It is common for individuals to protect themselves against mental, emotional and physical pain by armoring ourselves, in a psychosomatic way in our physical and emotional bodies. This tends to happen at a moment of a real or perceived crisis, when our bodies instinctively go tense in an effort to brace oneself from being overwhelmed by feelings. As therapist and teacher, I have worked with many individuals throughout the years that hold heavy layers of protection around themselves; sometimes decades after an experience of pain or trauma took place. I learned how to work with others, from years of working with and healing my own armoring. To this day, I continue to work with liberating myself from years of holding my body tight from trying to shield myself from being hurt, by often imagined fears. Of course there are times when these fears are real and in the present moment. If this is the case, it is wise to take action, such as leaving the situation or getting whatever help we need.
But what I find amazing is that often, for years, we hold ourselves tense to protect ourselves from a person who is no longer in our lives or who we might only see 1% of the time. Maybe we will never see the person who originally hurt us again, and yet unconsciously we still armor ourselves against a one day chance encounter. We may continue to hold this protection simply out of habit, even though there is no longer a threat. It may even be that be that our body was once shocked by a sudden accident and that it habitually holds itself tight for years. Whatever the case, this unconscious psychosomatic phenomena can hold us back from fully experiencing the wonder of Life in the affected parts of our being. To be awake, means that we open and include all of our being in our experience of life. But if there are parts of ourselves that are unconsciously resisting life, it will be difficult to experience beauty in these parts of ourselves. After we discover this in ourselves, we can invite our body to open and relax. But for our body to relax, we must first be in a safe environment and feel emotionally and mentally safe. This might mean a change of relationship, or environment, or simply realize that we are perfectly safe right here, right now; that this moment is not the past.
After we have established a feeling of safety in ourselves, we can talk to our bodies or the various parts of ourselves that are in pain; and let them know that it is safe to relax. It is safe to put the shield down. We no longer have to hold tension in our bodies. If we speak in a way that our body can hear, then it will hear us and begin to relax. Although, if we speak to ourselves in harsh or judgmental ways, we will not feel safe and we might become more scared and become more tense. I like to think of talking to the places within us that are still hurting, like a good parent would talk to a child. This might be a soft reassuring voice or a voice that is calm and clear; when we talk in this way, it becomes easy for our pain to hear us. And our body may start to relax in a very gentle and natural way. Although if we have been through deep trauma and pain, much more work will be necessary.
After my divorce, I can remember the intense pain that I experienced and held in my body. I sat intentionally with this pain for over a year, and I did this each day. I used a very specific mediation practice for helping to release this pain. I sat down and relaxed my body. I became open and spacious inside. From this quiet, open and spacious place, I would locate the pain in my body, often this was quite easy to find. The wonderful thing about pain is that it is loud and undeniable. The practice was to fully sit with the pain and fully allow it to be in my body. The key words here are to fully allow it to be. When we first do this, our minds habitually, turn and run in the opposite direction. They do this by thinking of something very important that needs to be done right now. Or it fantasizes about some other place or person. Or it starts planning the day. The mind will try to do anything but sit with pain. It can be humorous to watch how quickly our minds go somewhere else when pain is in the room. It can find something else to do in a fraction of a second. Our minds will avoid pain at all costs, so it is quite a task to just get ourselves to sit with pain and allow it to be.
After we have opened and allowed the pain to be here fully, we might imagine that the pain is a child and it is sitting in our lap. As a father, I love this image. I can think of any time my daughter even got hurt, the first thing I wanted to do was to pick up her and hold her. We must cultivate this type of love for ourselves and the pain that lives within us. We have to want to hold it. Although most of us, want to get rid of this pain as soon as we feel it. But if we want to get rid of it, we miss our chance to be free. We miss our chance to know love. We miss our chance to transform pain into peace.
For this process to be truly healing, we have to totally be open and to want to sit with it. Another image that I like comes from the ancient Zen teachings on the angry bull. If we have an angry bull, and want it to calm down, then we let it run around in a big open field. We work with pain in the same way; as we open to the pain and allow it to fully be within us, it may even become louder, it may need to run around for awhile. What is helpful is for us to notice all the space in our mind and our bodies, in our awareness and to notice that this space has no end. From this spacious openeness we can allow the pain to spread out and unravel in our spacious awareness. This also, helps our ego to relax, once it knows that there is so much space for all this pain, and that we no longer have to contain it. As we open to our already spacious nature, which is always here, we may notice that our pain might make a fuss; it might send awful memories through our minds. To fully let go and heal, these memories must be seen, heard and acknowledged; but not believed. By this I mean, that we see in the present moment that it (the experience that is feared) is not actually happening any longer, it happened in the past and now that it is the present and we are safe, we do not need these thoughts and stories anymore.
If we continue to believe in the stories and thoughts, then we get stuck in the past and the mind is again successful in distracting us from sitting fully with the pain. And we don’t heal. Sometimes, we need to allow for these thoughts to go on and on until they wear themselves out. But it is very dangerous, if we believe in our stories and add to them in the present. We will continue the story and never free the pain from ourselves until, we go back and fully allow it to release.
If we can be this open, this willing, the pain will release, in a very powerful way, when it’s ready. And this is up to it, not us; the only thing we can do is fully accept what’s here and surrender. This is a very important point. The pain must feel safe and fully accepted and not denied in any way and then it will release. And as it releases we may experience a wonderful power or energy running through our body, or a terrify energy or emotions. Most people when they experience this terror or overwhelming sensations, get scared and quit this work. It is as if a wonderful dam broke inside and began to release and it was too much for the individual, so a person closes the gates, and stopped the whole process of letting go.
If this happens, and it almost always does in the beginning, we don’t have to be discouraged, there will be another chance. When we are willing to again open to the pain, sit with it fully and allow for its release, there will be this wonderful and terrible feeling of being out of control. And our invitation is to allow ourselves to experience this fully; to fully embrace feeling out of control. This is what it feels like to let go of deeply held emotions; it will feel as if uncontrollable sensations are moving through our body. Any time we are deeply emotional it feels uncontrollable, this is very much normal and ok. It might be the scariest experience of our life; we may turn red or pale, and feel sick to our stomachs. This is all a part of the process of conscious letting go. Can we allow ourselves to turn pale, and to be terrified; in the end we probably will not die from this experience of letting go, although our minds may think that. As we fully allow the emotions and overwhelming sensations to fully be here, these very emotions will most often turn to pure energy and a rush of energy will run out of our body. And this movement, may last for a second, a minute and hour a day or longer. But when we open to the movement of emotions and see that it is just energy; and do not believe the thoughts that say we are going to die; we become free. This is what it viscerally feels like to consciously let go. We see that it is just energy running through our body and we allow for it to move in whatever way it needs. And depending on the depth of the pain, it may take just one meditation on pain or a hundred to heal. If we become comfortable with working with ourselves in this way, this fearlessness will become a way of life and we will come to love going into the unconscious parts of ourselves that are hurting. And we will find that the majority of the pain we experience, is nothing more than energy stuck in our body from the past.