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How to deal with emotional pain...

Updated: Nov 7, 2023

Go to the limits of your longing ~ Rilke

God speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks with us silently out of the night. These are the words we dimly hear: You, sent out beyond your recall, go to the limits of your longing. Embody me. Flare up like flame and make big shadows I can move in. Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final. Don't let yourself lose me. Nearby is the country they call life. You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

Dear Friends,

I recently I participated in a truth mandala ritual with 18 other folks at a deep ecology workshop called The Work that Reconnects, co-facilitated by Erin Muir and Lydia Violet Harutoonian. This ritual comes out of the great body of work of Joanna Macy, environmental activist, author, and scholar of Buddhism and general systems theory and is designed to foster the desire and ability to take part in the healing of our world. adrienne marie brown, Bayo Akomolafe and others I follow are deeply engaged in this work.

The truth mandala ritual is a brave and orchestrated space to share, experience and witness feelings we have about the state of the world at this moment. It's a space where we tend to the discomfort of grief, rage, fear, numbness and emptiness, trusting or at least staying open to the possibility that there is a natural intelligence that emerges when we collectively share in the expression of these feelings.

Even thinking about opening this portal feels subversive when you have been taught you ought to put a good face on things, to suppress your less than pretty feelings, to hide in your room and disconnect until you feel better. There aren't many spaces and places we can feel safe expressing the unbearable. And in the midst of a ritual like this we can wonder - will this pain, this grief, this despair ever end?

Acute observation of the body's healing from injury can teach us a lot here.

Pain has a genius life force. When you get hurt, there's a reaction of pain in the body that turns on the healing force, the immune system, to mobilize a sequence of actions to repair. This force often requires you to slow down. It hurts! So you become immobile, you get the bandaids and the healing salves and you tend to yourself. Usually, you need to ask for help. This life force directs to what needs attention and care and perhaps even an upgrade.

Pain and healing from pain happens in stages. Our body actively metabolizes physical pain so that we come back into life. It's a complex rather magical process that has an arc. We may begin with shock, denial and numbing. Swelling happens. The damaged tissue sends distress signals which draw white blood cells, the medical team of the body, to the site. White blood cells recruit healthy repair cells which glue the tissue back together. And then the repaired injury must be loaded and stressed gradually to return to full capacity.

Pain awakens care. This healing intelligence sits with the wound, is present to the wound and doesn't turn away. The wound itself gives us the medicine we need.

Metabolizing emotional pain, in this truth mandala ritual, follows the wisdom of this same process, bringing us out of individual and collective dissociation and back to our humanity. We are asked to feel our pain. To pause, listen and be unafraid of it.

And so as we sit in circle, we're asked this question.

"How do you feel about what is happening in the world right now?"

We start to get really present with our discomfort, and also the conflicting feelings to express and be seen. We wait, wondering perhaps who will break the ice while we collect our own courage to step into the center. And then someone begins. We witness and hold. Someone else jumps in. The momentum is taking hold.

Eventually something pulls me in, perhaps the previous person's words or emotion, perhaps my own fluttering heart. I move to the pile of leaves and the heavy stone, opening my heart through me voice. I shake as I share my deep grief for my dear friends in Israel and Gaza, my prayer that they will somehow feel me and us standing by them. My shoulders bowed, I share my disabling fear for this moment in history and the potential of a long war. Then underneath, as the grief passes, comes the rage. I stand, grab the heavy stick and find myself yelling to the sky....this is best solution we've come up with? More violence? More war? More suffering? More creation of pain and enemy lines? I find myself in the middle of the circle, fury and fire exploding through me.

Then, it seems, I'm done and I move back out of the center, back to holding, seeing and hearing.

The momentum continues to build as we hold the circle and more share. There's a collective breath that starts to feels sharp and ragged. Some parts of the circle feel numbed out. I'm aware I don't want to catch anyone's eye but I pass the tissue box when it seems appropriate.

And when we're just about complete - unexpectedly, the bottom drops out somewhere within me. Deep wrenching sobs rush out. My body shakes for several minutes. But as quickly as it came, the intensity leaves. A quiet comes on its own, surprising me with it's stillness.


I'm more than ever convinced of the radical intelligence of these sorts of collective rituals for our times. Part of what is being asked of us right now is to live with great uncertainty. You and I are dealing with complex, nuanced, historical and traumatic issues that don't have a clear solution.

We are alive at a time when natural systems are unraveling - climate change, access to clean water and clean food. It is truly maddening. We are in epidemics of teen suicide, of cancer, to name just a few. We are, on a daily basis, scrolling through shocking images of destruction and violence. It's understandable to feel rage. It's understandable to feel grief. It's understandable to want to numb out. Feeling these feelings is a measure of yours and my evolutionary maturity and our humanity.

We are also alive at a time when many of us still believe in the dominant story of business as usual. A 40 hour/week job for 50 weeks for at least 50 years. If you can’t do this, there is something wrong with you. That the earth is here as a supply house for our needs and it's also a dumping ground. That the people who are in power are there because they deserve it. That violence is normal and necessary to resolve conflict. Many of us can find within ourselves this programming - that all of this is normal and just has to be this way.

And we're alive at a time when many many many people and the more than human world is vying for and working for life right now. There is a living intelligence of the earth that is arising through us that is invested in repair, in shifting consciousness, in tending the wounds, in being with the pain, and in regenerative practices to rebuild our soils and depollute our waters, on the inside and on the planet. We are looking for and finding the humanity in each other. Millions of people on a daily basis are praying, working, devoting their lives to protect, caretake, reconcile, and practice reciprocity with all beings.

Hallelujah. This gives me great hope.

So - even though the future is uncertain you and I can know that we want to live with solidarity and kindness. We want to find together what's authentic and true. We value the future generations, we want them to have clean water and food and to feel safe. It's helpful to visual this from time to time to keep ourselves oriented and forward facing.

What do you want for the future? If you were to envision the headlines for the future - what would they say? I hope you'll take a moment to reflect on this and leave me a note below. I'll share all of these in a future letter.

Please feel free to share this post with someone who could use it.

We're in this together.........



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