Part of being on a spiritual journey is continuous growth. There are things I think I know and have really gotten a handle on, and in the twinkling of an eye something will happen and I will see how little I know, and how weak my inner strength is.
I believe true inner strength is what makes for a stable foundation. When we’re strong within, storms can rage, we can lose that which we think is the most valuable, and life can seemingly fall apart, but we are able to maintain our sense of peace in our soul.
For years, I thought I was strengthening my soul by taking care of myself. I walk and stretch, go for massage and acupuncture, and I eat good, healthy food. I get up early most mornings to do my daily ritual. I write, read, meditate, and practice mindful breathing. All of these practices are good for my body and they do soothe my soul. However, I can do all of these things and still crumble when something rocks my world.
So, how do we build inner strength, so we can stand in peace and maintain compassion for self and the world in the midst of it all? By learning to be fully present to life in all of its forms. This means to keep bringing self back to the moment, so we can lean into and breathe our way through whatever is going on.
This is not an easy practice, because we are encouraged to do everything but be present. Most of us learn from an early age to run from sadness, depression, anger, and fear. We feed our emotions with soothing foods and happy thoughts, a shopping spree, or we sometimes just get busy and stay busy.
I’m quickly learning that to stay present and lean into whatever is going on, takes constant mindfulness. We all have a pain-body and when it gets activated, look out. In Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, he describes our pain-body as an unconscious entity within, which feeds on pain to survive. It makes a person feel pain and it causes us to inflict pain on others. This pain is not in our physical body; it’s deep in our emotional being. It’s part of our ego, which is the source of our suffering.
The pain-body needs fuel to survive, and its greatest source of food is our story. We all have a story that we tell our selves about life in general, and about our personal experiences. We are the author of the story so we can write it anyway we want.
I had an experience this weekend, that brought me face-to-face with the power of storytelling. Something happened on Saturday that activated my pain-body. I had a misunderstanding with someone, and instead of being present to it and talking about it, I internalized it. The more I built my story, the more agitated I became, and by time the evening was over I was in so much physical pain in my lower back, I could hardly sit. I had to take two ibuprofen to ease the pain so I could lay down and sleep.
Though the weather was perfect on Sunday, I was miserable because I still had not dealt with my activated pain-body. Paul and I had planned a day-long motorcycle ride, and as I started to get dressed I began to cry. I was miserable and there was nothing Paul could do or say that was right. Nothing fit me because I was too fat, my hair was so ugly I wanted to shave it off and go buy a wig, my teeth were crooked, and my eyes were crossed. In other words everything about me was wrong and to make it worse, my lower back was killing me. Do you get the picture of how I was feeling? My pain-body was screaming for attention and I was feeding it big time.
While on the ride, I was looking out at the beautiful view, and suddenly I regained my consciousness. I realized what was happening and I saw how much of the trip I’d already missed, because instead of being present I was in my story. I kept playing my story out in my head. When I saw the misery I was causing myself, and probably my husband also, I felt sick in my gut.
I’d missed most of a beautiful Saturday afternoon and evening, and all of Sunday morning because I was caught up in my pain-body, which was on a feeding frenzy. I immediately brought my attention to it, identified what was happening and committed to staying present to the whole ball of wax.
As we rode down the highway, I kept reminding myself to breathe. I paid attention to how the bike seat felt under my butt, how the back rest felt against my back, how blue the sky was, and how my breath felt going in and out. As I’d anchor myself back in my body and become present to where I was, I’d enjoy the ride. Before I knew it, I was back in my story.
This experience was so strong and I was so engrossed in suffering, it took me most of the afternoon to finally get to a place of maintaining my presence. When I did, my backache was gone and I was able to enjoy the rest of the ride and the evening.
It’s been a while since I’ve been that activated, and it caught me by surprise. I wish I’d seen it coming and I wish I’d recognized it as soon as it reared its head, but I didn’t. I believe it snuck up on me because I gave it room by indulging myself over and over in my narrative of he did and I said. It took that one little event to drop me into a place of suffering, which is into my story.
How do we strengthen our inner being so that we can withstand an assault by the ever-present, waiting for its moment to pounce, pain-body? I believe that part of the answer is by watching out for our story, which I”m convinced is what truly fuels our agony.
We can heal our pain without dropping into suffering, when we:
1. Notice when we’re rehashing our story
2. Take a step back from it so we can see it clearly
3. Bring our awareness to it
4. Accept it for what it is. It’s just a story that we’ve authored
5. Stay in the moment. Watch your breath go in and out, count your breaths, and notice your body and your surroundings.
What I learned this weekend, was the importance of not underestimating the power of the pain-body and of its source of fuel, the story I tell myself. I thought I already knew this, and I did on one level, but I really observed it on a different level yesterday. I can no longer allow myself the luxury of even “just a bit of story,” no more than addicts can allow themselves just a bit of heroin.
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