The other day I asked a few friends if they had any article ideas and one jokingly asked me to write about why his farts stink so much. Really bad. No matter what he eats. His girlfriend confirmed this story. We all laughed, knowing of course I wouldn’t be writing an article for a psychology blog about his farts…or would I?
At the surface, it can be hard to imagine where to go from there (except very far away from Stinky Fart Man*), but my job as a therapist is to dig a little deeper (sometimes with my fingers plugging my nose). Beneath this question is another more vulnerable one: Why is my body so out of my control?
From stinky farts to knee pain to debilitating chronic illness, most of us experience any number of chronic or acute physical discomforts coupled with mystery. Our feelings about it can range from mild irritation to extreme fear and anxiety. And then there’s the reaction:
Avoid the doctor for fear of brain tumor discovery.
Go to the doctor over and over only to hear, “I can’t find anything wrong with you so it’s probably just stress.”
Try every damn Western “scientifically-based” intervention only to experience all the negative side-effects and little to no benefit.
Try every damn shamanistic, spiritual, faith-healing, metaphysical, Magical Mystery Tour, hero’s journey, sweat lodge healing art (all available to you right here in the Bay Area!) and end up super broke.
Ignore the discomfort and push it away, masking it or distracting from it (booze, Netflix, food, keepin’ busy, run through the pain).
Lay in the dark moaning, hopeless, helpless, lonely, ashamed.
Buy whatever magical dehydrated super-food pill Dr. Oz is talking up that week.
Eat ONLY kale!
Join a cult.
Fun game: I’ve done 4 out of 8. Guess which ones!
Whether or not these approaches are successful in relieving the suffering, there’s also the set of beliefs we build up around why. Most of us have pretty low tolerance for all this unknown, especially when it hurts. I’ve enjoyed a myriad of explanations such as:
There’s an important lesson in this!
Mercury in retrograde.
Life is suffering.
God hates me.
Fun game: Set a timer for 1 minute and write down as many of your beliefs about your suffering as you can!
No surprise, I can feel kind of bitter about this sometimes. My farts aren’t that bad, but I’ve got other stuff that’s been bothering me for a while. Sometimes it seems like it’s always something. And maybe it always will be. But the hardest part is the dance between anxiety and hopelessness – the grasping for answers and meaning in a vastly ununderstandable world and then the soul-crushing disappointment when another attempt at fixing it doesn’t work. Don’t get me wrong: grasping for answers and meaning is the only reason we know as much as we do. But the panic and fear (as opposed to curiosity) we often feel isn’t doing us any favors.
One of my favorite psychologist-turned-Buddhist-teachers Tara Brach recently did a dharma talk (which you can find here) on pain. She mentions the old Buddhist saying, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” She reminded me that Buddhist philosophy speaks of pain and suffering in terms of arrows. The pure sensation (be it physical or emotional) that’s causing discomfort or pain is the first arrow. Ouch! But the stories we build up around the experience (I’m fucked up, why is this happening to me?!?, something is terribly wrong!) – those stories are what shoot the second arrow. Double ouch! You can imagine it would hurt to be shot with an arrow, but most people would agree being shot twice is much worse.
I’ve experienced all kinds of pain, but it’s what I believe about what’s happening that really drives my suffering. Sure, my tattoos hurt. But they marked important, exciting points in my life and I chose the pain. In that context the pain was pretty alright, even kind of cool. The muscle soreness I feel after a good workout is a reminder of what my body is capable of and of something I’ve achieved so, again, the context of the pain makes it bearable and positive. But in both of these examples I also know what’s happening and why.
But when I work out for 10 minutes and end up ridiculously sore the next day (which has happened), I’m like “WTF??? What’s wrong with me? I’m so weak! I must have Lyme’s disease!” The fact is, I don’t have a clue why I was more sore that time than others and my mind very quickly wants to jump in and fill in the blanks. And maybe because we’re all little reptiles trying to survive deep down inside, we jump to some pretty panicky conclusions.
If the story is making the pain worse, then let’s move away from the story. We don’t have to disregard it completely or exclude time for problem solving. But we do need to take space to be with what we’re experiencing, to observe, to just feel. Often times I ask my clients what they’re feeling in their bodies – this can help bring them more into experience when they’re stuck in their heads or help ground them when they’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed. And often, they quickly answer “I don’t know.” Or perhaps they experience physical discomfort in one area that’s so loud that they don’t notice other sensations that are happening simultaneously.
Taking the time to tune in and pay attention builds tolerance for discomfort and allows the clarity necessary for insight and understanding. By shelving the story we can take a sigh of relief knowing this moment will pass – it may come again and again but each time it will also pass. It’s when I surrender to the unknown and focus on being from moment to moment that my experience actually changes.
You may have heard all of this before (especially if you live in the Bay Area and you’re reading a psychology blog). I’ve heard it many many times over and over and I still find myself avoiding practices that will bring me to a place of presence with myself. But sometimes, after it feels like you’ve tried it all, setting aside the fight against the unknown and being with it is the only thing left. And when we do pay attention sometimes other aspects of being emerge amidst the noise of the pain (joy, creativity, fart jokes).
Through therapy and practice and at times fucking hating it, I’ve grown my tolerance for sitting in the soup. I pull myself out of the painful stories I tell myself a little sooner and come back to the only things I can know – sensation as it occurs in my body. The times I am present, well…I often feel a little better at a certain point. And I can often make other choices that make me feel a little better as well.
So my last list will hopefully inspire you to find yourself, find your body, find the moment from time to time. Try reading it and then close your eyes and repeat the words in your head that stand out to you. You might find that the more you sit patiently and nonjudgmentally with what’s there, even your stinky farts, your suffering will actually decrease. Then do it over and over again as much as you can, as frequently as you can (once a day for 3 minutes even).
Going with it.
*Name changed to protect Stinky Fart Man’s identity.