I have been reading Healing Back Pain by John E Sarno, M.D. He created a diagnosis, Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS). In short, there are real pains in the body that are the result of emotional tensions, and our medical establishment misdiagnoses them, at least in part because they are uncomfortable prescribing psychological treatments for physical pains. Sarno’s treatment in a nutshell: since these pains are the result of repressed anger, be vigilant about finding outlets to express your anger.
I have had forearm and hand pain for over a decade, so I have been giving his treatment at try. When I go out for a jog, I make a point of mulling over situations in my life that might be points of anger and I go ahead and vent my anger during the jog, continuing until I feel there is no more anger left in me. It is certainly cathartic.
I have paid close attention to my habits of mind (or so I thought) for a couple of decades now. When I am aware of my mental habits, I can decide if they are habits I would like to keep or change. When I am unaware of those habits, I don’t get to choose, they run on autopilot. Knowing that expectations forward outcomes, my goal is to encourage mental habits that are in line with the outcomes that I would like to have happen.
Recently at yoga I made a conscious effort to clear my mind for the entire hour; what an effort! After class I felt very relaxed. I started to drive home and passed a church with a sign that said “all welcome”. I then imagined getting into an argument with a homophobic churchgoer. This fantasy lasted until I realized what was going on in my autopilot brain. Not five minutes out of yoga and my mind was already back to inventing scenarios that I did not want! It was quite humbling for me to realize that my negative habits of mind are much more pervasive that I would like to admit. So I took on as an exercise while jogging to intentionally imagine positive scenarios with people around me.
So now I have two mental exercises for my jogs, but the two seem exact opposites! In one I fantasize getting my rage out with other people, in the other I fantasize having wonderful experiences, often with those same people! Yet both exercises are important and effective in their own ways.
My wife pointed out to me an interesting article called The Wisdom in the Dark Emotions. It tells the story of a woman whose newborn died less than two months after birth, never leaving the hospital. To try to get through the grieving process, she took a class in meditation. The teacher emphasized that attachment leads to suffering; grief is living in the past, living in the present is important:
The teacher asked, “How long has your son been dead?” When I told him it had been two months, his response was swift: “Well then, that’s in the past now, isn’t it? It’s time to let go of the past and live in the present moment.”
She goes on to rightly note that grief is a valid and important process and that “emotion-phobia” shames the valid expression of dark emotions.
So here we have two seeming opposite perspectives on the same scenario. Which is right? From where I sit, both. Did the teacher shame her? Or was she not ready to accept an important truth? Perhaps no one can know the answer to that question. The answer could easily be no to both and just as easily yes to both. Grief is attachment is suffering. Grief is also a vital part of the process of letting go. Experiencing/expressing present emotion can be how one lives in the present. Denying the expression of the emotion can be repression which can be a form of denying your present self. Emotions unexpressed are not released, but rather remain in the deep well of our soul, only to emerge at some later date, perhaps in some less useful way.
This can be a really uncomfortable message for people invested in knowing who is right and who is wrong, and expecting that in every scenario one person must be right and the other must be wrong. It points to the dangerous nature of certainty. Perhaps this is the root of compassion, seeing the truth in the person with an opposite perspective to yours.