By Beatrice Chestnut
It’s a time of upheaval on multiple fronts. It’s as if the thin veneer of falseness that has been covering over the truth of the worst of us for some time now is being stripped away. It’s been called a post-truth world as our leaders routinely throw facts into question. But it’s as if everything that has been only barely still hidden is now being exposed. The virus and the violence have seen to that. The reality of greed, racism, corruption, sexism, hate, and insensitivity in our society that so many have wanted to deny is now not only out in the open—it’s killing us and tearing us apart.
So, what do we do now? What can those of us who aspire to higher consciousness do to get through this and create real change for a change? For those of us who genuinely want to be the change we need to see, how can our commitment to our inner work and to supporting our neighbor, especially our black friends and neighbors, be focused in a way that can finally make a difference and actually create a long-overdue shift in our society?
I believe there’s a simple answer that can at least start a process of healing: We can feel the pain.
What can you do? You can feel the sum total of your pain—about everything that’s going on in the world, and everything you have inside you that in any way resonates with all the pain, grief, and outrage that is erupting everywhere now. All these emotions make sense. The insanity has been the ongoing denial. And if you’re white, you can attempt—and it will only be an attempt—to enter in, as much as you can, to feeling the pain felt by black people in this country.
All of us who study personality as a path to greater awareness know that the human personality, or ego, is one big pain-avoidance mechanism. Especially the ego’s pain. But when we don’t face our lower-level egoic pain, we can’t access a higher level of pain—or joy. The lower feels like death. The higher feels like repentance. And you can’t access the higher heart without going through the door of becoming conscious of what your lower heart feels—and avoids feeling.
The teaching behind the Enneagram of personality tells us we get locked in deeply rooted patterns that are all about keeping us blind to our deepest pains and our most important hurts. You have to deal with your pain to move beyond the ego. And we have to feel our collective pain to create a shared experience of what’s real as a pathway to building a more just society.
But, we may first have to reckon with what keeps us asleep to suffering. To the extent we all get stuck identifying with our personality’s outlook and its way of defending against being conscious of what’s real, we usually can’t feel our pain. Our personality aids our survival until adulthood, but it also acts to keep us unconscious of our most pivotal wounds and the pain connected to them—as well as any emotion that makes us feel bad about our ego-self-image. It deadens us to the inner felt reality of the truth.
But now, the only way out is through the pain.
Usually we go around it without noticing. We get busy doing things or we anesthetize ourselves in one way or another—with substances or work or any of a wide variety of distractions and denials. We get addicted to our anesthetics. We avoid being aware of our own suffering or empathizing with others’.
But now, there’s no choice if we are to save ourselves. And if we are to become humans and not just human animals. In so many ways, we are destroying ourselves—both individually and collectively. If we don’t act, we won’t survive.
So, here’s the call to action: Start feeling your pain. All of it. For your own injuries and for those done to black people and so many others in our society. The only real change comes from inside.
In the past days as news of the killing of George Floyd fills the news and the atmosphere, and protests spread and grow around the country, we must not look away. We must face the facts and the truth of the worst of us, and we must feel how much seeing it and living through it hurts. With no anesthetic. When we avoid being aware of it, it continues to fester. Pretending it’s not there doesn’t make it go away. It just rots away our communities from the inside. It’s time to go straight into the wound.
The only way things will shift is if we all break out of our denial and go into the middle of the pain and stand there for a while. Everyone will have different capacities for this—and that’s okay. No one should judge themselves for not being able to get in touch with the pain they’ve spent a lifetime trying to outrun. It’s just human nature to avoid pain. But if you want to help us lift our collective consciousness level so that things can change, you need to keep bringing your awareness to what hurts.
The only way we will wake up and take action to do what’s right is if we feel enough pain. As C.S. Lewis said, pain is God’s megaphone to a deaf world. When we can feel the pain, we may finally find the motivation to change the grim, frightening, horrific realities of inequality, injustice, and ignorance.
Perhaps if we can register enough pain we might stop destroying the planet and tolerating the intolerable. Maybe if everyone truly feels their rage, and sorrow, and pain, without acting it out through more destruction, but through fully facing it and letting it be felt and talked about, the collective consciousness of it can transmute all that suffering into peace and love.
I feel the pain in the air now when I move around the world. I was tempted to look away myself. I caught myself switching the channel when that knee was on that neck again and again. And I stopped myself. I made myself look. I let myself cry. I’m still crying. I hope you will cry with me. There’s so much to cry about now.
Maybe if we let our suffering awaken us, we can turn away from hundreds of years of unconsciousness and toward the light. But only if we have the courage to truly face our darkness. Let’s let the suffering in so we can finally act to make it go away. Let’s be brave enough to let it in and let it carry us to a higher place—within ourselves and within our world.
If you can’t feel your pain—or the pain of others—don’t judge yourself. It’s not easy. But don’t stop trying. Keep up the pressure on yourself to wake up to your own suffering—with compassion. Understand your inner blocks—the specific shape of your ego defenses that invisibly interrupt the connection between you and your access to your heart. Don’t isolate yourself in this. Find support. Learn all you can about what protects you from experiencing the full force of your particular pain—this will allow you to create or clear out a channel in you to more deeply empathize with the people around you. The Enneagram can help you do this. We all instinctively shrink from the truth of our emotional depths in type-specific ways. Just keep going.
Keep lovingly observing and naming the obstacles within you to feeling your pain and removing them until you break open your heart. The fate of our people, our democracy, our communities, and our earth depends on it.
The only real change comes from inside.
What does it mean to feel the pain? What good can come of it? First, you will stop wasting so much energy pushing difficult emotional experiences out of your awareness—past, present, and future. You create the atmosphere for a shared experience with your fellow humans through sinking into the collective pain that we have never fully confronted and worked through. And this deeply emotional coming together can catalyze the revolution we need to change the culture.
Certainly, the deeper foundation of our collective pain of racism is the cruelty of slavery. And then, layered on top of that, there are the political policies and institutional and individual biases that reinforce white supremacy. And all of us who aren’t black numb ourselves in different ways to effectively deny the pain of slavery as well as all ongoing injustices ever since. And we also haven’t addressed the pain of the brutality perpetrated on black people during the fight for civil rights. Why did this have to be a fight? Why is this same fight still happening today?
As a psychotherapist, I know that the only way out of suffering is through it. Everyone has their own preferred unconscious strategy for escaping from pain. Americans have tended to do this more than people in other places. In Germany and South Africa they dealt with their cultural traumas differently. They did the hard emotional healing work. Perhaps it’s something about our culture of individualism or materialism, or capitalism, or consumerism—but we have not faced our pain. And now it’s exploding all around us. Finally. It’s stopped us in our tracks. Let’s be done with the anesthesia.
The only way out is through all the different forms of pain and suffering we have delayed and denied and depressed and medicated. That’s over now. If we don’t feel it willingly, we will simply be forced to. We can run, but we can’t hide anymore from the infection and the insurrection and the crucifixion. Time to experience our human pain to be elevated and redeemed. If we don’t consciously turn to face our underground territory—our shadow—it will take us over. It is taking us over.
It was never easier to find an access point into pain than it is now. Before last week happened, there were already all kinds of open wounds staring us down—the pain of loss, the fear of death, the devastation of economic calamity, anxiety about survival, and the growing shock connected to the rise of authoritarianism in the United States, as our leaders mock our system of justice and the president golfs and tweets while 100,000 people die. The virus still increases. The death toll has not abated. The people in power push policies that prove that rich people matter more than poor people and that white people take priority over everybody else.
Don’t sidestep it, don’t go numb, don’t distract yourself, don’t drink it away, don’t lapse into a Netflix coma, don’t make excuses, don’t say you’re too busy, don’t fall asleep again, and don’t think you are already doing it if you aren’t. Just feel the pain. All of it. Give it a lot of space. Ask for help. Bond with others who dare to feel it too. Don’t look away from the knee on the neck or the health care workers in hell or the lack of leadership or the economic ruin or the inequality all around us. Just feel the pain. Please. It won’t last forever. And it is our only way out.