I’ve been going through a rough patch lately. My physical and emotional health hasn’t been the best and most days it’s felt like I’m having to push through. I think that’s true for a lot of us — I’ve heard from friends near and far about how burned out we all are and how it’s affecting so many areas of our lives. And while I’m reaching out to my network of healers, friends and family for support, it still sucks to go through a rough patch.
So, today I want to talk about suffering. Why do we have to suffer? And what can we do about it?
Let’s look at suffering from a macro, spiritual POV level and then relate it to what we can do on a more micro, daily, human basis.
Ram Dass has two quotes about suffering that seem at odds with each other at first glance, but taken together are actually one of the great esoteric secrets of enlightenment. Here are the two quotes:
“Suffering is the sandpaper of our incarnation. It does its work of shaping us.”
― Ram Dass
“The resistance to the unpleasant situation is the root of suffering.”
― Ram Dass
In the first quote, Ram Dass is alluding to the rule of contrast, or the yin and yang. A classic example of this is that in order to understand the concept of darkness, you need to have experienced light. If darkness is the absence of light, then you can’t understand what darkness is without already having experienced what light is, or vice versa. In the same way, you’d find it harder to appreciate and deeply experience joy unless you’ve also experienced suffering.
Suffering creates gratitude for times of peace and joy.
One time, I had a particularly hard health challenge where I was basically bedridden for months. When I could finally walk again and first went outside, the sight of the trees, the sky, even the miracle of a sidewalk existing so I could walk on it (with all of the technological history and people needed to create it ) was so awe-inspiring that it brought me to tears of gratitude. I don’t think that without a few months of being inside and immobile, I would have cried at the sight of a sidewalk. The suffering shaped me into someone who appreciated things I hadn’t before. Things that we would take for granted as “normal” become a source of joy after we feel their absence. And the cool thing is, that sticks with you. I don’t cry tears of joy at every tree I see nowadays, but I remember that feeling and I can invoke levels of gratitude for things that I never would have before. That is sandpaper that has shaped me for the better.
Suffering also helps us develop compassion for those who have gone through similar experiences.
Compassion is the root of nonjudgemental love and divine action. If we can have compassion for someone, we can see suffering at the root of their actions rather than judging them for those actions. From this place, we can meet them with our common humanity. We are all learning and remembering what it means to be a spiritual being having a human experience. Who we are in the world (a.k.a. how we love and care in the world) is shaped by our suffering. In a world where our culture, corporations, and even our genes encourage us to try to “otherize” those who are different from us and “find our tribe,” compassion reminds us that all humans, animals and even the planet are all “our tribe.”
The second quote, “The resistance to the unpleasant situation is the root of suffering,” is a bit more esoteric and harder to practice in the moment. I’d heard some version of this concept for years before I finally got it on a level that I could use to find peace in times of stress. I’d read the saying “desire is the root of all suffering” in many Buddhist texts and at first I thought it meant desire for material goods, people or situations that we coveted. But it’s not that kind of desire. It’s more like the desire for things to be different than they are in this moment, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant this moment may be. The key is to accept whatever is happening and not desire it to be any other way right now. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t desire things in your life. In fact, I think that intuitive, inspired desire is one of the ways we figure out our life’s purpose. This is why I like this version by Ram Dass. “The resistance to the unpleasant situation is the root of suffering” means that if we can accept whatever is happening right now and not wish it to be different or better, then our suffering is greatly diminished.
Let me give you a few examples (like I said, this one is harder to grasp as a practice). When I was going through cancer treatment, I had some of the worst days of my life. My body was so weak and damaged that I almost gave up and died. However, this is also when I first started the practice of giving up resistance to what was happening. When I would get bad news from the doctor I thought to myself “Now, this is happening” and find the calm grace of acceptance even in the face of terrible news. I started using it to mark the good things, too, like when my puppy would curl up next to me in bed I thought, “Now, this is happening.” (Side note: I got this phrase from Jack Black in the movie Anchorman, proving that you never know who your spiritual teachers will be.) As I used this mantra more and more, I started to develop a powerful mindfulness, a part of my body-mind that could observe the situation without judgement and with full acceptance of what was arising.
Here’s another example. Recently, I started on a new medication that started causing anxiety attacks after a few months of use. It took a while to figure out that it was this particular medication that was the cause, so for months I was having unexplained bouts of severe anxiety attacks for hours at a time. One of the tools I used to get through was mindfulness meditation. I would lay down, close my eyes and do my best to simply observe the anxiety in my body as it was happening. At one point, I felt my consciousness almost split in two. There was the part of me that was anxious, with my heart racing, panicked thoughts, hot and cold chills and the painful feeling of adrenaline pumping through my chest, and then there was another part, a part that transcended that human experience as I had the thought, “this body is experiencing anxiety right now.” That second part of me suddenly felt so peaceful and all-knowing. I found that I could shift my awareness, or almost lean in, to that peaceful, wise part of myself. In that space there was no suffering at all, there was simply the acceptance of what was happening, which somehow dissolved the desire for it to be any other way. In that moment, acceptance was peace. Even in the face of a panic attack.
Which brings us right back to the first quote — suffering is the sandpaper that shapes us. Without this anxiety, I wouldn’t have been able to deepen my meditation practice and wouldn’t have discovered how deeply I could find peace in acceptance. Those few months of anxiety were the sandpaper that shaped me into someone who practiced mindfulness enough to find peace and calm somewhere that I never thought it could exist, in the midst of a panic attack.
So while I do not wish suffering on myself, you, or anyone else, I do understand a bit of why it’s part of our incarnated human experience. However, even though I know this as true, I routinely forget it and fall back into the desire for things to be different than they are. But the key is remembering at some point — if it’s 2 seconds or 2 days into the pain — that you can experience the pain without resistance, and therefore without suffering. And to become aware that this pain is shaping you into a more compassionate, loving and understanding person. As you understand pain, you will open your heart to others and take this newfound understanding and compassion with you into the world from this day forward, helping those who could use a bit of it directed their way as they make their way through their own pain and suffering.
It’s been a chaotic last couple of years, hasn’t it? Global pandemics, the rise of fascism, and disconnection from so many of the people and things that keep us sane and grounded. So many familiar things are falling apart, and I know that I’ve had to figure out new ways to find happiness and connection in these unpredictable times. As with anything new, it’s been a bit of trial and error.
But there are 4 things that I know will help and that I keep coming back to over and over.
- Mindfulness. The ability to be in the present moment and have the ability to access two parts of me (the part that is having the experience and the part that is compassionately observing the experience) has been invaluable. When things are rough or when things are good, I can witness myself having that experience from a place of wisdom and compassion. When I am feeling scared I can be scared and at the same time, send compassion and love to the past of me that’s scared. When I’m feeling joy I can actually register that joy and make a mental note of how happy I am, which rewires my brain to seek happiness. It’s sort of like a magic trick – being two places at once – and it’s one of the best tools I know for coming back and caring for yourself in hard times. It can create a new perspective that’s different from the trauma reactions you’ve had in the past.
- Learning to love your pain. I know, I know. That sounds terrible. But hear me out. I know mental anguish sucks. Anxiety, loneliness, feeling out of control, it all sucks. But those places where we feel pain are signposts to where we need to let in love. Doing shadow work and finding the places where you’ve been hurt can also be seen as finding the places where you can open up to love. This can be self-love (goodbye inner critic!), love from others like friends, pets, etc, or a connection with source, the ultimate field of unconditional love. It’s not easy, and we often put up barriers in those shadow places because we’ve been burned in the past, but as Rumi says, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
- Being kind to yourself. I don’t know about you, but I say horrid things to myself that I would never dream of saying to anyone else. Years ago, I made a vow to myself that I would not say anything to myself that I wouldn’t say to my best friend. I’ve found that when times get tough and we feel like we’re not doing a good enough job, those voices can get stronger. Anyone feel like they’re not doing enough when really, it’s a pandemic + past trauma + late-stage capitalism + a society focused on disconnection under the guise of hyperindividualism? Coming to love ourselves takes work in the face of all of this is an intentional act and takes patience, love and care.
- Having a spiritual practice. You can call it God, source, the universal field of consciousness, or the flying spaghetti monster, but the ability to tap into this energy and feel it in your bones and feel how much love and support there is for you out there is key. No one can do it alone. But sometimes we don’t have the perfect people around at the perfect moment to help us. That’s when a spiritual connection and a deep knowing that all of this will be okay can come to the rescue. You are part of something so much larger than whatever is going wrong. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a pit of despair and the only thing that gave me relief was the sense of grace I get when I meditate and intentionally connect to that field of consciousness. We’re all just little holograms of God, running around having incarnate experiences. And those incarnate experiences can feel BIG and overwhelming at times, but it is not all that we are. We are so much more than that and you can access that expansive feeling anytime you want through your spiritual practice.
If you want to know more about any of these 4 tools or want help learning how to use them in your own life, I’m teaching a course all about them and it starts next week. If you’re curious, drop me a line or check out the webpage here: https://megancaper.com/uth
Feeling disconnected and unmoored is one of the most insidious aftereffects of trauma. Whether it’s 2+ years of pandemic isolation or the result of a childhood in an emotionally detached family, feeling disconnected and alone is such a common experience.
I know that personally it’s been a lifelong work in progress to feel the support and care around me after growing up in a family that was emotionally disconnected and spiteful. Even with good friends, loving partners, a solid found family and a community around me, that feeling of disconnection or like I’m going to have the rug pulled out from under me can come on at any moment.
A few years ago, I was meditating through this feeling and I felt myself sink into a warm, soft energetic embrace. There was a feeling of calm and safety, and in that moment, I knew everything was alright.
And it was. In that moment, as with most moments of my life, I was safe. But I usually can’t access that feeling.
The problem arises when my brain reverts to a pattern of hypervigilance and anticipation – after experiencing so many moments where I had to look out for emotional or physical danger, my brain and body have been trained to be prepared. And that state of hypervigilant preparation certainly does not feel like calm and safety, and it doesn’t feel like everything is going to be alright.
But in meditation, I can drop the worry and sink into the moment of what I’m doing – being still, observing my body and mind, in a place and time of my own creation, which is free from any potential threats.
There’s a form of meditation called Settling the Mind in its Natural State where “the activities of the mind gradually subside so that the mind comes to settle in its ‘natural state,’ which manifests three core qualities: bliss, luminosity, and non-conceptuality.” I would add the word “connection” to that list of effects because in that state I found the connection I was looking for. It wasn’t dependent on a particular person or circumstance, but was already a part of who I am. Since my “natural state” is being connected to universal consciousness, I am always connected to the one consciousness that runs through all of us.
In those moments of meditation, that connection becomes real, and (if I meditate daily) it becomes a part of my daily reality, as well. As a result, my nervous system changes, my brain rewires, and eventually my experience of being connected and safe become the baseline instead of something I have to strive for.
I still experience those post-traumatic moments of disconnection at times, but having a meditation practice where I know I can bring myself back to that natural state of bliss and connection at any moment has been such an important part of my healing.
If this practice of feeling connected, safe and cared for sounds like something that you’d like to learn, then I’d love to invite you to join my group program Unconventional Tools for Healing starting April 25. It’s one of the many tools I teach in the class to help you cultivate the emotional balance that we all crave.
See you there!
Mindfulness is one of the bedrocks of mind-body healing. Without it, you can’t accomplish any significant healing on a physical, emotional or spiritual level. I want to look at what I mean by mindfulness and then give you some examples of how it integrates with other healing tools.
Mindfulness is really two different things: the ability to be in the present moment AND metacognitive observation of this moment.
Being in the present moment means you are only experiencing what is going on right now in your environment, body and mind. Mindfulness is our natural state when we are feeling calm, relaxed and connected. When you are mindful, you don’t get swept away in thinking of a conversation you had earlier today, or lost in worry about how things may turn out in the future, you stay grounded in what is actually happening right now.
Metacognitive observation is the gentle, nonjudgmental acceptance of what’s going on in the present moment. It’s observing the situation and our reaction to it without adding any mental chatter about why it may be “right” or “wrong”. When you are mindful, you notice thoughts come up and say to yourself something like, “Ah! It’s worry. I’m worried about how my presentation will go tomorrow.” In this way you are not getting lost in spiraling thoughts about the worry, but rather you observe the worrying thoughts in a nonjudgmental way.
Mindfulness is a prerequisite to almost any other type of healing work because without the ability to be present and observe what’s going on and our reaction to it, we won’t be able to identify or change harmful thoughts, belief systems, or patterns of reactivity.
Mindfulness is the tool we can use to self-diagnose our own maladaptive patterns.
Without mindfulness, we’ll continue to engage in these patterns unconsciously, and the true nature of our difficulties will remain hidden from us. Doing healing work without the foundation of mindfulness is like going to the doctor and asking for treatment without having identified any specific symptoms other than “I don’t feel well”.
Mindfulness is the basis for the best healing tools for stress and trauma. For example, thought work is based on being aware of both our thoughts and our emotions at any given time. Cultivating our inner caregiver can only happen if we can catch our inner critic when they’re in action. You can only develop your intuition in a present and open state. Even physical healing from illness or injury only happens in the parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system state. (Note: if you’re curious about any of these tools, I’ll be talking about all of them in the next few weeks!)
Not only that, but mindfulness is incredibly healing on its own. Observing your own emotions, thoughts and reactions from a place of gentle, nonjudgmental acceptance can be the key to undoing years of bullying, emotional neglect and other trauma. Being in the present moment allows us to look around and see what’s good, safe and inspiring right now in both our internal and external worlds.
However, if you’ve experienced chronic stress or trauma, mindfulness may be much harder for you. You may feel pulled out of the present moment by anxiety, depression, hypervigilance or dissociation. For people with anxiety or depression, it can be challenging to observe our thoughts and feelings without internal mental commentary. People who dissociate may not even be registering what’s going on at all, and it’s impossible to observe experiences that you aren’t even aware of. In fact, people who have experienced chronic stress or have C-PTSD may spend most of their time in these other states, which can make both mindfulness and all of the other healing tools that stem from it that much harder to access.
If you’ve tried mindfulness or meditation before and it hasn’t worked for you, then I’d like to invite you to join me for my upcoming group course “Unconventional Tools for Healing” where I’ll teach you my trauma-informed take on mindfulness, and teach how to finally be able to get to that calm, relaxed and connected state even if it’s eluded you in the past. And from that state, miraculous healing can occur
Click here to learn more and feel free to reach out if you have any questions about the course or if it’s right for you.
“When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change” ~Wayne Dyer
Recently, I wrote about neuroplasticity and how to use polysensory mental practice as a way to change the structure and function of your nervous system. Today I want to talk about another way to literally change our minds through thought work.
Thought work is the process of consciously changing our thoughts and thought patterns in response to our emotions or circumstances. Thoughts become automatic in ways that we don’t even realize. Research from the National Science Foundation has found that 95% of the thoughts you think each day are the same every day.
According to an article on NPR, “the human brain can process 11 million bits of information every second. But our conscious minds can handle only 40 to 50 bits of information a second. So, as a result, our brains sometimes take cognitive shortcuts.” These shortcuts can cause us to revert to the same thought patterns or the same reactions without ever bringing them to the conscious mind.
Thought work is a deliberate method that helps to bring those unconscious thought patterns to our conscious minds so that we can decide if the thoughts are helpful or something we’d rather change.
Now before I go on and explain how to do this, I want to make sure to make something very clear. There is a BIG difference between thought work and pushing thoughts down or spiritual bypassing.
Pushing thoughts down or pushing them away does not disrupt the unconscious thought patterns and in fact, can help to cement them in place. Pushing thoughts down is a pattern in and of itself, and often comes from believing that you or your thoughts are not valid or appropriate.
Spiritual bypassing is the idea that people who are on the spiritual path or working towards enlightenment should strive towards finding only joy in life and that having “negative vibes” is a sign of an unenlightened mind. I call bullshit on that. We all experience joy, sadness, anger, fear and grief at different points in our life and that is normal, healthy and part of the human experience. Yes, it’s always possible even in the darkest times to find something to be joyous about or grateful for – your child’s smile or some pet cuddles or a beautiful tree – but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t absolutely be experiencing anger, fear, hurt or pain when the shit hits the fan.
Okay, end of rant. Back to thought work!
So, how do you start to do thought work? The first step is to start to observe your thoughts or feelings as they happen. Developing a mental non-partial observer who can witness the thoughts or feelings without judgment is key here. If you find yourself reacting to the thought or feeling, like “I shouldn’t be feeling that way” or “Why do I always get triggered around this?” then you’ve already gone on to the next thought. The trick is to catch the thoughts as they happen and be open to looking at them without judgment.
Here is my step-by-step process to doing this work:
- Identify a feeling, thought, or physical sensation you are having.
- Write one down of those three and then figure out the other two. For example, write down the physical sensation and then figure out what feeling that is and what thought you’re having about that. Or write down the thought and then observe how that makes you feel and where you feel it in your body.
- Look at the thought. Ask yourself if it is true. Would 100% of people on Earth agree that this is true? Can you think of a way of looking at it that would make it not true?
- Ask yourself — is there a stress-free reason to keep this thought?
- Reframe: what’s another thought or belief system I could adopt that would be kinder, healthier or more inspiring?
- Check in with your body and emotions again. Does this thought feel better?
Let me give you an example from my own life. Recently I wanted to ask a family member for a favor. Now, this family member has not been the most generous person in the past and I’ve been hurt by some of our past interactions. My first thought was, “they’ll never say yes and I’ll feel let down, once again.” The body sensation that went with this was tightness and heaviness in my chest, which I identified as hurt and anxiety.
I asked myself if I could be certain that my thought was 100% true. I couldn’t. Perhaps this interaction would be different, or perhaps they’d grown, or I’d grown, and our conversation wouldn’t be the same as it was before. I realized my thought was just one possible outcome and it may or may not have been true.
Then, I asked myself if there was a stress-free reason to keep this thought. The only good reason I could think of to keep the thought was to protect myself from potentially being disappointed again by this person, but that certainly wasn’t stress free. In the end I couldn’t think of a stress-free reason.
I reframed my thought as this, “I am scared of asking for this favor because of past interactions, but I know that if I offer a chance to connect, perhaps it will be different this time. I’ll never know if I don’t ask. And if they don’t say yes, I’ll be okay. I have support systems in place to be able to feel disappointed and make it through.”
Do you see how I didn’t make it all roses and moonbeams? I didn’t push it down as invalid or try to make it full of joy. I still acknowledged the reality that I had been disappointed in the past, but I created a new thought that felt more supportive and caring for myself. I checked in with my body and instead of feeling fear and hurt, I now felt braver and stronger.
And guess what? In the end, they said yes and agreed to do me the favor. Woo hoo!
If you want to know more about how to do each step of thought work and get some practice implementing it with me as your guide and coach, it’s a big part of what we cover in the first module of the Unconventional Tools for Healing group program. If you want to know more, click here and check it out for yourself!
When we let the ego drive the bus without having other ways of looking at the world, it can drive us a bit mad. One of the most effective tools I know to become a happier person and make sure we’re not only listening to the ego is to cultivate three distinct voices in your head:
- The Ego
- The Observer
- The Caretaker
The Ego — this is the you that is experiencing all of things that are happening in your life. Ego is the part of you that feels emotional reactions to events and people and creates narratives about why this is happening — people’s motives, the reason for your reactions, the fact that the events happening around you are fair or unfair, etc. Basically, if your life was a movie, your ego is both the main character and the narrator that explains it all. Usually our ego makes its interpretations and creates that narrative on a subconscious level, before we’re even aware.
The Observer – also known as metacognition, this is the concept that there is an aspect in us that can simply observe what the ego is doing, without judgement. The best way I’ve found to practice cultivating this voice is mindfulness meditation. When you meditate and a thought comes up, name what it is. Like “thinking” or “remembering” or “worrying.” In this way, you can practice becoming the observer of your thoughts and emotions. This can then start expanding out of your meditation practice and into your daily life. Once this happens, you become able to watch your ego, thoughts and reactions in real time!
Getting to know the observer can be an especially powerful tool in working with anxiety and depression. As Ram Dass said, “Learn to watch your drama unfold while at the same time knowing you are more than your drama.” When we can connect to that part of ourselves that is observing the drama, we realize that there must be some aspect of ourselves that isn’t depressed or anxious, because the observer is neutral and calm and is looking at the drama from another perspective that isn’t filled with helplessness or worry.
Note: once you start developing a relationship with the observer, you may start to get some interesting intuition “downloads” from this POV. I believe that our observers are somehow related to our spiritual selves, or our oversouls, and that in cultivating your observer you’re actually strengthening your connection to universal consciousness.
The Caretaker — this voice can counter the negative interpretations of the ego. For so many people, our egos can have aspects that are rooted in insecurity or feelings of shame or worthlessness. The caretaker is the antidote to that. When the ego interprets a situation as shameful or worries about other people’s judgements, the caretaker can come in and say the exact right thing we need to hear. I recommend spending some time really imagining and developing this character. They may change over time, but start with someone that feels loving and kind to you. My current version is Carol Kane, she is both caring and sweet and can also kick some ass and tell my inner critic off when she starts saying mean things to me.
In case you need some examples of what your caretaker could say to you, here are a few ones to start with. Pick the ones that resonate with you and make you feel cared for:
“I love you.”
“You are special to me.”
“I see you and I hear you.”
“It’s okay to make mistakes. It doesn’t make me love you any less.”
“You are a good person”
“It’s not what you do but who you are that I love.”
“You don’t have to be alone anymore.”
“Of course you were afraid, that reminded you of something scary in the past.”
“If you fall down or fail, I will pick you up.”
“I am proud of you.”
“You are such an amazing person. I love who you are.”
It can feel funny at first to cultivate these different characters or voices in your head, but the ability to switch from one to the other when I need to has made a huge difference for me. Now, instead of having no choice but to follow the drama of the ego, I have two other options that I can lean into and see what they have to say or how they feel about the situation.
Let me know if you try this and how it works for you! I’d also love to know what your caretaker says or does for you. As someone who didn’t have good roles models of caring early on, I’m always looking to collect new ways to speak to myself and treat myself in caring ways.