weed growing through crack in pavementThe path toward meaningful change can often feel like groping in the dark for a light switch that you know is there, but can’t find. The pain of not knowing how to move forward can be unbearable.

Nobody wants pain.

We are hard wired to avoid it at all costs. Most of our actions are intended to produce the most positive and beneficial outcome, and to avoid what’s undesirable. However, despite our best efforts, as soon as we are born, we are destined to go through pain in some shape or form.


Lies at the root of our experience of pain. Feeling stuck with something that we don’t want, or wanting something that we don’t have are both manifestations of resistance to what is. Most of us who face this irresolvable paradox try to run, fight, avoid, or transmute pain into blame, shame, and other pleasure seeking or mind-numbing behaviours.

Pause for Awareness

By putting our attention on the awareness that underlies the stormy sea of our endless thoughts, sensations, and feelings we can experience peace with what is. It requires powerful intention, but ultimately when we can relax and allow ourselves to feel what we feel, it becomes apparent that we are being held by something much bigger than our interpretations and judgments. When we can pause before getting overwhelmed by emotional reactions, our inner wisdom eventually shines through.

Deep Listening

When I work with people who are in pain and want to get out of it, the first thing I do is practice deep listening. When my body language, words, and silence reflect deep listening, I communicate, “I am here with you. I am letting in what you feel, and you are not alone”. Opiates, our body’s natural pain killers, alleviate our pain by reducing not the physical, but the emotional impact of pain. Deep listening is similar –  it doesn’t remove pain, but feeling safe to feel, and not alone, changes our perspective.

Secure Attachment & Emotional Stability

Deep listening is similar to the attunement that a child feels with a loving parent. The amygdala, the threat detection system of the brain, can deactivate  through the attunement we receive during our developmental years. “Secure attachment”, a well researched neurological process, faciliates the neural pruning that allows us to effectively manage our emotions. In the absence of secure attachment, the experience of emotional stability is more challenging.

It’s Ok to Feel It

To feel that it is ok to be in pain is rare. Many of us were taught to repress unpleasant feelings, and are afraid to feel vulnerable. When we feel weak and broken, we put on a brave face, and reveal very little of our true experience.

When we do share our struggle with the people in our lives, they often rush to offer endless suggestions, and quiz us to make sure we are doing everything possible to get out of pain. They mean well. They love and care for us, and really want to help us find relief. Unfortunately when we are on the precipice of a big and meaningful shift, advice and problem-solving aren’t helpful.

The Shadow

When I was six years old I experienced a loss that changed my world view. Beliefs such as, “I can’t trust anyone”, and “I have to take care of everyone because no one will take care of me” grew unseen. These beliefs developed to protect me but they also caused me to have a distorted view of myself in relation to others.

In Jungian psychology the entity that harbours distorted beliefs is known as “the shadow”.  As a prism bends the light, in a similar way our shadow gets us to see the world not as it is, but as we have internalized it.

As James Hollis explains,

“We look at the world through certain prisms: the prism of the family of origin and its psychology and dynamics, and its powerful messages. We are subject to our biological ancestry. We are at the mercy of socioeconomic, educational, religious and cultural forces are in our environment at any moment.”

For myself, and for many of the people I work with, the first step on a path of meaningful change is to recognize that habit patterns that, at one time adaptive, no longer serve us. Deep listening allows us to take a new perspective, be at peace with what is, and take steps toward our authentic self.

Inspired by:
James Hollis (2005), Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, Gotham Books.
Gabor Mate (2010), In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, North Atlantic Books.
Teal Swan and Matt Khan’s interview (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lAR3k8ReMac)