There is no coming into consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.
I’ve always been a happy person. People always commented on how optimistic and bright I was. All that was true, well, mostly. I was happy; I was optimistic, yet my positivity was slightly manufactured. I was positive because I refused to feel the negative stuff. You see, I believed that “everything happens for a reason,” that there is nothing “bad” because those things help us grow, and that I can create my own reality.
I was positive because I had learned to bypass the negative, and that comes with a price.
My senior year of college, I went through a difficult breakup. He had been my high school sweetheart. We broke up sitting in a park in downtown Manhattan. As I boarded the subway back uptown, I was in tears. Heartbroken. By the time I got to my stop at 116th street, the tears were gone, and I had decided this happened for a reason and it was for the best. When my roommate asked me what happened, I told her that Al and I had broken up but that I was fine because I had learned so much from the relationship and had grown from it. I didn’t shed one tear nor feel any sadness.
I did this with most difficulties in my life—I like to call it “over-understanding.” I would try to figure out the lesson in something so that I wouldn’t have to feel the pain.
Five years later, I found myself sitting in a doctor’s office being told that I had cancer cells on my cervix. My mother burst into tears. Me, I looked at her and told her that this happened to teach me a lesson about my second chakra and I was going to embrace it. Again, not one tear or acknowledgment of fear. I knew there was a lesson, and I was going to be a good student and learn it so that I wouldn’t have to face this again. Yeah, right.
The Price We Pay
So what’s the price we pay for manufactured positivity? Well, if we refuse to feel the pain, fear, grief, heartbreak, anger, or rage, those emotions are held hostage in the body and make our mind and emotions unstable. The shadow, as Jung called it, gets gagged and tied and put into a closet somewhere. The less we acknowledge the scary stuff, the louder it bangs on the door of our psyche. If we don’t express ourselves and feel the feelings, we can end up sick, disconnected, unable to have true intimacy, etc.
For me, yoga is a practice of sitting with discomfort and breathing through it. On the other side of sitting with this is more freedom. Don’t get me wrong, I spent years doing yoga without sitting with my discomfort—I was simply focused on getting the poses exactly right. One day, a teacher was inviting us to try to lift our supporting hand off the floor in half moon pose. He walked over to me and said, “try it, you won’t hurt yourself if you fall.” I realized that I wasn’t afraid to fall; I wasn’t trying it because I was afraid of doing it imperfectly. My perfectionism was keeping me from taking risks; it was also keeping me from being present because all I focused on was how I could make the pose better. My habits on my mat revealed to me my habits off my mat.
As my practice matured, it got simpler, and I got more present in my body and in the moment. As I learned to tolerate discomfort (and imperfection), I got present to the ways in which I’m limiting myself by needing to always seem so happy, perky, and put together. I began to feel my anger, rage, sadness, sensuality, and fabulousness. (The shadow is not all bad stuff by the way—it’s anything we’re afraid to acknowledge.)
I’ve gotten much better at sitting with discomfort. As a therapist, it’s one of the most important things I can do for my clients—bear witness to their pain without rushing to take it away. As a parent, I’ve found that if I can sit with my kids’ discomfort for a moment or two, they will more quickly pass through tantrums and upsets because I’m not rushing them out of their experience or trying to tell them that they shouldn’t have it.
During the birth of my second son, I watched my old habits come back at the point when things got very intense. Here’s a somewhat graphic synopsis:
I’m squatting in my living room starting to push. Since I had done this before, I was overconfident. My first birth was “easy” as far as births go, so I assumed that number two would be even easier. I wasn’t anticipating that he would be a pound and a half bigger—that makes a difference; let me assure you. As I’m doing the final pushes and feeling like I’m going to be ripped in half, I start to get scared. Maybe I can’t do this, I think to myself. To cope with the pain, I start to imagine the tranquil women giving birth in a water birth video, and I imagine holding my baby in my arms. I start to breath deeply. But each time I do that, I feel the baby slip back up the birth canal.
My midwife catches it. “No more deep breathing, Hala,“ she says, “you have to bear down and push as hard as you can, and I need you to go here.” She points to the part of me that feels like it’s on fire. This was the part I was trying to avoid with my daydreams.
Crap, I think to myself. I know that if I don’t go there, to the most painful place in my body, I will not be able to get my baby out. I remember all that I’ve learned in my life about bypass and knew I was at a crossroads. If I didn’t go directly to the place that scared me the most, I would have complications and have to go to the hospital. I knew that going right into the fear would be the quickest way to get my baby. So I shut down the old survival mechanism, bore down, and in three pushes had my precious baby.
Riding the Waves of Contractions
Bearing Down (the part I wanted to skip)
Whenever we are birthing anything, we face death: death of who we were, death of old belief systems, death of old habits. It’s never easy, but when we avoid the pain, we avoid the joy and bliss as well. Embracing our shadow allows us to embrace life, vitality, joy, and happiness.
I think that many of us suffer because of the habits we have that keep us from feeling our deepest discomforts. Habits like drinking, drugs, overeating, numbing out with TV, co-dependent relationships, etc. Trying to avoid pain is at the root of all addiction. Yet the addiction has all these terrible side effects. The side effects seem to be more tolerable than the thing we’re avoiding; yet the more we avoid that monster all bound up in our closet, the bigger it becomes.
What I’ve learned through decades of personal work and years of being a counselor is that the thing that we’re avoiding is usually not going to destroy us. But our addictions might. Allowing ourselves to feel our sadness, grief, anger, or rage can liberate us from the prison of avoidance. When we’re no longer trying to avoid ourselves, then we are truly free!
Hala Khouri, M.A., E-RYT, has been teaching yoga and the movement arts for over twenty years. She earned her B.A. in Psychology from Columbia University, her M.A. in Counseling Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute, and is trained in Somatic Experiencing, a body-based trauma psychotherapy. She leads yoga workshops nationally and is one of the founders of Off the Mat, Into the World®, an organization that bridges yoga and activism. Recently, she released two Yoga DVDs: Radiant Pregnancy (pre-natal yoga) and Yoga for Stress Reduction. For more on Hala, please visit her website and Facebook.
*Photo by Martin Gommel.