Almost 800 years ago, a Sufi mystic and poet lived and penned the wisdom of his age. In the Muslim work he’s known as Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, but in the English speaking world he’s known simply as “Rumi.”
There are some lessons in life that we cannot fully grasp until we’re experiencing them. I could not understand how much my parents loved me until I had a child. I simply didn’t have a frame of reference. I understood love of friends, family and principled love for people in general. I just couldn’t understand the love of a parent.
Part of me resents this. As someone who wants to die knowing everything but also recognizes the limitations of an eighty year life span, it frustrates me that I simply won’t have time to experience and know everything.
Another part of me loves that this makes humans truly unique, and creates an ecosystem of knowledge and talent. I need you because you know stuff I don’t know, and you need me for the same reason.
In dark times we can only be so prepared. Life will always have us facing things we aren’t equipped for and –because life is also counterintuitive – won’t be equipped for until the lesson is over. Of course, we rarely have to learn the lesson twice, and we become superheroes for dealing with that particular issue.
In coaching, I’ve noticed that what often causes us the most pain are the lessons we’ve been putting off – we ignore them when they show up on a small scale and then get blindsided when they hit on a massive scale. Usually we’re totally shocked and completely miss that we’ve had many opportunities to handle these issues along the way, we simply avoided them when they were small and let us get away with it.
For example, I know people who started out shy and slowly over time became full on social phobics. Each individual opportunity to face their fear of other people was met with avoidance until finally, the idea of interacting with others became so oppressive even the most simple and shallow interaction was a major burden (i.e. buying groceries and interacting with the checkout clerk). What happens when finances force someone in this position to get a job outside of the home? Calling companies about available jobs, interviewing with potential employers, daily interactions with coworkers… all of this is sheer torture, and the individual has no resources to deal with it.
I also know people who started out with loving and exciting relationships, only to have it die a long and painful death. Not because one mate out of nowhere said something the other couldn’t live with, but because there had been a growing stack of unpleasant interactions until finally a breaking point was hit. Each and every conversation was an opportunity for one or both people to reevaluate their communication style and interact with love. Instead, pride and laziness controlled the dynamic and eventually the relationship was so sick it appeared unrecoverable.
What’s the solution?
The last four Rumi quotes I want to focus on can be combined to create a formula for dealing with this very challenge. When life sends us lessons, it’s important to deal with them head on and early. My observation is that those who are continually working on themselves encounter the same challenges everyone does, but they’re rarely blindsided.
Let’s look at Rumi’s formula.
X. “These pains you feel are messengers. Listen to them.”
Just like our bodies send us warnings through our nervous system (“Hey, that’s destructively hot – maybe don’t touch it”), so does our mind when it deals with something that needs our attention. It may be subtle at first as, in early times, the situation may not be critical. Someone says something, you get your feelings hurt… it isn’t necessarily time to grab an AK-47 and go on a killing rampage. It’s small, it’s manageable, but it still hurts.
These small pains are messengers. They tell us something is going on inside and we may want to check in. Why did this small comment hurt our feelings? What is our sensitivity? Is it something they intended? Is it a message we need to hear?
My husband recently told me that I come across as a know-it-all to some of his family members. This isn’t surprising since my favorite thing to be is the Know-It-All Teacher. I love teaching, I love sharing what I’ve learned with other people, and I love being the person in-the-know. Despite all of this self-knowledge, I was still a little hurt.
The message? Well, if you don’t want to be seen as a know-it-all, stop acting like one. Alternatively, if you want to continue to be the know-it-all teacher, understand that some people are going to be put off by this.
At this stage in the game, this is pretty manageable stuff. I can alter my behavior, or I can come to terms with the response I get. If I DON’T deal with it now, then the next ‘message’ may be an abrasive comment from a family member. The next message after that may be a souring relationship, and the next after that may be a full out “I don’t talk to you at Thanksgiving and you don’t talk to me.”
Being sensitive to the early messages allows you to prevent the stack from starting, or it lets you know a stack is starting and be aware of it. If we’re not sensitive to these forerunner messages it’s how we get blindsided later. Whenever we ask ourselves, “Why was so-and-so such an asshole to me just now?” the answer is usually 1) they’re in a bad mood and it has nothing to do with your, or 2) something has been brewing for a while, something you could have done something about, but you didn’t. And now you’re feeling it.
It’s SO seductive to ignore small messages of pain. The best story to tell yourself is that you’re a victim, and something is happening to you, and you have no idea why. The shy person who has trouble with basic stranger interactions tells themselves they “are” shy, not that this is a behavior that can be altered. They are a victim to their personality make-up, and nothing can be done but avoid people whenever possible.
“These pains you feel are messengers. Listen to them.” The first part of the formula is to stop ignoring your mind when it says something is off, and address it early and head on. Don’t ignore it, don’t let your mind get lazy. It’s the psychological equivalent to “that stove is really hot, but I’m already headed toward it and I really don’t want to change direction. I’ll just run into it.”
XI. “The cure for pain is in the pain.”
Now that you’ve chosen not to ignore these little messages, now what do you do about them?
Medical diagnoses is done by observing symptoms. The combination of how your body is responding differently than normal tells you what the problem is, and it also tells you what the solution is. If you’re diabetic, your body will respond in ways that indicate you’re either not making enough insulin or you’re not able to use the insulin that is being made. The ‘cure’? Regulate your insulin.
If you’re getting messages that your marriage or pair bond relationship is less loving and more caustic, the ‘cure’ is to behave in more loving ways, not keep love from your partner.
If you’re shy and each interaction with another person is painful, the ‘cure’ is to become more comfortable around others, not to become a shut in.
Maintaining balance seems to be one of the most fundamental components of healthy living in all ways. Sometimes we’re giving, sometimes we’re taking. As long as there is a balance of the two, then usually everyone feels pretty good. When we do far too much taking without giving, or too much giving without taking, we’ll feel the effects of it since neither is sustainable.
The ‘pain’ these messengers will send to you is a notice that you’re out of balance. If you’re teaching yourself to be sensitive to them, the next step is to be aware that they often hold the answer to why you feel the way you do.
I don’t want to be seen as a know-it-all? The answer is to be more humble in my interactions with others, to ask what their needs are and how I can be as conscientious of them as I am of myself. If I continue to teach when no one cares, then I’m only attending to my needs – or, taking. If I’m aware of what others want – maybe more laid back conversation – I’m also “giving” by talking about what interests them, regardless of my level of interest. Ebb and flow, give and take. That’s what keeps our relationships in the black and out of the red.
There are times when we are facing a situation that has more ecological significance. My left arm hurts, but it’s not my arm that’s the issue, it’s my heart (as in, a heart attack). These definitely require more attention and thoughtfulness. I’m pissed off at my husband, but actually he’s not the issue. He’s safe, and so he’s getting the brunt of my anger. I’m actually pissed off at ____. These are called “smuggles,” and I’ll address that in a future post.
As with any skill, these distinctions become clearer the better you get at checking in with yourself. You naturally get to know how ‘you’ work, and the kinds of strategies you tend to use to deal with life. Once you have yourself down, it’s almost amusing to watch yourself in action. That bashful self-acknowledgement is often the gatekeeper to real self-mastery.
XII. “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.”
A mentor of mine once told me that everything everyone does is an expression of love. This is a difficult thing to accept, since so much of what people do to each other results in pain and damage. It was hard for me to accept – everything that everyone does is an expression of love? The thing is, the more I thought about it and the more I observed humans the more I got it.
Now, love is a pretty abstract word which we all seem to define a little differently. That said, most of us would agree that love is a positive emotion that looks out for, protects and nourishes the thing that has its attention. At the most base level, what appears to be a truly evil act can still be an act of love – perhaps self-love, a need to protect and nourish the self. Or it could be the love of country, or of family, or values, or money… It’s easy to dismiss this idea as overstretching, since doing things for (say) the love of money isn’t an all-encompassing expression of love. But look at it this way – if love is happening all the time, then it isn’t that people are terrible, hateful creatures, but rather they are loving, positively intended creatures who just really suck at the kind of love we want to see from them.
That’s a whole different perspective. Believing people can’t feel love is depressing and desperate. Believing everyone feels love all the time, they just need to some guidance along the way is so much more encouraging.
What’s the point? You don’t need to seek love – it’s there, anyway. You need to figure out all the barriers you’ve built against it.
Love comes with pain. In fact, pain is frequently an expression of love. We see this all the time – you’re at a bad place in your life, you’re fucking everything up (too much alcohol, too much sex, too much eating fatty food, too much sitting on the couch doing nothing with your life) and the only person who will say, “Snap out of it!” is your best friend, or your dad or someone else you know really loves you. They hurt your feelings and you mentally flip them off and tell them to mind their own business. Then what they say starts to take seed, you realize they have a point, you start cleaning up your act and five years later you thank them for saving your life.
We create barriers against love because we’re actually creating barriers against pain. But the cure for pain is in the pain, and usually it’s accepting and breaking down barriers to love.
I choose to believe that the universe is a friendly place. I choose to believe that when people drive me crazy, or hurt my feelings, or make me want to stab them before stabbing myself in the face… these are all expressions of love. They may not know it (they may suck at love, remember), but I know it. I know that even the most bastardized version of love is still love, and if I can just remove my barriers/fear of pain I can accept and benefit from their expressions of love.
I have a friend who just found out her husband has been cheating on her for about a year. It’s a mess – I would say without any hesitancy that both people created this situation for themselves, and now their two little girls are getting the spill off in the shape of the very beginning of a custody battle. The prevailing sentiment from most of her friends is that he’s a douchebag, how could he do this to her, and to hear them talk there’s a line forming at his front door made up of helpless women wanting to take their frustrations of life out on him.
Nothing in this situation feels like love. But as I watch this drama unfold, I see nothing but love. I see a man who wasn’t willing to lie about his identity anymore, but didn’t know how to go about it. He had love for the core of who he was and did something desperate to keep it alive. I see a woman who has love for her children and her marriage, but never really figured out how to express it in a way that could be received. I see children who love both parents. And I see friends who want to protect their cuckolded friend.
And I see a TON of barriers people have built to block out that very love.
Once you listen to your pain messengers, once you see that the medicine in the diagnoses, it’s now your job to remove all barriers to feeling love. Giving yourself full permission to love yourself, to love others, to love life, to love for just the sake of feeling love… all of these fears start to melt away.
Shy? All people need friends. Love yourself enough to give yourself the gift of friends, and love others enough to see them as having positive intent toward you. Whenever people show you kindness, let yourself feel it completely. Break down the barriers you have built against love.
It’s pretty much the most important job you have.
One major way to do this is to develop gratitude. Gratitude keeps us from being greedy, it helps us understand how beautiful life is and truly helps us tap into all the love that is going on around us. Starting to feel like a victim? Take twenty full minutes and meditate on how amazing it is that you were born, how incredible it is that you live in a place of relative prosperity. Focus on the freedoms you have and how it can and will all go away some day. Be here now, and feel amazing about it.
Break down barriers you have against love.
XIII. “I know you’re tired but come, this is the way.”
A massive leverage point in personal growth is understanding and embodying the principle: The way out is through.
There are no short cuts in personal development. There are models and tools for powerful understanding, but you still gotta do the work. You have to handle your own shit. You can’t let your psychological and emotional growth atrophy and just hope you’ll become an awesome person. It’s not all in your DNA. You gotta do the work.
The way out is through.
You start becoming sensitive to your own pain messengers. You start realizing how the diagnoses is in the pain. You break down barriers to love, and open yourself up to feeling amazing. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it takes both awareness and time.
Once on the other side, though, the view is awesome. When you take even the smallest baby steps to overcome fear and self-limitations, you feel like Superman. Seriously, the more you invest in your psychological and emotional health the more you can handle ANYthing.
It can be tiring. It can be exhausting. I know you’re tired, but come. This is the way. The way out is through. You can do it.
Let’s talk about making this happen in your life. If you’d like to make immediate application, do these three exercises:
1. Make a list of 3 pain points in your life that are happening right now. Get very specific. Ask yourself how these 3 things are also a diagnoses for the ‘cure’ by rephrasing them as a question. i.e. If one of your pain points is “Stress from not making enough money,” zoom in and make the pain point as specific as possible. For example, if your car payment is $400/month and that is a big stressor, ask “How can I make an extra $400 per month?” Alternatively, ask yourself if stress, itself, is the challenge and find ways to address it. Take up meditation, yoga or pursue a soothing spiritual practice.
Reframe your problems as challenges that can be solved.
Let me know how it goes in the comments section!