“Let me embrace three, sour adversity, for wise men say it is the wisest course.”
One of the most difficult challenges in this being human business is facing what is, particularly when what is, sucks. I’m talking about times when life presents you with things you didn’t order and don’t want: illness, death, financial trials, or waking up one day and realizing you are not who or what you wanted to be and simultaneously realizing that all those years gone by are non-refundable. Being with what truly is ain’t for sissies. It requires enormous courage to willingly embrace deep suffering.
It’s counter-intuitive to take a blow without doing something, anything, to defend oneself. When your marriage is a mess or your body betrays you or you’re on a financial cliff edge, the tendency is to become two years old again and have a hissy fit. Of course, the adult form of this manifests in slightly more subtle ways. You blame or try harder, or you throw yourself whole-hog into someone or something else, or maybe you drink or become depressed or otherwise check out. I call these the “Fight, Flee, Freeze” approaches to pain, all attempts to deny what is.
And they don’t work.
I know, because I’ve tried all of them at various times, sometimes for years at a stretch. They don’t work in the same way that closing a wound without cleaning it out doesn’t work. The pain is still there. Blithely unaware or willfully ignoring it, the pain will fester. Unpleasant symptoms and behaviors—anxiety, busyness, addictions—will begin to betray the unresolved problem. “Neurosis,” the psychologist C.G. Jung said, “is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” We create pain in our attempt to avoid pain. Crazy, ain’t it?
I once wrote a brilliant paper illuminating a depth psychological/mythological perspective on depression, relating it to my experience of being widowed. It came back with a note in the margins that read: “Depression as a defense against grief.” That comment stopped me in my tracks. I was in a Ph.D. program in depth psychology and the thought had never once occurred to me that my prolonged depression following my husband’s death was a means of avoiding my real suffering. I was not aware of my avoidance at the time. I thought I was suffering, and I was, of course. But a more profound suffering lay buried below the depression. It was only in retrospect, when I read that comment, that I saw how I froze to avoid this deeper suffering.
Of course the problem with fighting, freezing and fleeing is that they all set up additional and unnecessary suffering that you must wade through to get back to the real suffering that was waiting there all along. If you’d like to avoid this scenic route and take a shortcut, potentially saving years of your life, I will give you a tip: Flow.
To flow means to go with the natural course of energy, to face what is and to feel whatever awaits you, even if that means facing the fact that you have cancer or are never going to realize that long-held dream. Flowing does not mean giving up or resigning oneself to the misery of it all; it means releasing your resistance to the fear, hurt and sorrow that’s inherent in this life.
Why do this? Because when you let go, those emotions will flow over and by you. In the flow—or Tao or on the path or whatever you prefer to call it—you now have access to all the energy of your true self. Opportunities and ideas you never imagined show up. You are in life, not in denial of it.
Life is movement and flow. A river is not stagnant, it is new every moment, and so are we. When we put ourselves in accord with Life-as-it-Shows-Up, we have the greatest opportunity for creating the life we always wanted, even if it’s not the one we planned.