Facing Our Pain

“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”

-Oliver Wendell Holmes

Gurdjieff was a was a Greco-Armenian mystic and philosopher whose teaching centred around the idea of self-awareness and self-transformation. He had a community of followers. Followers of Gurdjieff, paid to study and stay in his community. There’s a story about an old man in Gurdjieff’s community who was proving difficult for everyone to live with. The old man was irritable, opinionated, rude, loud and just could not get on with the other followers. These issues continued unresolved and caused conflict with the other community members, so the old man decided to leave.

Gurdjieff was saddened to hear of this, searched for the old man, convinced him to return and offered him a big monthly renumeration. You can imagine the reaction of the followers upon learning that this cranky old man was asked to come back and received payment to stay. They confronted Gurdjieff, who explained: “This man is like yeast for bread. Without him here you would not really understand the meaning of patience, the meaning of loving-kindness or compassion. You would not learn how to deal with your own anger and irritation. So, I bring him here. You pay me to teach, and I pay him to assist.”

Our emotions are our body’s way of talking to us and communicating its needs. Often, we react to our emotions without really understanding what it is trying to tell us. We tend to try and get rid of difficult emotions or just ignore or suppress them.
These stored emotions have an impact in the body and compromise our health. Adverse life experiences become our biology, not just psychology. They cause inflammation, digestive issues and contribute to disease and aging. It is therefore important to learn how to respond to these experiences, so they do not rob us of our vital health, happiness, and aliveness.

Like the anecdote about Gurdjieff’s community, trying to eliminate difficult emotions and experiences ensnares us more. These internal experiences – anger, fear, guilt… – can be a source of wisdom when we learn to acknowledge them and give them space with the curiosity, openness, and gentleness they need. By acknowledging them, they become familiar to us, and this helps change our relationship with them. Instead of feeling intimidated by difficult emotions and experiences, we realise that we have a choice to not get caught up in them. And although they affect our body in a certain way, we also know that the feelings pass and that we are bigger than our experiences. It is not easy, but we can learn this skill through practice.

How should we react when a difficult emotion rises?

1. Accept the difficult emotion or experience. You do not have to want it or like it. Just acknowledge its presence in your mind and in your body.
2. Name it gently and be fully aware how it feels in your body. For example, if it is fear, say “I can feel fear.” Notice how it feels in your body, you might feel a bit shaky. Notice how your breath changes and the stories and images that come with it. Simply notice, without adding to it or trying to change it.
3. Like an observer in a movie, watching what is going on, observe with loving kindness, witness what is happening without being caught up in it.
4. You might have to do this twenty, thirty, forty times before you become familiar with the emotion, but it takes time to learn this skill.

When we learn to become present to our experiences, we understand that our difficult emotions cannot harm us. They may arise but they also eventually perish. By practicing this skill, we develop psychological flexibility. We learn to bend when the storms of difficult experiences come but we also know that by learning to turn towards them we also become more resilient.



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