Feeling the Pain

This past weekend, while attending a workshop entitled “Warriors of the Heart“, I had an experience that left me literally stunned. The workshop was lead by Danaan Parry, who’s personal mission, as founder of The Earthstewards Network, is international conflict resolution. Danaan worked with us to help us “learn the skills and develop the awareness to become a positive change-maker[1].” Having worked with Danaan briefly before this workshop, I had some idea of what to expect; or at least, I thought I did. I was not at all prepared for what really happened.

As we started, Danaan described the metaphor of letting go of the trapeze. Opening ourselves to new possibilities in our life first requires that we be willing to let go of our old attachments, that we be willing to expose ourselves to the risk of being out there in the open space between the trapeze we were swinging on and the one we hope to catch. This can certainly be a scary place to hang out, or it can be a place where we start to discover that maybe we don’t really have to catch that other trapeze; maybe we can just fly for awhile.

Recent events in my life have made this metaphor particularity relevant. I just let go of a $100k job with a large company to become an independent consultant. In making this transition, I have had to face all of those personal fears about my own sense of self-worth, and selling myself to others. If I can’t effectively sell myself, there will be no bread on the table, and nobody to blame but me.

But as I have worked through the self-realization processes of facing these internal dragons, I have felt myself shift out of the fears and judgements of my head and into the love and openness of my heart. I have, in the past few months, started to move into a space of totally present unconditional and non-judgmental love, and felt the wonderful rewards that this paradigm shift can bring. Truly, I often feel that I am flying.

So as we worked our way around the intimate group of people attending the workshop and introduced ourselves and shared a little about where our life was at that particular point in time, I felt quite comfortable sharing this feeling I have of unfettered flight and the wonderful sense of personal empowerment that has been my predominant state recently.

But the person on my right, wasn’t flying. He was crying. Jack is a Viet Nam Vet with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, and is, to this day, scared to sit in a room with his back to the door.  As I heard Jack start to share the pain he felt, I realized that to truly fly, I must also be humble.  Here I was, glibly sharing how it feels to fly, telling the others how spiritual I was feeling, while right next to me was a human being bearing a monstrous burden of pain and I hadn’t even been aware of him.

As the day progressed, Jack opened up and shared with us the source of his pain. He had, like soldiers of many wars, seen what he simply described as “too much,” and that hurt; but the real source of his pain was not being accepted and loved when he came back from Viet Nam.

What I heard him say was that for over twenty years, Jack has been carrying an awful burden of pain, simply because we never reached out to heal him with our love. As he said this, I knew that this travesty of isolation must stop, here and now. I turned to him and asked him if he could accept that love now, and felt a voice within him cry out “yes, yes, yes”, even as his body became rigid and pulled away.

I put my arms around him and pulled him to his feet to hug and heal him. For several moments, he accepted and returned my hug; and then something shifted and he pushed me away. As he sat down sobbing in his chair, Danaan asked him what was happening for him. Painfully, one gasp at a time, Jack told us that he hadn’t hugged a man in twenty-seven years, and that the last men he had hugged had been in body bags. Then he got up and left the room.

As Jack pushed me away, I felt a sudden and massive flood of pain filling my body, and as he left the room, I felt myself wrapped in a blanket of despair. The others in the group talked about what had happened, each responding to Jack’s pain as best they could. One person said she felt “ripped off” by what I had done, as if I were trying to shut him up rather than help heal him.

I heard this and other comments, thoughts and feelings; but I could only sit sobbing on the floor, and feel totally alone and isolated. Those around me seemed oblivious to the pain I was feeling, and their failure to even acknowledge what had happened to me further intensified the pain.

As I noticed this happening, I started to realize at a body level what had been hurting Jack. The pain of the memories is deep and real, but the pain of being ignored and unacknowledged is utterly excruciating.

It took me several days to really rid myself of the pain I took from Jack; and while I was carrying it, I looked carefully at what had happened. On one level, there was a physical transfer of energy, from Jack to me. I was unprepared for this and failed to ground myself, so I took his pain into my body just as if I had been hit by lightning. Although there may be something perversely noble about taking his pain, I am not a trained healer, and I do not know how to handle this type of energy transfer into my body; so I realize that this was not something I should make into a habit because I could get really injured.

On another level, I was both trying to rescue Jack and to shut him up. I had failed to empower Jack with the responsibility for his own feelings. I was uncomfortable simply letting him feel his pain, and I needed to “do something” to fix the problem. This was clearly (well, at least it’s clear now) a selfish, reactive act on my part. My old patterns are still strong, and I need to really work on the proactive “right action” of doing nothing, rather than trying to fix that which is not mine to mend.

At perhaps a higher level, this was a wonderful opportunity for me, and perhaps for Jack as well, to reaffirm the reality that there are no accidents. Meeting Jack when and where I did was a wonderful, powerful lesson for me. It wasn’t easy, and it certainly wasn’t pleasant, but it helped me grow. And for that, I am truly thankful.

Written on 9/12/91

[1] quote from Warriors of the Heart brochure.

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