We live in a culture that sells the promise of 24/7 productivity (without even asking if that’s desirable), constant giddy happiness, creativity that never gets blocked, financial wealth and endless sexual vitality. Oh, and perfect pores. That’s not life. That’s what we tend to label ‘mania.’ (Except the wealth and pores parts).
We’re made to feel that if we’re not happy-happy-joy-joy around the clock, even when the baby is spitting up or when we’re down with the flu, or our partner has just died, that there is something wrong with us, that somehow we’re not living our best lives. Or even worse, that if something unpleasant happens, it’s our fault because we didn’t align our chakras well enough, or we allowed ourselves to have negative emotions, or maybe that we didn’t pay five figures for that course that promised an instant six-figure income.
None of this is true. You are whole, just as you are.
The laws of nature, beginning with the tides regulated by the moon, are ebb and flow. Birth and death. Creation and destruction. Nothing stays the same.
Winter gives way to spring, and then summer. Exuberant happiness is pleasant, but unsustainable, and that “6 Easy Steps” course? The first step alone is actually 13 steps that require between two and five years to complete.
There’s no Instagram filter on life, and events aren’t curated to mesh with our image of what “should” be happening. Life happens outside the frame, and it’s often not soft-focus, diffuse or well-lit. By accepting that, we gain enormous freedom. It means that we’re free to experience life on life’s terms, to focus on what is, instead of constantly measuring ourselves against what we think our life, or we ourselves, should be.
How would we recognize happiness if we didn’t also experience moments of feeling down, defeated, or even despairing? How would we celebrate connection if we didn’t know, at some level, that grief is inevitable? Life is many things—rich, paradoxical, surreal sometimes—but it’s not meant to bring us nonstop exuberant happiness, delivering to us our every whim. Life is about showing up for whatever is happening in a given moment. (It’s possible to feel a throughline of inner peace, but ‘inner peace’ isn’t an emotion, and it’s not dependent on things going the way we want.)
We take so much responsibility for our lives, without realizing that we don’t have any clue why things actually unfold the way they do, or why some people seem to live charmed lives while others seem to have all the decks stacked against them. Life is a mystery. We are part of a vast living organism, tourists living on this planet, in this solar system, in one of 200 billion (or more) galaxies, in a universe the bounds of which scientists have yet to discover. We think we know all kinds of things, but really, we don’t know anything.
Nor, even with decades of therapy, do we necessarily understand why certain emotions arise. Our subconscious mind takes in so much information that we’re likely influenced by factors we’re not even aware of. Weather, hormones, nutrition, sleep, ancestral patterns, cultural conditioning, the collective consciousness—those are just a few of the variables that factor into what emotions arise and when, and we don’t have control over many of those things.
Life can seem messy. It’s chaotic and beautiful and often seems inconsistent. Yet our minds want to create order, to make sense of things. To do that, we create stories about why we feel a certain way, and clinging to those stories causes pain to fester. Emotions, like thoughts, happen. Feeling them as sensations in the body, without identifying with them, allows them to move through and give way to new emotions.
Sometimes, uncomfortable feelings have a message for us. Often, those messages are so difficult to accept that we’d rather deny their existence and suffer, believing something is wrong with us, than admit (for example), “I don’t really enjoy being a father,” or “I don’t want to be in this prestigious job any more.”
Other times, emotions are simply part of life’s ebb and flow. A disappointment, a judgment from someone else, a rejection or loss, small or large—those things hurt, and there’s nothing wrong with feeling that hurt. The mistake is believing we are the hurt, that something in us is flawed because we experience pain. Nothing is wrong with you. The pain of grief corresponds to the depth to which we have loved.
On other occasions, emotions simply arise for reasons we have no way of understanding. And they pass, or sometimes they linger. Feeling these emotions doesn’t mean you’re broken.
The trick (and it is a Jedi trick) is not to identify with the feelings. The feelings are passing through you; they are not who you are.
Our culture would make it seem that we’re supposed to blithely reframe experiences and move beyond pain to positive emotions without so much as a wince, but what would happen if we could just be with the feelings? Not resist them, not create stories around them, but just feel them and accept them as a normal part of life?
What would happen if you didn’t mind feeling hurt, or anxious? If you allowed yourself that feeling (without attaching a story about how someone else was wrong or made you feel a certain way)? Pain arises in the gap between what we feel and what we think we should be feeling. When we resist the pain, it persists.
My experience is that the feeling would pass, just as all feelings pass. Maybe a little quicker without resistance to it.
If you’re feeling happy, if you’re feeling despair, if anxiety arises, if you are dumbstruck with grief—nothing is wrong with you. If you have to take medication to function, or to begin examining the feelings—nothing is wrong with you. If your body or brain functions differently than the majority of people—nothing is wrong with you.
There are infinite ways of being and living in the world, yet Western culture demands a strange conformity, with an illusory, and elusive, ideal of something called “normal” (which really means “average,” and, as speaker Rosie King once asked, is our greatest aspiration really to be average?)
The nature of being human is to forget our wholeness on a regular basis. Forgetting doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you.
You are perfect just as you are. (And also, as a Buddhist monk once said, “We could all use a little improvement.”)
Photo Credit: © Volkan Olmez / Unsplash