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Though this post is written mostly from my perspective and my experience, it’s based on a dynamic that my girlfriend and I are consciously working with in our relationship. Much of the awareness I have gained in the last two years has been sparked by our interactions and deep discussions about our relationship and our own inner work. To make things more interesting, I’ve asked her to add her feminine voice/perspective here and there. In this process of discussing, editing and polishing this post together, we basically wound up co-writing it. In that sense it is very much a joint effort, and Beth has offered many insights and observations regarding her sense of these dynamics that have helped me deepen my understanding of myself (as you’ll see below). And for that, I have a tremendous amount of love and gratitude for this absolutely amazing woman.


An exercise in feeling and awareness

Feeling pain can be a scary thing. I’m not talking about the secondary sensation that’s left after being able to overcome (or cover over) pain; I’m talking about the underlying, raw and authentic energy of pain that’s there before there is a reaction to it. Anyone can block out pain. I’m actually something of an expert at putting up walls to feelings that I’m not comfortable with or that somehow feel too painful in one way or another. This capacity serves a purpose in the physical realm, but what I’m mostly concerned with here is the pain I feel in the inner, emotional realm. I’ve been blocking out this kind of pain for most of my life, but it’s only in the last few years that I’ve realized and begun to notice it on a regular basis. The more I’m able to witness it, the more areas in my life I see it happening. Whether it’s something small like an insult from someone else driving in traffic, or something big like the pain I feel because of an intense disagreement with my significant other (no matter how sweet she is, it does happen once in a while), I notice that my mind seeks to protect me from the energy or emotion that’s trying to surface and be embodied. The process goes something like this: Emotional pain, sadness, sensitivity or something else threatening, uncomfortable, or otherwise “unacceptable” arises. Almost before I can perceive this, internal walls come up that block off my connection to my heart and numb me out, masking the initial energy.  Simultaneously, my mind rushes in to swap the intense feeling for something else that’s seemingly easier to handle (most often, some amalgam of anger/blame/criticism directed at someone or even something else). Put another way, my mind switches one type of emotion for another to protect itself from possible emotional harm instead of completely engaging in the purity of the original emotion, simultaneously creating fear of that emotion and setting a mechanism of egoic control and protection into place. I have also observed, and Beth has acutely felt, that these secondary emotions are located and experienced predominantly in my head, not my heart.

Essentially, what is actually occurring (despite the stories my ego likes to convince me are “true”) is that I am cutting myself off from my own authentic experience and cutting myself off from my connection with others.  In other words, through resisting the original emotion, I am actually resisting life itself.  When I (consciously or unconsciously) resist these energies within me, I suffer. The result is often anger, shutting down, blame, etc., which also frequently leads to suffering in those closest to me, setting up a nasty downward spiral. I see so clearly now that when I do this I am pushing myself out of the truth of present moment and into a falsely constructed pseudo-reality that seems somehow easier or less scary for my ego to bear.  But it’s ironic that what seems like an escape from pain can often be a direct line to more suffering… for myself and those around me.

For as much awareness as I am cultivating around this phenomenon, getting to the bottom of it is no easy task.  I’ll use the example of disagreements that come up in relationship with Beth. We’ll be arguing back and forth for a while and in some instances, she will get upset and maybe even start to cry.* I hate to see this on many levels, but what is most interesting to me is that sometimes Beth’s pain will cause me to shut down. Her emotional upset makes no sense to my intellect, so my intellect will actually get mad about it. But I have also realized recently that there is another dimension at play:  I am actually getting mad because Beth is inhabiting an energy that I am afraid to touch…vulnerability.  At some point in my development, I learned that it was weak to show emotional vulnerability (or maybe any vulnerability) and unconsciously decided to put a wall up in front of it. This seems to be very common for men (or anyone with a masculine essence) and can sometimes actually be appropriate and useful, but much of the time it’s getting in the way. Through my relationship with Beth, I’m starting to see that this tendency is cutting me off from a vital part of my existence - my emotional capacity (or what Beth would label the “inner feminine” - I still have trouble with that term though - I guess I have more work to do ;), which governs my feeling function, my capacity to relate and connect, even my ability to find meaning and joy in life.  I know deep down that facing and embracing this disowned part of myself is actually helping me integrate to a higher level of consciousness, which will in turn help those around me (and so the world evolves).

*On this point, Beth offers the following insight from her own perspective:  The reason that I may cry while having an argument with David is almost never due to the substantive issues at hand or anything else that can be logically understood through the rational mind or intellect.  Rather, my crying arises from a bodily felt sense of disconnection in the relationship - losing energetic touch with each other’s heart and spirit.  This incredible ache runs through my body, in painful contrast to the deep and vibrant bond that I am accustomed to feeling with him, and my tears spring forth.  In these moments of conflict, there is little doubt that both of us are raising protective walls which are responsible for blocking our felt sense of connection - there is individual work for both of us on staying open and connected through difficult moments. And….I would offer that it is a gift of the feminine in relationship to feel when the heart connection is lost, to cry out in pain as a result, and to thereby offer her masculine counterpart an opportunity and a portal to re-open or open more deeply to the energetic heart and to our larger nature (the opposite of closing down our boundaries of self to the skin-encapsulated ego).  It has been my experience that this often happens for men through the compassion that is engendered when a woman cries - particularly if she cries with an open heart (which is no small feat, mind you).  If he can resist the fear that turns to anger and just hold her pain, they will melt together and the pain is instantly dissolved, as if by magic.  Both will be the richer for it. 

Adding to Beth’s observation, perhaps the craziest thing about recognizing this wall I put up to my vulnerability is recognizing the power that this wall actually has. I have watched myself recognize these patterns in the moment and have known that all Beth needed was a reassuring hug…it’s really often that simple…but even while I knew what I needed to do and why, there have been times when I couldn’t overcome this blockage and open my heart when I wanted/needed to. I was out of control. The emotional wall actually had power over me. While it would eventually loosen its grip (often all I need is a little time alone to reflect, which Beth is trying her best to understand and respect), it has nevertheless been very shocking to experience this kind of powerlessness. There is also some irony here, since my ego is probably afraid of vulnerability and emotional pain precisely because these feelings are so often associated with powerlessness and being out of control.  Could it be that allowing myself to open to and fully experience what a given moment has to offer actually (albeit paradoxically when the moment holds pain and vulnerability) offers me access to the deepest source of power there is?

Another amazing practice for me on this aspect of my journey is parenting. Since being with Beth, I have the great (and sometimes daunting) privilege of helping her son into who we hope will become a strong, loving, happy and socially responsible adult. What a practice!! I’m learning now what probably all of you parents out there already know - that parenting can be one of the most challenging (and potentially growth-producing) aspects of our lives. Through interacting with Benjamin, Beth and I are compelled to look deeply at ourselves. We recognize our own walls and our own sensitivities in a whole new light and context.  When emotional situations arise with Benjamin that trigger our own vulnerabilities and shadow qualities (around which we usually build walls), we have a choice.  We can react unconsciously or habitually, which will probably cause Benjamin to begin the arduous wall-building process himself.  Or, we can actually recognize our own trigger points and take this golden opportunity to show him a different way, thereby breaking through our own walls and healing old wounds that we may not have even known existed.  It’s a beautiful thing.

I’ve actually broken down before as I noticed this happening with Benjamin. In different circumstances when he’s been scared or frustrated, I’ve noticed that the surfacing emotion in him was something that I was afraid to face in myself and I began to feel a vague sense of panic. My first impulse was to react with my own frustration or logic to shut him down or talk him out of his experience, but I have found that if I can breathe through and open to the experience, something new starts to emerge. In all likelihood, I blocked out the emotion he’s experiencing when I was close to his age and it’s been lying dormant inside of me until that very point when it came into my awareness again through this interaction with him. (What a gift!) Because of the difficulty that I’d had in experiencing that feeling, my knee jerk reaction was to protect Benjamin from what I feared myself…until I realized that I was perpetuating the cycle. At that point I was able to hold space for him to experience what he was experiencing, which allowed my wall to come down, which in turn created space for me to experience the emotion and also a deeper connection with him. It was very moving. I literally re-lived that long-suppressed emotion again through a child. I felt free again!

Through all of this life unfolding, I’ve learned to feel feelings that were formerly foreign and strange to me, and I’ve become increasingly agile at recognizing when I’m about to retreat behind my walls before I do so - and sometimes I can keep it in check.  But even when I can’t, I’m still growing.  In a certain sense, these protective reactions that come up in me are not all bad.  In fact, they are much more like friends than enemies. These reactions are the indicators of something that is broken or blocked inside of me; something that is covering up the true experience happening underneath. These reactions are like signs pointing me at the real stuff from which I’m unconsciously hiding. That’s a good thing. Otherwise, I would never even know.  Inherent to all of this, I’ve recognized that when I protect my weaknesses, I cease to grow. I realize that I cannot prevent disturbances from entering my world, but I can decide how I respond to them…and I recognize that disturbances are actually my very good friends. Awareness is the first step.  If I consciously feel my feelings instead of unconsciously reacting to them, not only am I in a more empowered position from which to act, but I also become more deeply engaged in life itself. I used to think that this type of inquiry would make me “less of a man.” But… I am realizing that this type of awareness and integration actually makes me much more balanced, strong, and wise; which to me, makes me much more of an empowered man (even if it does hurt like *#@! at times). Btw, Beth agrees… with a tear of joy in her eye. ;)

**********************************

“We cannot be more sensitive to pleasure without being more sensitive to pain.”
~ Alan Watts

“Like the sun’s rays that cause the seed to stir within its husk, love’s radiant energy penetrates the facade of the false self, calling forth resources hidden deep within us. Its warmth wakes up the life inside us, making us want to uncurl, to give birth, to grow and reach for the light.  It calls on us to break out of our shell, the personality-husk surrounding the seed potential of all that we could be. The purpose of a seed husk is to protect the tender life within until the time and conditions are right for it to burst forth. Our personality structure serves a similar function. It provides a semblance of security, as a kind of compensation for the loss of our larger being. But when love’s warming rays start to wake us up, our ego-shell becomes a barrier restricting our expansion.  As the germ of life swells within us, we feel our imprisonment more acutely…..The brighter love’s radiance, the darker the shadows we encounter; the more we feel life stirring within us, the more we also feel our dead spots; the more conscious we become, the more clearly we see where we remain unconscious.  None of this need dishearten us.  For in facing our darkness, we bring to light forgotten parts of our being. In recognizing exactly where we have been unconscious, we become more conscious.  And in seeing and feeling the ways we’ve gone dead, we start to revive and kindle our desire to live more expansively.”
~ John Welwood

“The word “surrender” is often interpreted as giving up, as weakness, as admitting defeat. Although this is one way to use the word, we will use it in a different way. Surrendering means letting go of your resistance to the total openness of who you are. It means giving up the tension of the little vortex you believe yourself to be and realizing the deep power of the ocean you truly are. It means to open with no boundaries, emotional or physical, so you ease wide beyond any limiting sense of self you might have.”
~David Deida

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