PhilosophyCenter PhilosophyCenter | Musings
PhilosophyCenter | Musings

Above the Storm

The cure for pain is in the pain.
| Rumi

Above the Storm

The Stoics knew that we are susceptible to forces of fate over which we have no control, forces that can change direction like the wind, a case that hardly needs to be made these days. Practically overnight, the pandemic upended the world order, driving us indoors and cutting us off from the life we knew and perhaps took for granted. For now, isolation is the new norm, and while we’re fortunate to have technology that allows us to keep in touch by phone, video chat, and texting, there’s no doubt that many of us are being forced to come to terms with inner demons simply because we now have far fewer distractions, and because the outer situation has stirred up whatever sediment of unexamined belief and pending emotion we may have been carrying.

The other day, my brother shared a meme he’d found online suggesting that the pandemic was the Earth’s way of sending us to our rooms to think things over. So it seems—though thinking is the least of it. Beyond its physical repercussions, the virus has unleashed storms of fear, anxiety, doom thinking, and even loss and grief that at times may feel overwhelming.

In all of this, it would be easy to overlook an ancient and profound truth that there is a refuge from the storm—in a sense, above the storm—in the practice of awareness or mindfulness. In this practice, we step back in consciousness and simply observe, noticing what comes up without resistance or judgment. Everything occurs within the medium of our consciousness, but we rarely notice the medium itself, so mesmerized are we by its contents. It’s as though we’re watching beautiful fish swimming in an aquarium without ever seeing the water. Through the subtlest shift in attention, we can wake up, as it were, and become aware of awareness. This gets us out of the way, allowing us to settle into stillness, and be-with, just that.

In the stillness of this being-with, there is a spaciousness within which thoughts, feelings, and sensations naturally arise, almost as though the stillness is a kind of allowing. Often these feelings have been pushed down, perhaps for years, even decades, patiently biding their time while we ran about in the outer world, busy and distracted, hardly aware that there was so much in us that had gone ignored. Now, having been “sent to our rooms,” we may find these disenfranchised emotions insisting, intruding, demanding their moment. The feelings may have little or nothing to do with the current crisis, which somehow has served to bring them to the surface: losses we never grieved, fears we never acknowledged, the countless times we were unwilling to feel sad or afraid or lonely or lost.

To turn within and begin paying attention to this accumulated emotional debt—both the principal of the original injury and the accrued interest—brings about a renaissance of self, an energetic freeing up that can wash us clean of the past and return us to the living present relieved of long carried burdens. This is why Rumi says that the cure for the pain is in the pain. One excellent model for doing this inner work is based on the acronym R.A.I.N. First, recognize what the body is saying by paying attention to persistent sensations rather than dismissing them. This amounts to a kind of somatic listening in which we acknowledge that the body actually is speaking in the language of sensation—pain, tenderness, areas of constriction, and so on. Then, allow the experience to be what it is, without judgment, reaction, or resistance. Next, investigate what’s behind the feeling to discern the truth of the trauma that got locked there, along with what the body needs now to release it—often empathy or reassurance. Finally, nurture the body-self by giving it what it needs.

The Stoics also understood that in times of adversity, we have the opportunity to rise to the occasion, transcend old limits, and reinvent ourselves. This is done not through an act of will but rather through the willingness to enter the stillness that allows a truth denied to show itself and tell us its story. If we do this, then when the current crisis has passed, we will find ourselves in a world renewed by our inner work, a world in which we don’t need a pandemic to remind us that we’re all connected, and that each moment, each resource, each person, is precious. As always, transformation, like the proverbial journey of a thousand miles, begins under one’s feet.