During my early twenties, I did lots of yoga. About five hours a day to be exact, not including teaching it, for years. I also meditated regularly, practiced Tai Chi, and spent good long hours in nature. These mind-body pursuits and experiences significantly changed my life. I peeled off many of layers of armouring, and some just fell away. But after years of this intense routine, at about the age of 23, I realised how much emotional pain I still had, how angry I still felt, and how unfulfilled I was.
So I became passionate about the issue of pain, emotional pain specifically. I wanted to know what to do with it and how to heal it. The couple of times I had been in psychotherapy up to this point hadn’t been helpful enough.
At the age of 25, after a traumatic accident to my knee (which I healed by natural means, despite being told by two top orthopaedic surgeons that I absolutely needed surgery), I entered psychotherapy again. This time, however, I had a set of tools that I didn’t have in therapy previously: a deep sensitivity to my body and the ability to sit with difficult thoughts and feelings. My yoga and meditation practices undoubtedly helped me this way, and for this, were invaluable in their contribution to what was to become a more profound transformation.
While the mind-body practices and the truth-revealing entheogens undoubtedly helped me ‘hold’ and be more patient with my difficult feelings and thoughts, they couldn’t lead me where I now needed to go. Nor did they offer any clue about the depths I was about to plunge into.
Soon, I intuitively knew that I had to give up yoga, at least for a time. So I did, and it came naturally. The reason for this was that constantly stretching and opening my physical body masked my emotional pain. Yes, it helped expose and expel some of it as well, but at a certain point, the yoga was preventing me from more fully embracing my pain. This embrace, I later discovered, is what allows emotional pain to dissolve.
My ‘spiritual practices’ had become a crutch, if not an addiction, distracting me from the sensitivity and contact I needed with my ‘story,’ with the emotion seemingly locked in my tissues that I was trying to stretch open.
Stretching my body open all the time took the pain away too quickly, that blessed pain I needed to release the deeper emotional pain stored inside me. Yoga and mindful meditation had served as stepping stones down into this deeper frontier, and it was time to let them go.
My return to the therapy room marked what was to be a 3-year descent into my pain body. I would sit quietly on the couch in my therapist’s office, connect with my body, and begin to speak the story of my love-wounding, as if it came from my flesh and bones. My wounds also became apparent to me from the triggers in my daily life and added insight to this intense transformational journey.
At first, my inquiry seemed to be a bit disconnected and had unrelated parts, as if I were laying cards out on the table just to acknowledge them. But after a few months, the patterns began to show.
I began to get a sense of my core narrative, my core love wounds. This narrative was a story, but not the kind of story that sabotages and keeps me stuck. It was the buried story I began to read, as if written on the wall of my soul.
What transpired for those three years was grief-work. I cried more during this time than I had in my entire life previously, like ten-fold.
During this time, I ‘died’ to everything I had known about myself. It was horrendously painful, but even in the worst moments, there was always a subtle ‘yes’ about it all, that despite the hurt and the struggle and the misery I was (re)experiencing, the answer was always “Yes . . . keep going, this is good.” And I did keep going . . . until one day I walked into the therapy room, sat down as I had every other week for years, closed my eyes, scanned my body, and then, to my surprise, opened my eyes again, and said, “I think I’m done.” My therapist agreed.
This three-year stint of once-a-week therapy, and sometimes two or three times a week, was foundational healing. I explored the emotions underneath my triggers. I sunk into and was delivered beneath my anger and resentments, to the very love I didn’t get as a child from both Mum and Dad. I cried, wrote, and raged out this pain, until I was done.
This was my new yoga, and my new guru was my heart’s pain.
Those years were to become the cornerstone of my life, the beginning of true happiness, fulfilment, and love. Something else also happened when I released this backlog of pain: my creativity blossomed, and never stopped. As but one example, I have penned some 4,000 poems since that dam of pain broke open, some twenty-three years ago.
Question Your Guru
All my life I have questioned and challenged my teachers. In my twenties, I would regularly attend conferences and workshops of all kinds of spiritual teachers. I also read as many self-help books as I could get my hands on. I was looking for what would help me deal with my emotional pain. So, I would ask these gurus: “What do you do with emotional pain?”
I never once received an answer that satisfied me. Invariably, none of these ‘spiritual’ teachers spoke about what to do with pain, at least not in a way that sounded true enough to me. This prompted me to keep seeking.
So, when I found myself in the therapy room again through a set of synchronistic events, I was again asking what to do about my pain.
Except I didn’t directly ask my therapist; I asked myself. My therapist simply helped me hold space for the inquiry and safety to contact the frightening feelings I felt buried inside.
My body-mind, now at rest and not always stretching out its pain, told and revealed all I needed. In fact, it showed me directly by providing the images, sensations, feelings, memories, and release of raw backlogged emotion that I needed to answer my own question, the same question that I had posed to gurus and spiritual teachers for so many years. I’m thankful I now know a lot more about what to do with emotional pain, and I discuss this radical form of self-healing in an audio series called The Nourish Practice.
Of course, all this is the short story of what happened. Suffice to say that I never turned back; I never turned away from my body’s deep wisdom again. My seeking for how to heal the nagging dissatisfaction, anger, and generalised pain I felt came to an end.
Since all this went down in therapy some 20 years ago, I have suffered other heartbreaks, more grieving, more challenges. And all these have tapped aspects of my core love wounds and helped me draw out and integrate more healing.
I believe we all have some degree of core emotional work we need to do in order to free our lives, to rebirth ourselves from our painful pasts. For the past can’t be forgotten and lain aside; it is buried inside us and colours all we feel, think, and do until we address it. Depending on the level of overt trauma, clandestine neglect, and the generational deficiencies in our families, the amount of pain we harbour varies from person-to-person. So does the unique way we move through it into wholeness.
If we don’t clear out the garbage inside us through grief-work, we tend to lump more junk onto our essential selves and inappropriately dump our stuff onto others.
The deep journey into our hearts is initiatory. It is self-love at its finest and most profound. It is to rescue light from the dark. It is to become the change we want to see in the world. Healing our childhood wounds is what allows us to gracefully grow out of being childish. It is core initiation into becoming an adult.
Healing our core love wounds liberates what I call our ‘final jewels of being human.’ These are our sense of meaning and purpose, our creativity, our ability to give and to receive love, our passion and compassion, empathy, courage, vitality, and overall vitality for life. These qualities often remain stuck in the mire of unexpressed and unreckoned emotional pain. If we want a technicolour life, usually we have to go into our pain to liberate the best of us, our finer jewels.
Grief-work, in the context of releasing our backlogged pain, is a form of shadow work. It is to revisit the love we lost out on as children. We allow ourselves to feel the sadness and anger, the rage and frustration, helplessness and despair, for how we were overtly treated and for the embodied care we missed out on.
We hold loving space for ourselves to let all this toxic sludge release from us. We nurture ourselves unconditionally in this self-care along with the support of trusted others (therapist, friends, family) so that we can reclaim the rest of the love we are capable of, that which is bound up deep inside us.
This is the most grounding, rewarding, real, and practical spiritual path I have ever encountered.
It might seem like a lot to go through, and it is. Looking back, however, it saved my life. The difficulty of it all is commensurate with the passion and vitality I gained. I would not change a thing, and do it all over again. And this reminds me of a conversation I recently had with a friend. She said: “Life is too short to work through all that pain, abuse, and neglect.” I responded: “Life is too short not to, because lugging around so much grief and pain shrouds and diminishes our lives in every way.”
Stretching the Heart
After passing through this foundational emotional work, my body has stayed remarkably limber, despite my never returning to a steady or deep physical yoga practice again. It seems my tight muscles was in part due to stuck emotions. Just as the physical yoga helped me release some emotional baggage in my early twenties, the emotional work has helped me stay physically fit.
So powerful was this transformational emotional work that I view my life in two parts: prior to that three-year stint in therapy and after it. My life since has been an embellishing and outpouring of giving from all that deep cathartic work, all sprung from one burning question about pain. I am forever grateful to myself for doing it and for those who helped me through it. It was a three year-investment to reclaim the rest of my life, and was itself a beautiful process to undergo, however challenging.
If this sounds like inner work you want to do, I recommend meeting with a psychotherapist and checking out my comprehensive educational guide on the subject. You don’t have to stop your yoga or meditation practice as I did. I just wanted to share that there’s a lot more to healing and that yoga and mainstream spirituality can get in the way of it, unless we’re listening carefully.