Listening to Pain

For some thirty years as a psychotherapist, I’ve listened to painful stories. When people come for the “talking cure,” they generally wear their heart’s pain as a badge of shame. They believe that they are suffering because of some core defect resulting from bad parenting, and that therapy will rid them of this defect and take away their painful emotions—hopefully forever. Many have the idea that if they could stay the course of a complete cure in psychotherapy or read enough self-help books, they could achieve a life completely free of suffering.

   The truth is more in line with the famous biblical observation: “Man is born to sorrow, as surely as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). No one gets away without some share of it. We all grieve life’s inevitable losses. We fear the inherent uncertainty and vulnerability of existence. And increasingly, as a population, we are familiar with the despair of troubled relationships, unexpected traumas, inner emptiness, and global degradation and terror. As much as joy, wonder, and love, these dark emotions are part of our human endowment, however much we may sometimes wish they weren’t. The Baal Shem Tov, a legendary eighteenth-century Jewish mystic, taught that to master our sorrows, we must know how to be fully immersed in emotion, yet not ruled by it. I call this process the alchemy of the dark emotions: knowing how to stay connected to the energy of painful emotions, to attend to and befriend it, to surrender to it, mindfully, without being overwhelmed. This is how we listen to the language of the heart.
    Healing through the dark emotions is an unarmed journey into vulnerability—a journey through, not a departure from, pain. Often, we come to this process when we are desperate. Perhaps we’ve already tried a number of ways to “self-medicate” our painful feelings with drugs, food, entertainment, distractions, or other means, and none of these have worked. Or worse, our attempt to medicate or anesthetize our pain only complicates and extends it. At such times, it becomes clear that there is no way out but through.

Healing through the dark emotions is the opposite of arming ourselves against a sea of troubles. It is a shamanic journey to the dark emotional underworld where the only way to master dark emotional energy is to experience it fully. Just as the tribal shaman ventures into the world of spirits in order to bring back knowledge of remedies for troubled souls, so does the emotional alchemist descend into the depths of his or her own pain to discover its wisdom for self-healing and transformation.
     The good news is that the dark emotions can serve as guides on this journey—when we know how to listen to them. Though listening is not always easy, it’s an art that can be learned. Like most things, it becomes easier and we get better at it with practice. It’s like learning to swim as a child, when the water is inviting but also frightening. If we want to swim, we must listen to our bodies. We must learn all the different movements—the arm stroke, the leg kick, the head motion, the synchronized breathing—and how to coordinate them. But in the end, it comes down to taking the risk and plunging in. Then, feeling our bodies in the water, we notice something wonderful that helps us overcome our fear: We are buoyed up! The water holds us up and carries us.
      So it is with the emotions that make us feel most vulnerable: grief, fear, and despair. These dark emotions are in-the-body energies mediated by beliefs we have gathered from the culture of family and society around us. Their purpose is not to make us miserable, drive us crazy, or shame, weaken, or defeat us, but to teach us about ourselves, others, and the world, to open our hearts to compassion, to help us heal and change our lives. They bring us information and supply us with energy—the raw material of spiritual empowerment and transformation. When we know how to listen to them, we can ride their energy, like a wave, with awareness as our protection. Emotional energy flows, and a hidden doorway in the heart opens. Something shifts. A transmutation occurs: a movement through pain to spiritual power.
      This is emotional alchemy: a process by which something ordinary is transmuted into something very precious. From ancient times, the alchemists sought to discover a means by which base metals could be transmuted into gold. Though some believe that the early alchemists were actually able to accomplish this, mostly the term has come to be a metaphor for a process of spiritual transformation. In the alchemy of dark emotions, the feelings we resist most are the leaden ore with which we begin. Our ability to attend to, befriend, and mindfully surrender to them is the means by which this lead is alchemized to the gold of spiritual wisdom.
     Finding the power of the sacred, not despite suffering, but in the midst of it: This is the alchemy of the dark emotions. Through this alchemy, grief moves us from sorrow for what we’ve lost to gratitude for what remains. Fear of life’s fragility is transformed to the joy of living fully, with openness. And even despair becomes the ground of a resilient faith—not just an opiate for our pain, but a profound commitment to life as it is.
     Your life exactly as it is contains just what is needed for your own journey of healing through the dark emotions. It starts with learning to listen to your heart.


from Chapter 1,  Healing Through the Dark Emotions: the Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair

Copyright 2003 by Miriam Greenspan