One of the very best pieces of advice for life came to me in the very specific experience of childbirth preparation.
I studied the Bradley Method in preparation for giving birth. Perhaps the most central and fundamental principle to the Bradley Method is this: rather than resisting the pain, lean into the pain. Resistance is what causes greater pain.
But leaning into the pain is counter-intuitive. When we feel something attacking our body, our natural reaction is to push it away, to try to make it stop. Because this is our natural reaction (even though it isn't the most helpful reaction), the Bradley Method puts a couple through drills to train the laboring mother in this skill. These drills involve the mother laying in a completely relaxed position and imagining the pain washing over her body, letting it happen to her, instead of resisting it, as her husband coaches her in relaxation exercises.
I found this approach remarkably helpful in labor, in dealing with the pain. But since that time, I have found it helpful in dealing with everything from a Charley horse in bed in the middle of the night to grief to anxiety. But I always initially forget that this is what I need to do. It slips my mind and the natural human reaction of resisting pain instead of leaning into it sets in. And I make it far worse. I make my anxiety stronger and more dominant, I make my physical pain more intense, I make my grief more looming.
If you've been reading my blog for any length of time, you know that I battle depression and anxiety and have since my teen years. You also know I came through a profoundly difficult struggle in my work as a pastor, a position I left only last December. You know I battled insomnia and struggled profoundly with stress. And you know that my father passed away a little over a year ago. These are three profound stresses on me, but I too often find myself pushing their pain away. I don't want to deal with them. But then the heavy blanket of anxiety settles over me, suffocating my joy and energy. The anxiety is a message. It is saying, "Listen! Pay attention!" But I resist it and resist it. I fight it. I give my fears far more power than they deserve. I say to them, "I can't listen to you! You are too scary! You will destroy me if I listen!" I dig myself so deep in a dark hole that it becomes far harder to climb out.
In the past couple of weeks, the anxieties resurfaced again. At first, I didn't know why they were coming back. Was I just unbalanced chemically? While it is true that I have a serotonin problem, I am beginning to think that I don't give enough justice to the heavy stresses I have faced in the last few years. I stuffed many of my painful emotions during that time, and perhaps during my life in general. I was too distracted by too many immediate needs of so many people, too distracted by crises, too distracted by simply surviving to deal with the deep pain and sorrow in my heart. And when I came to Montana, I was too distracted by the good things: the beauty, the new friends, the hopeful things, settling in to a new home. But now, as I am starting to feel at home in Montana, I am less distracted. More of my attention is freed up to face some of the pain and losses from the past few years. And it's hard. Because I would prefer to be distracted.
One strategy that I have learned to use in dealing with anxiety is to speak out loud my greatest fear, in very bald terms. It is pretty much always an exaggeration of something that would really happen. But what I have learned to do is to speak these worse case scenario fears over and over again, exposing myself to the fear until it becomes boring. While repeating the fear to myself, I keep track of my anxiety level. It may start very high at a 80 or 90 and end up at a 40 or 30 or 10.
I had a hard time with this exposure idea to begin with. I was brought up to believe that you don't speak negative things or you may be bringing a curse on yourself. It is the belief that words are powerful. I certainly don't disagree that words are powerful but I am coming to realize that Jesus is more powerful and what I am doing when I speak my worst fears out loud, without qualifying them or saying things to make them less scary, is leaning into the pain so that it might be healed. I think about it this way: I am going into a dark room with Jesus. I am showing that my God is big enough to handle my worst fears, my worst anxieties. He isn't intimidated by that stuff. It is so counter-intuitive to much of what we are taught in Christian churches, but anxiety is a different animal altogether. If it is resisted, it only gets stronger.
Leaning into the pain also applies to relationships. I heard a wonderful interview with actor/musician Jeff Bridges on CNN's Piers Morgan last night. Jeff married his wife, Sue, in 1977. Unusually, for Hollywood, they have stayed together all this time. He said that they have had hard times and disagreements over the years, and he said that what they have learned is to lean into those hard times, to view those times as opportunities for greater intimacy with each other. What wisdom! Of course, this does not work if a relationship is abusive, but for those of us with regular marriages, marriages that face challenges and ups and downs, this is excellent advice. Will we let the stresses, pain, differences of opinion and personality, and arguments push us further from our spouse, or will we see in them an opportunity (which, frankly, doesn't come in easy times) to draw closer to one another, to know one another better?
Again, in relationships (and of course, this can apply to friendships, as well), leaning into the pain is counter-intuitive. We want to draw back, to be self-protective, to focus on justifying ourselves. Or we may find that relationship is too painful, intimacy is too painful, and so we just withdraw. Perhaps we don't formally leave the friendship or marriage, but we go through the motions, we do the bare minimum. We shut off our hearts to the other person. What good can possibly come from feeling the pain?
But just as in childbirth, closing ourselves off to relational pain can sometimes lead to greater pain. In the resistance to the pain, we make ourselves more miserable than if we had simply walked through the dark relational valley. Our hearts become muted and dark and empty. We feel alone. There is no real intimacy in our lives.
We hunger for intimacy, for depth, for wholeness, for a life of purpose. But the only way to grow toward these things is to lean into the pain, when it comes. This doesn't mean seeking out pain but it means being willing to open our hearts to it when it comes. It means being willing to feel and grieve our losses, to allow God to soften our hearts, to open our hearts toward others.
I am learning this. But as I said, it is counter-intuitive. I don't want pain anymore than you do. But oh the relief when I allow it in, instead of fighting it. It still hurts, but honestly, it doesn't hurt as bad. It doesn't hurt in such an empty way. Rather, I empty the pain out of my heart through the vulnerability of tears, honesty, facing my fears. And so I walk this journey that is so central to being human. One day we will no longer need to feel pain. But until then, we are never alone. Even in the moments when we feel most alone.