Tani was a talented, attractive woman in her early thirties who cared fervently about the natural world and about helping people. But, over and over again, she held herself back from using her talents by becoming anxious and self-critical. She second-guessed herself constantly, in the guise of trying to improve herself so that she’d be acceptable. Her childhood had led her to anticipate hostility, so she tended to react defensively. Tani avoided working in group settings for fear that she’d be as ridiculed and rejected as she’d been in her family. In groups she was always on the alert for the need to prove herself.
Tani started an appointment by saying, “I can imagine why you’ve asked me how I want the rest of my life to be and what my dreams are. But you know, it’s really hard to come up with any. It was never okay in my family to have my own desires. I protected myself by rationalizing that their nasty behavior was reasonable and trying to placate them. Now that I’m an adult, when something would be worthwhile to do, I talk myself out of it by thinking that I couldn’t possibly manage dealing with the pressure, the people, and the politics. I think I’ve cut off the part of myself that should feel that I can have a life based on what I want.”
There are many reasons why people often believe that emotional peace is out of their reach. To them, the notion of being joyful is a cruel joke. Really bad things have already happened that seem impossible to overcome. Some people have learned from painful experience that they must shut down on themselves in order to be acceptable. And many disconnect from their feelings as a way of avoiding pain. They then develop distorted views of themselves. As Mark Epstein says in Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart, “In coping with the world, we come to identify only with our compensatory selves and our reactive minds.” For them, getting through each day is a huge task. Happiness doesn’t come into it. Escape looks like the only possible relief.
What would it mean to think that joy is possible? And what is it anyway? We’re aiming at something more profound than pleasurable reactions to things that we do, or buy, or achieve, not that I have anything against those! Such activities and accomplishments are fun, fulfilling, can be thrilling and even inspiring. But there is a deeper, more long-lasting joy, even for those of us who have endured terrible things.
At the center of each person is a still place, a well of deep and abiding bliss. This feeling-state emerges when we are at peace and deeply connected with our true selves. Even when we feel miserable and over-burdened with pain, or with old patterns that don’t seem to go away no matter how hard we try, the still place is there. It is where our true selves, our being, can be found. It is also the place in which we can access greater physical, emotional and spiritual energy, in which we connect, through a deep contact with our true nature, with all-that-is.
So, joy is possible. Joy simply is. Waiting for us to find it. Joy can also increase. It grows when it is fertilized with our conscious attention. The discovery that joy is not dependent on our attainments, or things, or other people, gives us more power to uncover and experience it. We can get there. All we have to do is dig through the pile of pain and unresolved issues under which it is buried.
Well, that was easy to say. It’s not as if we’ve all been sitting around doing nothing. So why has emotional freedom seemed pretty impossible in the past, and what makes it easier to attain?
Our systems do have emotional and neurological resources for working through and resolving hurt when it happens. However, if we we can’t face all of it in the moment, then the effects are locked away inside us, ostensibly so that we can work through them later when we have the resources or a calm stretch of time.
Mostly, though, people do not get home, pull those memories out of the old stomach storage locker, sit themselves down, and let the feelings flow. People tense against their memories, trying to annihilate them by cutting off awareness of their bodies. It’s as if distancing from the body that feels the pain will make the pain cease to exist. When the body persists in doing its job, signaling more and more loudly if necessary, that there is something that needs attention, people often come to blame their bodies as the cause of the pain. Having stored the hurtful memories or emotions away, folks tend to blame themselves if they leak or blurt hurt feelings without knowing where they came from. And around it goes again, as they try to disconnect more strenuously in order to keep those old sores stuffed away.
The many books on happiness available today tend to gloss over the struggle, with no model for getting from here to there. The exercises they contain are often valuable, but they are of no use until we can begin to see our way out. The path from hurt to joy requires some extra steps, and if we have been traumatized, these steps are even more essential.
Energy Dynamics are helpful for all those who want to change their experience of life and to feel better in themselves. They are not only for those who have survived seriously damaging experiences. For those who are wrestling with the aftermath of trauma, however, it is worthwhile at this point to clarify our working definition.
Trauma is any stressor or event that overwhelms the system’s ability to deal with it, thereby causing lasting and substantial psychological disruption.1In situations in which we feel some sense of control, at least of ourselves, we do not become traumatized, no matter how awful the circumstance. It is when we feel helpless and overwhelmed, when the event blows past our emotional and mental capacities to tolerate it, that our systems shove it away into a specific portion of our brain, causing it to be stuck not only undigested, but unresolvable simply by talking or with psychotropic medication.
So, conventional therapies that rely on talking and medication alone to relieve symptoms are not the most reliable in releasing trauma. Bessel van der Kolk is a foremost researcher on trauma and traumatic memory. His long-term research on Viet Nam veterans has shown that neither approach has a significant impact when it comes to releasing traumatic memories or the ways that our bodies react to them.
Unfortunately also, the sense of helplessness stymies our efforts to struggle past the pain and self-loathing that are the most pernicious waste products of trauma, so we often feel hopeless as well. (And that helplessness also fuels a tremendous amount of pleasure-seeking. In reaching too much outside ourselves to feel better, we inadvertently strengthen the idea that we are lacking, that we are intrinsically inadequate. Then we find ourselves going after more things to make up for the emptiness we feel.)
To free ourselves from the effects of stubborn old baggage, including trauma, we need to introduce movement into the frozen portion of the brain where overwhelming hurts are shut away. Energy is what breaks up the ice and makes things move. Our energy systems can be trained and augmented, so that we move beyond old, self-defeating beliefs and turn our attention to what is positive and supportive. We then lessen the power that the memories have over our emotional well-being and can include them in the story of our lives in a way that adds meaning and depth to how we define ourselves, rather than diminishing us.
A free and full life is not without crisis and difficulty. Some trouble comes to us all. But, do we have to be contorted and arrested by those sorrows? It takes determination to remove the distorted lenses that have affected our view of life, making it look as if our old pains repeat over and over. All of us who have gone through horrific times have been handed the assignment of coming to terms with them rather than being diminished.
How do we deal with crisis and loss in such a way that we can be self-supportive and confident, having made peace with what happened? How we deal with pain and loss is directly related to how much joy and richness we are able to allow ourselves to experience. It is possible to reassert our sovereign place in our own story. Optimally, we’ll resolve suffering and integrate what we learned, and know our own value, moving forward more connected with ourselves and with life, with a larger sense of who we are, and with more sensitivity and empathy.
Joy comes as a result of our effort, effectively applied. The paradox is that joy is always present in us. Under all the layers of pain, unresolved feelings, and beliefs that life is hard and we don’t deserve to have it be easy, there it is. Waiting. As soon as we do the work, sometimes, just a piece of it, we can be flooded with contentment, gratitude, and yes, joy. It doesn’t matter what we’ve been up against before, or even what our life circumstances are now. There it is.
You may have seen an example by watching an acquaintance fighting against grief. When people react to the loss of a loved one by hiding from it, they become stuck in the painful memories. They can’t remember the good times. Their outrage and dismal outlook grow. Alternatively, when they allow grief to run its course, they start recalling happy times and the blessing of having had that person in their life. The loving feelings surface, seemingly of their own accord, because they have been there all along, hiding in the bedrock. The grief and rage simply covered them over. The psyche seems to have a mandate to make sure that we face things, so it continues to present us with the unfinished business before we can get to the fun stuff.
Joy is a deep, abiding feeling of happiness grounded in peace and bliss. It is our felt perception of the creative and sustaining energy that the Universe is made of. When we are centered deeply within ourselves, we feel true joy. It does not depend on any external circumstance. When we are settled in the still place and in that feeling, we feel nourished and held, even when circumstances around us are less than optimal. Enlightenment is being able to experience this on an on-going basis.
We, as regular humans, can experience this kind of joy. A worthy goal for life and for the development of our spirits is to do the work that increases the time that we spend within this joy and express it through the way we live our lives. And yes, here, at the beginning of this journey, you may not know yet how to access it. You may have had so many painful things happen to you that you are far from seeing that it has anything to do with you. You may even have piled bad behavior on top of your pain. You may be so lost in shame, despair, and self-doubt, that you think you don’t deserve it.
But, the fact is, joy and connectedness lie at the heart of everyone. In the course of this book you’ll see how to uncover the joy that is already in you. Doing the work to resolve the feelings heaped on top starts to build a renewed sense of your ability to act on your own behalf. In doing so, you engage the healing process. As you go on, you can change your outlook on life, learn to value your true nature, trust in your strengths, and see your opportunities. Shift your viewpoint just a little, and you’ll see that the struggle itself is evidence that you still have hope that, with enough work and the right tools, it is possible to be happy.