control. Know that it exists.Can I let the anger open me and not try to shoo it away?
Pema suggests that we practise how to deal with such emotions in Living Beautifully.
Acknowledge the feeling, she says. Give it your full and compassionate and welcoming attention and drop the story line about the feeling. This allows you to have direct experience of it, free of interpretation. Don’t be judgemental of it. Just be present with the moment. She also urges us to think about where it is located in our body and asks the questions, ‘Does it remain the same for every long? Does it shift and change?’
If we let the story line go around the sensation, we will be freed of it and remember nothing lasts for ever. Becoming self-aware when it comes to the emotion of anger can lead to a great sense of well-being.
References – both enormously helpful in dealing with this stuff –
Pema Chodron, Living Beautifully
Miriam Greenspan, Healing through the Dark Emotions