23 09, 2007

the prison of emotional denial

September 23rd, 2007|emotions, love, pain, relationships, wholeness|12 Comments

These last two weeks I’ve been witness to a few rather emotional discussions. Which is not at all unusual for me. However, in these weeks I’ve also been seeing how much push there is to suppress emotion in them – even for discussions of an inherently emotional nature. This kind of reaction seems to be pervasive in our culture. As a society, we’re extremely uncomfortable with emotion, and this shows up in a lack of appreciation of simply allowing it. To take an example, say there’s a conflict between two people you know and like. There are no ‘easy’ solutions in such a situation. Both of them usually have valid perspectives, which are linked to their own emotions, who they are, and their own boundaries. It’s easy to get alienated from such situations because there’s no ‘right’ answer, no “good side”, and it’s easy to feel trapped between the opposing forces. Aligning yourself with one side usually generates more problems. Emotions, therefore, are something best to avoid. At least so many thoughts go.

If we look deeply at the mechanism of suppressing emotions, it’s easy to see why. Who we are, which includes emotions, is actually extremely flexible â???? we can do almost anything we want to ourselves. We can develop ourselves to be almost anything desired, but we can also push emotions, memories, and thoughts away from sight and try to squish them into nothingness. Our training in this culture involving doing such things almost from day one. However â???? and this is the root of almost all ‘problems’ â???? we cannot truly disconnect ourselves from ourselves. There is no way to cut off and discard any disliked portion of ourselves. There is truly no escape from who we are. We can try to surgically disconnect a painful emotion, and we get a reasonable facsimile of this disconnection. But it will not be a true disconnect. Any emotion we’ve tried to shove away is always there, waiting to come back, and in fact pulling on us in every moment.

For the visually minded, I liken this process to a great white elastic band. We can stuff part of ourselves in a box, bury it, and walk away, but we’ll have that ‘pull’ from it. It will exert pressure on us in every single moment, bringing attention to it. The farther we push it away, the more pull there will be. This is why the elastic band image helps. This pull isn’t a harsh ‘you must deal with it’ one, but rather a force of nature that simply wants us to be in wholeness, bringing us back to our greater Self. This elastic can be influenced by others, too â???? if someone else walks through the area of the denied connection, what occurs is the elastic force snapping back, similar to a real elastic band. This is another description of what ‘triggering’ is.

Now in almost everyone there is not just one such pocket of emotion buried and abandoned, but multitudes. Each one exerts this pull back. Try to imagine how that would feel with real elastic bands. Because of the constant pull in many conflicting directions, there’s very little freedom to move in any direction. A little movement can be made, but even small can movements pull against hidden emotion which will then pull back, producing an emotional reaction in response. This can generates fear of any emotional movement at all. Most people are quite literally trapped in a static place by buried emotions. In such a place, life is filled with emotional minefields and geysers waiting to erupt. Words must be watched and controlled in every moment. Walls and wired fences mark off areas where unwanted emotions lie fallow.

inside a prison

Now imagine on top of this picture that you are close with someone else, who also has a huge amount of buried emotions. It would be very easy to get a reaction in that person if you tried to move through any of their “elastic bands”. So in most relationships, there is a general, unspoken agreement for both parties to act in such a way that no one will be triggered. The initial rush of being ‘in love’ at the beginning is usually the time such agreements are formed. It’s quite natural, of course; being triggered is not enjoyable to anyone, and it is normal to demonstrate you’re not going to trigger pain to someone you love. However, this restricts motion even further. After some time, there’s often a realization of how emotionally static such a posture is. This is when relationship questioning happens. It can either lead to greater freedom if both sides are open to questioning or to the end of a relationship if one person blames the other for opening up emotional cans of worms. There was an unspoken agreement, after all!

These unspoken agreements are actually pervasive in all aspects of our society. Social groups often have a number of these. To see this, try to imagine you showing the raw spectrum of an intense emotion without filtering (and without blaming others) to a group you’re part of. If you feel that this would cause a lot of alienation, or you simply cannot even imagine it, that is a sign of unspoken agreements. In such cases, someone not acting in accord with these agreements are the vast majority of the time thought of as ‘the problem’. To someone in a prison, those outside of it can indeed be a problem! Unfortunately, the label of ‘the problem’ sticks far too often to anyone with even a little self-doubt, encouraging further denial of emotions. And thus the cycle continues

The road less travelled, of course, is simply to not push away any emotion that occurs. This applies to both emotions within and emotions in others. Without the network of opposing forces described above, an incredible amount of freedom begins to take root. There are no longer any self-created chains rooting you to a particular emotional landscape. At first this is terrifying, but as the infinite amount of choices now available are gotten used to, the dance of freedom truly begins.

Of course, it takes a good deal of time to reincorporate denied aspects of ourselves back into the fold. Try to imagine trying to rush this process and having many of these elastic forces snap back all at once! It takes gentleness and patience. Nevertheless, each part of Self allowed back into a space of wholeness always adds to your sense of freedom, and brings a greater strength for any further challenges. This is the path of wholeness. When the freedom and joy of this is seen, then there is no need to even try for disconnections from Self. For we are complete, just as we are.

1 09, 2007

the allowing of pain.

September 1st, 2007|allowing, channeling, love, pain, spectrum|8 Comments

All of you have likely heard talk about the universality of Love. It’s in many places, from the Bible saying “God is Love” to various newer teachings. For instance, the most famous quote of A Course in Miracles is :

“The opposite of love is fear, but what is all encompassing can have no opposite.”

According to this, the universe itself is composed of nothing but love. And yet our experiences seem to be full of things which do not appear loving. Others may treat us with disdain and rudeness, and we ourselves may experience emotions such as pain, anger, despair and grief that we think are as far from the experience and ecstasy of love as can be. And yet, if the universe itself is made of love and we are part of the universe, then logically we ourselves should be made of nothing but love. So why do we experience such intensely negative emotions such as pain, when love is supposed to be ecstatic?

It at this point, let’s go beyond the labels we have for these emotions. Labels keep us fixed into a relatively small concept, and in fact there are wide differences between two people for the same experience of an emotion. If looked at deeply, there is a fullness within every emotion that most people do not even glimpse. In fact, each emotion is not a limited experience – it’s an entire spectrum, much like the light that comes to us from the sun. And like light, there are even huge swaths of the spectrum that we cannot even see. In fact what we know of as pain, for instance, is but a small area of the spectrum available of this one basic experience, but a small part of the expansive range open to us.

To go into more detail, let us now take a look at pain. To use the analogy of the body, pain serves a very useful purpose. It lets us know when there is something important that we need to focus on. If we are being stabbed by a sharp needle, for example, it is good to take immediate action to remove the needle from our body. Sometimes the pain is more chronic and speaks of long-term actions necessary to create a healthier environment in the complex system that is our body. So to put it simply, pain is a good thing. However, if we think of pain only as an enemy, and therefore do not listen to it, it is quite possible that the symptoms will grow exponentially larger until we reach the point where we see nothing but the pain. It is not pain that is the problem, only our experience of it and our reaction to it.

The inward experience of emotional pain is similar. It serves a very useful function – it lets us know what needs to be listened to and transformed. When fully allowed, this can be a truly transcendant experience. In most cases we see, of course, it’s misery, but to give a wider picture of what pain can look like, it is useful to think of it again as a spectrum. Here’s a table showing a range:



  • A complete void.


  • Overwhelmed with pain; wishing death
  • Alone; lost in pain, blaming others.
  • Bonding with others through sharing pain.
  • Recognizing pain as an impetus to start caring for self.
  • Fully listening to pain to help transformation.


  • Transcendence.

All of these come from the same basic internal energy, that which we label ‘pain’. In this one emotion, there is a universe of difference in the experience. And yet the experiences are intricately intertwined; in each moment of meeting pain there can be an instant shift into another mode of experience. The only difference between the states listed above is the degree of allowing we have for the pain – which is the degree we make pain our friend, becoming one with it. Being completely in the present moment, in an ever-fulfilling process of allowing, opens us to the entire range. Resisting the experience will tend to move us to the more blocking side of the spectrum. Normally we sway back and forth a fair bit, even for minor pains!

Both ends of the spectrum are of course connected. Numerous accounts, such as Eckhart Tolle, exist of completely giving up in the pain of existing, surrendering to ‘the void’, and then dramatically shifting to an ecstatic experience of transcendence.

How does this then relate to love? Most people think of love as an emotion. If this were so, it would limit Love. Love itself is not an emotion. Love is the entire spectrum. Think then, that pain is not seperate from it; pain is part of that vast spectrum. Love is a complete allowing of everything. It includes pain, joy, anger, longing, connections with others, and all human experience. Love in some way can be likened to the space through which light can pass. It is Love itself that provides the allowing that enables pain to be the complete blessing that it can be, if it is surrendered to. If you think to a time where you sat in front of someone you knew loved you, it was at a time when everything in you was welcomed. This included all your emotions, all your thoughts, all your desired; it was all invited and allowed. Why then should loving ourselves be any different?

This of course in no way minimizes the paralysing agony that pain can be, or is it in any way saying people are “responsible for their pain”. It takes experience and wisdom to trust the process of allowing and surrendering to an experience, and most people need much support to do this. That’s what friends are for, after all. Still, I hope by looking at pain this has given a glimpse of possibilities that exist in every moment, inside every emotion.

PS. There’s an online group aimed at discussing concepts like this and integrating it into our lives which I’m a co-owner on. If anyone is interested in it – which does involve time, exercises and experiments – please send me mail. And of course, comments and questions are always welcomed!

5 08, 2007

seeing suffering in India

August 5th, 2007|emotions, freedom, pain, Travel and Places|0 Comments

I’ve recently had talk with a few people about India and my experiences of being there. It’s been over 10 years ago now since I was there for about 6 months. I arrived without friends, guides or plans – simply bringing a large (but mostly empty) backpack and a guidebook. I saw ancient ruins, ashrams, monasteries, beach resorts, sky-touching mountains and parched deserts. I treked in the Himalayan mountains and river rafted and kayaked down mountain rivers. I saw the extremes of India’s culture, from the poverty, to the spiritual traditions, to the Hindu-Muslim clashes. The experiences from that trip expanded my mind and helped shape my mind to be able to see outside the cultural assumptions we take for granted.

Now one of the most common questions I’ve received over the years has been about the poverty in India. “It must have been so hard to see all the poverty and suffering there!” is something I’ve heard over 100 times.

The answer is of course, paradoxical. The truth is that it felt like an extreme relief. It was a profoundly freeing experience to actually see the suffering that was actually there. Here we avoid this. In the North American culture most of us are in, we do all we can to remove all sights, sounds and impressions that suffering exists. We try to hide homelessness, ignore poverty, and even amongst friends there’s usually a tacit agreement to filter our emotions and sufferings. Showing these in a corporate office is usually taboo. We’re uncomfortable with the emotions that seeing direct pain can bring up. In India, on the other hand, it’s all visible. The leprosy on the street is visible; the millions of people living in shacks with unclean water and no toilets are visible. The simmering rage between Hindus and Muslims is also visible.

(This kind of sight, by the way, is not that uncommon. Leprosy is quite common and visible in many streets)

It’s hard to convey why this is such a relief. But perhaps an analogy is in order. Say two people are in an exclusive relationship and one person cheats. The other person knows (as they usually do), but it hasn’t been brought out in the open. There will be a great tension in all interactions between them, because there is a great pain waiting to come up that they resist. So until it does, there will be a feeling of walking on eggshells, and if it continues, there will often be an entire routine built around avoiding the truth that a broken agreement has taken place. Misery will appear. When and if it actually does become visible, and both parties put all their emotions on the table, there will be a palpable sense of relief; the need for pretense is gone. Both sides can actually reveal their emotions instead of living within emotional castles of thick stone walls.

The truth is that suffering exists. Buddhism starts with this simple statement as the first noble Truth. Our society intellectually knows this, but we push it away emotionally. We say “yes, I know about suffering, I know it’s there, but I don’t want to touch it or be confronted with it”. And yet, when we do actually touch it, our heart opens. We simply can’t act compassionately until we actually touch another’s sufferings. We can’t understand others until we fully listen, and listening means fully allowing them to touch you. This touch involves more than the hospital rubber gloves of analysis; it involves an openness that has the possibility of being overwhelmed for a while. Yet being overwhelmed, as I was in India for some time, develops the heart. Emotional muscles need to work, or they atrophy. Allowing ourselves to be touched, and yes, sometimes hurt, by others’ sufferings lets the full range of the heart come forward.

It was actually more of a shock for me to arrive back in Canada than it was arriving in India. I was presented with all my family patterns of hiding real emotions (similar to most families here), and realized I simply could not go back to the way I was acting before. So over the next few years, I did my best to be visible with what was going on. This caused many upsets in my family, but has immeasurably helped me. My parents may not always feel comfortable with me, but their reaction is based on who I actually am, not a game we play.

I generally recommend being immersed in a similar culture for anyone wishing to see other ways of living. It’s not just India of course; there are many, many other cultures that don’t have the emotional straightjackets we do. An example closer to home might be Italians; in general, they tend to be much more visible with emotions, and if fights break out, so what? It doesn’t mean a lack of love. It can easily be part of it.