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.
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.
Our inability to handle negative experiences stems from survival programming. This unconscious programming works on the basis that in order to survive we must belong to a tribe. To belong to a tribe we must conform to its social rules and expectations. If we don’t we may be rejected—and may not survive.
As I have written elsewhere, survival programming entered our DNA with the emergence of patriarchy some 5-6,000 years ago when habitat loss forced previously peaceful tribes into conflict. Behaviours that enhanced the tribe—such as fighting and childbearing—became ‘good’. Behaviours that weakened it—such as displays of emotions and sexuality—became ‘bad’.
This social adaptation was so successful that, over time, almost every egalitarian society in the world became an emotionally repressive patriarchy.
The outcome of the pressure to conform was society-wide emotional repression. This affected not only our ability to express our emotions but also our ability to handle emotionally charged—i.e. peak—experiences. This emotional shut down is the source of the constricted ‘emotional diaphragm’ described in Part I.
The more open hearted, laid back, emotionally expressive we are, the more we can flow through life’s ups and downs without excessive emotional pain.
The extent to which this diaphragm is constricted is in direct proportion to our discomfort with our emotions. The more open hearted, laid back, emotionally expressive we are, the more we can flow through life’s ups and downs without excessive emotional pain. The more constricted, up tight, emotionally repressed we are, the more negative experiences affect us—not just in the painful NOW moment that they happen but on and on into the future.
This is because whatever emotions we experience that we cannot process in the NOW moment become trapped in what is termed our ‘emotional body’. This unprocessed psychic material accumulates in our unconscious or subconscious, depending on our sensitivity, where it continues to affect us long after the actual event has passed. This is how Post Traumatic Stress Disorder develops.
Science has now demonstrated that trauma can be passed from one generation to another through epigenetic inheritance. So constrictions to our emotional diaphragm may be the result of trauma experienced by one of our ancestors.
The key to expanding our diaphragm to be able to handle peak experiences without pain lies in acceptance. Acceptance is what helped some people survive the concentration camps without crippling trauma. They laid aside the belief that they were ‘good’ and that only good things would happen to them. By accepting the reality of their brutal detention they were better able to adapt to life in the camps and, ultimately, better able to survive.
You, too, can cultivate acceptance.
Acceptance does not mean being morally OK with a violent or abusive act by another. It means not being in denial about the reality of what is occurring. It means replacing our unconscious classification of events as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ with the conscious decision to suspend judgment and let the entirety of the NOW moment flow through us. Master this and you will be free of pain.
Image: 有些痛，會上癮 by Xu-Gong on Flickr.