How Intense Suffering Led Me Towards Inner Peace

Tomorrow is my birthday, so I thought it would be a good time am using that as an excuse to reflect on this journey and share a bit more about myself. This is the “suffering/before” part; next week, I’ll share the insights that changed my experience of the world.

It’s been eight years since I wrote a brief summary of my life before 2010. I wanted to go a bit deeper into that, looking at where I was with the awareness I’ve gained since 2014, because Living the Mess is rooted in my experience. I don’t know anything for sure, but I trust what I’ve experienced. 

I was born into an academic family, and psychology was the family business. My undergrad degree is in social psychology, with a focus in psychoneuroimmunology (now known as mind-body medicine). I was raised to believe the human intellect was the most powerful force in the universe. My father, the descendant of eight generations of Episcopal ministers, was a hard-core atheist who dreamed of replacing religion with psychological testing.

My greatest strength was the source of my deepest pain

When I was 32, I picked up M. Scott Peck’s self-help classic The Road Less Traveled in a used bookstore. I opened it and read the first line: “Life is difficult.” I closed the book and chuckled dismissively. No, life isn’t difficult, I thought. If I read enough books, spend enough time in therapy, and get the right cocktail of medication, life will be easy!

The truth was, I’d experienced so much pain in my life already that I couldn’t bear the idea that the coming decades would contain even more suffering. I stuck my metaphorical fingers in my ears and convinced myself it wasn’t true. All I had to do was acquire enough knowledge and I’d be free to live a life without challenges.

Around the same time, I attended my first meditation class, during which I fell asleep until I heard people getting up to leave. I was curious about spirituality, but in an academic, “help me understand it conceptually” kind of way.

In 1997, I read Jon Kabat-Zinn’s seminal Full Catastrophe Living, along with Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart, The Four Agreements (Don Miguel Ruiz), When Food is Love (Geneen Roth) and Practical Intuition (Laura Day), but my understanding of each was limited to the ways in which my intellect was able to process the concepts. I dismissed most “mainstream” self-help books as academically and intellectually inferior. I believed I was using the critical thinking that an elite education had taught me; instead, I was just being critical.

I didn’t yet know that I was neurodivergent, that I had only the vaguest ideas of how other people perceived me. I believed my thoughts about how people saw me, yet those were entirely projections of my own self-loathing. What I didn’t know was this: My thoughts, my intellect—that aspect of me that I considered my most valuable trait—was also making me miserable.

Things have to fall apart before they fall together

A decade later, I spent my evenings in a small, smoke-filled apartment in Vancouver’s West End, gambling online in the hopes of a big win.

When it was suggested I notice abundance in my life, I’d mutter snidely, “I have an abundance… of dust bunnies.” (That was true.)

I was very attached to my identity as someone with mental health issues and having a sick brain. I was an avid participant on a forum called Crazy Meds, where we discussed side effects, cocktails and our very, very broken brains.

I believed I was my identities—mentally ill, smart, good writer—and that didn’t leave space for anything else to emerge. At one point, I wrote in my journal, “I’d rather been seen as ‘sick’ than ‘pathetic’.” In reality, pathetic was my judgment of myself.

I wanted—and expected—other people to rescue me, emotionally and financially. I was emotionally immature and entrenched in a victim mentality. Unbeknownst to me, I was also neurodivergent and extremely traumatized.

As I’ve written before, I was on a massive cocktail of psychiatric medication that would have given Anna Nicole Smith pause. Even this massive chemical infusion didn’t make me feel “good,” so in 2007, I grudgingly began to try other techniques. Self-hypnosis. Brainwave entrainment. Guided visualizations. Magnetizing. These actually did help somewhat, but I’ll go into those another time.

Look for the helpers. They will show up.

I was flailing when I spent my last few thousand dollars to move to Vancouver Island, and I continued to spiral for a couple of years. I believed I understood non-duality, but when I did some writing for a bona-fide Swami in 2009, she said my writing was too “airy.” In hindsight, she was right. I understood non-duality as a concept, not an experience, and my writing reflected that.

Broke and terrified of becoming homeless, I reached out to a woman I’d met a few years prior. She was going through her own challenges, but she had far more experience than I did navigating uncertainty. She told me I was going through a “soul awakening.” She also warned me against “New Age bullshit like The Secret,” and I am forever grateful for that warning. Coming from my background, I was more drawn to academic authors than esoteric ones, but in desperation, I was willing to try anything. She sent me meditations and visualizations and held space for me to rant about how panicked I felt.

In 2009, two energy workers showed up in my life—one off a dating site; the other bought a printer I sold to pay for cat food. Both of them helped me understand how to start to get myself out of the massive hole I was in. But still I thought of healing as something “the universe” would do for me, rather than “I am part of the universe, and I will contribute to my own healing.” The printer guy taught me (among other things) that affirmations only work when the subconscious believes what we’re saying. So my index card with “I have ten million dollars” wasn’t cutting it, because on no level could I believe that was true. But “I love being able to pay my bills easily” rang true.

“I am part of the universe, and I will contribute to my own healing.” Click To Tweet

I didn’t care about “being spiritual.” I was afraid I would end my life if I didn’t find a way out of the pain.

One night, I was walking home from a Bingo hall, where I’d spent my last $10 trying to win enough to pay my overdue rent. I was listening one of Wayne Dyer’s books, and he said something about how the human mind literally cannot comprehend the universe. That stopped me in my tracks. I rewound and listened again. It was the first time in my life I’d ever considered that I literally couldn’t understand what the universe was, because my big fancy brain—the one thing I’d always felt confident about—was too limited.

Whoa.

For someone who believed that the intellect was all-powerful, this was huge. To this day, I consider this one of the most profound lessons I’ve learned, and one that’s urgently needed in the contemporary world.

Going off medication

I didn’t quit meds because I thought they were bad for me, or because I thought they made me “less spiritual.” I was too broke to pay for food, much less medication. I was behind on rent and struggling to find enough work despite sending out hundreds of resumes. I felt disconnected from nearly everyone and everything I knew. Life had painted me into a corner in order to get me to listen.

I tapered myself off the remaining pills and recorded my own subliminal MP3 with binaural beats and affirmations like “My brain makes abundant serotonin naturally.” I listened to it every night.

For weeks, it seemed, I vomited, ridding my body of chemicals and negative energy. The worse I felt, the more desperately I reached for spiritual guidance. I became willing to let go of everything I thought I knew, if it would help me find inner peace.

Until 2010, it had never even occurred to me that there was a layer of reality deeper than the one I experienced.

[To read Part 2, click here. To read Part 3, click here]

Photo credit: Utsav Srestha via Unsplash

Disclaimer: This post includes affiliate links. If you buy any of the books linked, I may receive a few cents’ commission.

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Sarah Chauncey

For more than two decades, I struggled multiple treatment-resistant mood disorders. I spent more than 20 years in psychodynamic therapy and tried 18 different medications. In 2010, I began searching for ways to rewire my brain naturally for inner peace. I write about the practices and insights that have improved my mental, physical and spiritual health.

3 Comments

  1. Carol Newall on June 17, 2022 at 4:28 am

    Love your honesty. I learned about the limitations of the human mind and the universe in grade nine religion class at St Joseph’s Academy for Girls. It’s a go-to Catholic explanation for the human inability to grasp religious concepts. Maybe Wayne Dyer was Catholic.

  2. Shivam on June 17, 2022 at 6:02 am

    I love your writing. Most of all I love your authentic honesty in how you describe your life’s path messy trajectory. I can relate. Although my messy path is different than yours. What you write is auditory and visual music to my eyes and ears.

    Looking forward to part two.

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