We all suffer from emotional pain. Whether it’s the trauma of separation, the grief of someone close to us dying or the acute pain of a miscarriage, we’ve all been there, we don’t want a T-shirt and we don’t want to go back.

But let’s stop for a moment and ask: what is emotional pain? What causes that aching pain when we experience emotional trauma? Emotional pain results from the inability to process the entirety of the NOW moment as it happens.

Emotional pain results from the inability to process the entirety of the NOW moment as it happens


The NOW moment

Imagine that each moment of existence is like a wave of experience, or, perhaps more accurately, a bandwidth of energy. The highs and lows of this bandwidth correspond to the intensity of the NOW experience. When something wonderful happens to us, this wave of experience has a high crest gleaming in the sun like a massive breaker off the coast of Hawaii. When something deeply painful happens this bandwidth has dark, low sub-tones. Outside of these peak experiences, the wave of the NOW moment has a narrower, more middling bandwidth.

In each moment, the wave of the NOW moment washes over us as we experience whatever is happening in our lives. We all have differing abilities to handle peak experiences. Some people can seemingly stay balanced in challenging situations while others find even mild reversals of fortune crippling.

Concentration camps

Research has shown that those with the greatest capacity to accept difficulties have the greatest capacity to experience joy. Many survivors of the World War 2 concentration camps have demonstrated an enjoyment of life that is seemingly at odds with their traumatic past.

So we can imagine that our ability to handle the highs and lows of life is like a diaphragm that is more open in some people and more constricted in others. The wave of experience of each NOW moment crashes against this diaphragm, like the sea against the shore.

When the bandwidth of the NOW moment is within the capacity of our emotional diaphragm we are able to process the entirety of the moment as it happens. There is no residue of unprocessed emotional experience, as it has all passed through. When that happens, we don’t experience any pain.

However, if the NOW moment contains a peak experience that exceeds our diaphragm’s processing ability, we effectively reject the NOW experience because of our inability to handle it. If it’s a high peak experience, we simply don’t derive much joy from it. When it’s a low peak experience, boom—PAIN!

Pain exists, suffering is optional

The notion that it is not an event itself but the inability to handle that event is mirrored in the Buddhist belief that expectation is the source of all discomfort. Buddhism is perhaps the most mechanical of all religions and Buddhist teacher Shinzen Young has even turned pain (suffering) into a formula:

S = P x R

Or, Suffering = Pain x Resistance. Pain is the impact of the traumatic experience. Resistance is the constriction of our emotional diaphragm. When we offer no resistance, the value of R becomes 0. Anything multiplied by 0 equals 0. The bottom line of Young’s formula is that although painful experiences may occur, it is our resistance to them that determines whether we suffer.

In Part II we’ll examine the source of our inability to handle negative experiences and how to decrease our resistance to them.

Image: 有些痛,會上癮 by Xu-Gong on Flickr.