I have just been tidying my bedroom. Anybody with a dust allergy should approach that room with caution. Am I the only person with a stack of books ‘for reading’ on the bedside table but which have been there for several months and which are covered in professional magazines, academic journal articles, tissues, receipts, nail varnish bottles (oh, only me then?). Anyway I re-discovered Perfect Love Imperfect Relationships. Healing the Wound of the Heart by John Welwood hiding there. As I glanced through the pages the words ‘self-love’ jumped out and I found myself drawn into reading more.
John Welwood talks about letting yourself have your experience. Too often we approach the difficult stuff in life from our experience as a helpless child when sadness and pain was too uncomfortable to bear. When we were young ‘our sadness was bigger that we were because we didn’t have the knowledge or capacity to process intense feelings. So our only choice was to shut down our nervous system in the face of our pain’ (p105). As adults frequently we carry on doing this, either resisting our feelings or getting overwhelmed by them. He calls this unconscious suffering, when we become passively submerged or getting carried away by our feelings.
Welwood suggests that we actively meet, engage with and open to our feelings – “yes this is the feeling that’s here” (e.g. anger, grief, loneliness, despair) and in doing so we free ourselves from the grip of that emotion. By opening to our fear or pain and allowing ourselves to experience that opening we may get to discover that the ‘openness is more powerful than the feelings you’re opening to. …This discovery puts you in touch with your capacity for strength, kindness, stability, and understanding in the face of whatever you are going through. This is conscious suffering’ (p106).
John Welwood is a psychotherapist and he writes that in his experience of working with clients (and himself) he sees that if you can let ‘your experience happen, it will release its knots and unfold, leading to a deeper, more grounded experience of yourself. No matter how painful or scary your feelings appear to be, your willingness to engage with them draws forth your essential strength, leading in a more life-positive direction. …You are saying yes to yourself as you are, as you are feeling right now. This is a profound act of self-love’ (emphasis added, pp106-7).
As I sat with a young father dying of cancer I am reminded yet again how this act of self-love is not easy work, that saying ‘yes, this is what I’m feeling and I can open to it’ is painful and oftentimes frightening but that doing so can lead to paths of healing (not cure of course). We have danced gently with opening to what is in our work together.
In the last few months I too have tried to dance and open to the difficult and the painful; ultimately it has been an experience of coming home to myself and has lead back to a greater appreciation of life and a rediscovery of the gifts of self-acceptance and self-love. It wasn’t easy and it took time but it was so very worthwhile.
How would it be for you to experience conscious suffering? Perhaps you practice this already. Please share your experiences below – We’d love to hear what you think