Someday this pain will be useful to you

 Tetsugoro Yorozu, Self-portrait with a cloud, oil on canvas (1922) (currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art, Hayama)

The past month has been a rollercoaster of emotions, from the high of starting a new life in the city I’ve wanted to live in for so long, to moments of loneliness and scary anxiety.

I’ve always been a worrier, and a lot of things make me nervous. Change most of all. There is a side of me that really likes things to stay the same. I don’t want summer to become autumn. I don’t want to leave things – homes, jobs, people, regardless of whether or not I actually like them. I even find it hard to leave a place I’m visiting for a day. I resist and fight and push against change. But not changing is even worse.

This past month I’ve had moments of challenge fatigue. At times I felt like I could not take one more thing going wrong, and I fantasised about running away to a cabin in the middle of the woods somewhere and never leaving.

About two weeks ago, I lost access to all of my money for three days. I had exactly the right amount for a train ticket to my work meeting, and just enough food in my fridge to last a few days. I spent hours on the phone to South Africa, and couldn’t get anyone to help me until eventually I broke down in tears of exhaustion and frustration and one of the operators took pity on me. I got the money back minus a couple of thousand rand.

At the same time, the sharehouse I’m staying in started making demands – asking for more rent (already it was double what they’d initially advertised ), a copy of my Japanese friend’s ID and other personal information — everything short of a blood sample it seemed. There was a clear shift in the tone of their emails and whether or not it was my anxious mind making up stories, I got the feeling I might have overstayed my welcome. I was told by a rental agent that I probably wouldn’t find a landlord willing to rent an apartment to me without a fixed salary or pay-slip. And then when the sharehouse finally agreed I could stay another month, I lost access to all my money.

I reached a point where it felt like my resilience bucket was full to the brim, and I longed for some Japanese-speaking angel of efficiency to swoop in and sort everything out while I lay in bed with a blanket over my head. I despise admin. Forms and phonecalls fill me with fear and loathing. For weeks I’ve had to do at least one of these things most days. I’ve had to figure out how to live on very little money in a very expensive city, to understand taxes and other things in Japanese that I cannot understand and to be honest don’t want to in English. I’ve dealt with being turned away by banks and countless landlords. Sometimes I was brave and bounced back and other times I lost courage and made stupid decisions based on fear, like when I turned down my dream job (decent pay, lots of time off) because it would have meant inconveniencing the part-time employees who I’m quite sure would have lost very little sleep over my breaking contract.

Louise Bourgeois, I go to pieces: my inner life (#6), mixed media (2010)

Again and again I’ve had to remind myself that I’ve chosen these challenges and that I’m meant to be experiencing them. And especially that I’m meant to be experiencing them alone. I think that’s been the hardest part, the feeling that there was no one I could turn to. I was determined not to burden the few friends I have in Tokyo. I didn’t want them to feel responsible for me whenever anything went wrong, and I wanted to prove to myself I could cope on my own. If I don’t learn to fend for myself now, when will I ever? I’m sure if someone had stepped in and offered to take over at some point, I would have let them. But that didn’t happen, and I had to cope, even in the moments when I felt near meltdown.

I have no doubt that more of these moments are to come, especially over the next few months. And then at some point there will be a period when there are fewer of them. Until there are too few of them and complacency sets in and I will need to make another change and start this process again.

I can’t remember who said it, but I think it’s true that how we behave in the hardest times is what defines us. It’s easy to be at our best when everything is going well. I’d like to reach a point where I’m not so easily overwhelmed by fear and am able to handle difficulties with a little more inner calm and presence. I’d like to be able to look back and think yes, I dealt with that situation gracefully. I still seem to react the same way to most challenges, becoming like a dog with a bone, obsessed with the problem and unable to focus on anything else until I can get rid of it. Giving in to anxiety and losing all sense of appreciation or joy in those moments. But I know, as motivational expert Tony Robbins says, that our problems only end when we’re dead, so there is no point trying to make them all go away.

Kinoshita Susumu, Title unknown, pencil on paper (currently on display at the 2017 Yokohama Triennale, ‘Islands, Constellations & Galapagos’, which explores issues such as isolation and connectivity, imagination and guidance, distinctness and diversity in a time of uncertainty)

During the week of the money drama, I went to the park one evening. I sat on a bench facing the pond, my stomach churning and my heart beating away like a metronome on high speed. After a while I began to feel somewhat soothed by the hot humid air and the drone of the cicadas, temporarily distracted from my thoughts by the mosquitoes biting my legs. I was reading a memoir by Glennon Doyle Melton, Love Warrior, which I’d started before but put aside. Something compelled me to pick it up again. I couldn’t concentrate on fiction, I needed to read something by someone who’d also felt close to the edge. After a few chapters, I was comforted to find that here was somebody as intense as me, who also seemed to feel things to a sometimes extreme degree but made no apologies for this. Reading the story of her crisis and its aftermath made me feel less alone, less crazy, and a tiny bit calmer. She described her fear as a dog that she would never be able to get rid of. I knew I needed to let go of the idea that I would eventually get past my problems and accept that there would always be new ones. And also stop beating myself up for not handling them better. Glennon wrote about how she would feel strong and hopeful for hours at a time. And then:

… out of nowhere, hopelessness appears in front of me, staring me down like a snarling dog. I freeze, knowing that if I run, it’ll catch me. There is no way to overpower, outrun or outsmart the mad dog of hopelessness because it is simply more vicious than I. The only thing to do is let it attach, go limp in its jaws, and be shaken. But I notice one promising pattern. If I play dead, it will eventually let me go. I start thinking of the dog of hopelessness as an obstacle that will reappear on every curve of the spiral staircase. He’ll always be there waiting and snarling, but with every go-round, I’ll be more confident and less fearful. Eventually, I’ll learn the tricks that allow me to breeze right past him. But the mad dog of hopelessness will always be there. My spiral staircase of progress means that my pain will be both behind and in front of me, every damn day. I’ll never be over it, but I vow to be stronger each time I face it. Maybe the pain won’t change, but I will. I keep climbing.

I’ve been coming across this idea a lot recently. The idea that all we can do in the face of fear is to let go. Lean in. Stop fighting and surrender to it. As Glennon describes it:

I am trying to fix my pain with certainty, as if I’m one right choice away from relief. I’m stuck in anxiety quicksand; the harder I try to climb my way out, the lower I sink. The only way to survive is to make no sudden movements, to get comfortable with discomfort, and to find peace without answers.

I remember when I was a little girl and I bumped my elbow or stubbed my toe, there were two ways I’d react to the pain that followed. Sometimes I’d feel irritated, angry that this pain was being inflicted on me. The voice in my head was indignant. ‘This hurts! This shouldn’t be happening and needs to stop right now.’ But sometimes I’d take a deep breath and tell myself something like ‘This isn’t so bad, really. It’ll go away soon.’ I was more likely to do that when I knew something was going to hurt, like when getting an injection. If I breathed consciously and let the pain happen, it was not less painful, but it was more bearable and short-lived. But it never occurred to me that I could do the same thing with emotional or mental pain, and instead, like most humans, I ran from and resisted feeling any pain or discomfort by distracting and numbing myself in various ways.

At a certain level of fear, there is nothing you can say to yourself to feel better. Pain that is created by the mind in the first place can’t be eased with the mind. We have to involve our bodies. I find the more I wish a feeling away, the more I rail against the discomfort it’s causing, the stronger it becomes. It’s true that what you resist persists.

That week, as I often do when I’m feeling fearful, I sought relief in Tara Brach’s podcast and her book Radical Acceptance. (As I mention this book so often, I feel I should add for anyone who might be put off by the title – please don’t be. This is a wise and lucid book, similar in style and content to Pema Chödrön’s writing, and I highly recommend it.) I’ve been reading it in short installments over the past few months, and almost every time I pick it up it tells me something I need to hear. This is what I read that week:

In the face of fear, letting go of what seems to be our lifeline is the last thing we want to do. We try to avoid the tiger’s mouth … but to free ourselves from the trance of fear we must let go of the tree limb and fall into the fear … We must agree to feel what our mind tells us is ‘too much’.

In the moment we feel fear, we can pause and ask ourselves, ‘What is happening right now? The key is to move from our mental stories into immediate contact with the sensations of fear – the squeezing, pressing, burning, trembling, quaking, jittering life in our body.

Brach suggests making the fear into a kind of meditation. An inventory of sensations.

Bring your full attention to the sensations of fear. Paying particular attention to your throat, chest and stomach area, discover how fear expresses itself in you. What does the fear actually feel like? Where in your body do you feel it most strongly? Do the sensations change or move to different parts of the body? … Where do you feel contracted?

While you’re doing this, you can also pay attention to any thoughts that come up. The important thing is to accept them. If you are able to accept your most frightening thoughts and scariest sensations, if you can feel sympathy for them and even befriend them, this will go a long way to calming them. They are here because our brains and thoughts are millions of years old and designed to continually seek out what is wrong to protect us. They are part of human nature and have a right to exist. We can be thankful to them for keeping us safe, but we don’t have to let them rule us. Brach suggests noting the thoughts and feelings and repeating a phrase like ‘This belongs’ or simply ‘Yes’.

One night, during one of my most anxious moments, when there was no action I could take to solve the problem — it was too late to make a phone call or send an email — I found myself still scrambling for solutions, turning things over in my mind, unable to relax and wait for the next day to sort things out. So I sat on the side of my bed and tried the exercise, scanning through my body. My stomach hurt, my shoulders were stiff, my throat was tight and sore, my head felt like it was clamped in a vice, my jaw was clenched, heartbeat rapid, fists closed and palms sweating – this is my body when I’m very anxious, which at certain phases in my life has been a lot of the time. I felt sorry for it. How could a body like this have calm thoughts? Sitting on my bed noticing these sensations and saying to each one “This belongs”, after a while I started to feel less helpless. My fear had not disappeared, and the thoughts started up again soon after the exercise, but they were a little less intense, and at least I had managed to step out of my head for a short time. And maybe I can learn to do this more often rather than let the thoughts take over completely each time.

Since that night I have tried to check in from time to time, looking at what my hands are doing, for instance, or noticing how I am breathing, and if there is any tension or tightness I ask myself: ‘What do I have to believe to feel this way? What thoughts do I have to have to have to cause these feelings?’

Much has been said about what can be gained from fear, too. It may not be possible in the moment, but later we can look back and see what lessons were there, what opportunities. In Buddhism, suffering is seen as the gateway to awakening and compassion. Tara Brach writes that as long as we are alive, we feel fear. ‘It is as natural as a bitter cold winter day.’ But if we resist it or try to push it away, we miss a powerful opportunity for awakening. She quotes Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Fourth Elegy’:

You nights of anguish

Why didn’t I kneel more deeply to accept you

Inconsolable sisters, and, surrendering

lose myself in your loosened hair 

How we squander our hours of pain

How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration

To see if they have an end.

Though  they are really

Seasons of us, our winter …

Fear can generate compassion, for ourselves and for others. But it’s far easier to feel empathy for someone else in pain than it is for ourselves. It can help to imagine how you would console a child or animal in pain, and to try to give yourself the same compassion. Brach writes:

We can learn to offer this same kind of gentle attention to ourselves. With the tenderness we might bring to stroking the cheek of a sleeping baby we can softly place a hand on our own cheek or heart. … Sometimes extending compassion to ourselves in the way feels downright embarrassing. … But this revolutionary act of treating ourselves tenderly can begin to undo the aversive messages of a lifetime.

I think for all of us, in times of suffering, there is a longing to be comforted by someone or something. We want relief. We feel alone in our fear. But in truth, our experience of fear is shared.

When we understand our pain as an intrinsic gateway to compassion, we begin to awaken from the imprisoning story of a suffering self. In the moments when we tenderly hold our anger, for instance, we cut through our identity as an angry self. The anger no longer feels like a personal flaw or an oppressive burden. We begin to see its universal nature — it’s not our anger, it’s not our pain. Everyone lives with anger, with fear, with grief.

Jon Koko, Vattenfall, archival print on paper (2014)

Our pain is not personal, but part of being alive, as this Sufi teaching illustrates:

Overcome any bitterness that may have come

because you were not up to the magnitude of the pain

that was entrusted to you.

Like the Mother of the World,

Who carries the pain of the world in her heart,

Each one of us is part of her heart,

And therefore endowed

With a certain measure of cosmic pain.

Brach talks about how as you give yourself compassion, you may start to find that this awakens a broader sense of compassion. ‘If in moments of anxiety we can remember that feeling the pain or fear is an opportunity to awaken compassion, this can shift our experience. Our suffering, rather than being worthless or an obstacle, becomes the path to inner freedom.’

‘Whenever we feel closed down, hurt or unforgiving,’ she writes, ‘by simply breathing in and gently touching the rawness of our pain, we can begin to transform our suffering into compassion.’

I’ve had moments recently where I’ve felt this transformation. It was more of a sensation than something I can easily describe in words. Maybe it was a sense of how we are all terrified a lot of the time, and all just doing what we can to live our lives. That what I had experienced in others as unkindness or unfairness was only fear. That my worry, hurt and doubt weren’t for nothing, weren’t an imposition, that they were changing me, even if only a little, and very slowly. And even if later on today or tomorrow I find myself in a space unable to recall or use any of what I have written here – I know that I will not be so quick to run from the fear, and it will do its work on me one way or another, and like the title of one of my favorite books, which I stole for this piece, I’ll remind myself: Some day this pain will be useful to you.

Hilma af Klint, Group IX/UW, No. 25, The Dove, No. 1, oil on canvas (1915)

10 thoughts on “Someday this pain will be useful to you”

  1. There are many wise “gems” here about the value of pain and how to lessen it. This is one of many statements I noted: “When we understand our pain as an intrinsic gateway to compassion, we begin to awaken from the imprisoning story of a suffering self.” The suffering self is in a prison. An emotional prison. Sometimes recognizing our own emotions (anxiety and fear) is the first step towards lessening the grip of pain. I’ve also noted that pain sometimes disguises deeper issues within ourselves that we don’t want to face.

  2. A very compelling read, Bron. I can relate to the difficulty of being in a foreign land determined to be self-sufficient. I commend you for embracing difficulty and sharing this beautifully.

      1. Thanks so much, Hannah! It’s nice to hear from someone who relates. It can be tough at times but it’s also such an empowering feeling when you manage things without help, even little things, and realise you can do it 🙂

  3. I can relate to how overwhelming it can be when everything seems to be going badly (especially in a country that is not your own) and how difficult it is to ask for help. I was like that until I crashed and burned. 🙂 There were just some things I couldn’t fix by myself (cancer, for example.) Out of that I learned (among other things) that suffering DID open the door to more empathy. I began to pay as much attention to other people’s pain as I did my own.

    1. Having health issues, I think, is when I’ve felt furthest away from the familiar/home. That must have been so hard. Though it sounds like, I hope, you had good support.

      I’m trying to find the balance between being too quick to ask for help (i.e. dependent) and overdoing the self-sufficiency. That overused word but still my aspiration … balance!

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