A Pain-Release Practice for Difficult Times
Witnessing and moving through heavy emotions
These past few months have been heavy. For all of my subscribers who have loved ones in Gaza or Israel, roots in the Middle East, or who have been feeling the suffocating weight of constant fear, anxiety, and lack of safety, I write this letter with you at the top of my mind and heart.
In many ways, I am absolutely unqualified to comment on such a complex, long-standing conflict. I don’t want to issue a tidy little statement or quibble about details or tell you how you should feel about it all. I will only say this: I believe that all beings deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. I believe that we can (and must) recognize that the government of a nation is distinct from its people. If we are to see things clearly, we also must take into account the role that power imbalances, global politics, racism, and colonization are playing in the conflict.
In short, this moment is asking us to hold a lot of complexity.
The thing is, when you are afraid and in pain, complexity and nuance are very hard to hold. Fear loves certainty, it loves us vs. them, it assumes that “good” and “bad” are the only two categories. It also can steal our imaginations—it’s hard to believe that anything can ever change when we’re driven by pain and fear.
And so we find ourselves locked in cycles of violence. War, in my view, is a trauma perpetuation machine. It arises from trauma; while ongoing it deepens divides as hatred for the “other” builds and horrific situations are endured and safety is utterly erased; in its wake it leaves trauma that travels through the blood and the bones of all who have experienced it. When this trauma accumulates without being addressed or worked through, it ripples along from generation to generation.
This trauma results in an intense, deep pain. But, so often, we deny it’s even there; we harden our hearts because the burden of the world is too much. Some of us invalidate our pain, figuring it doesn’t count because the suffering of others is greater. Some of us turn our pain into bombs or bullets or hateful words and actions. Unacknowledged pain is an especially toxic type of fuel.
What is the alternative, then? Based on my own experience, I believe pain needs us to feel it, to open our hearts and let it in. (Not to say that we need to let it in all the time—that would make it pretty hard to function! But we do need to carve out space for it on a regular basis.)
Also, though pain is experienced internally, it craves being seen by others outside ourselves. And it needs to be witnessed in a very specific way. It doesn’t react well to condescension, or to unsatisfying platitudes, or to being treated as a problem to be solved. Pain needs to be expressed to someone who can hold you in love even if you feel you don’t deserve it, who can listen, really listen, and acknowledge that what you are feeling is real, without trying to make it better. To just be there as the intense emotions move through you.
I’m pretty convinced by now that this is the only way to heal it. To break the cycle.
Even if nothing I do individually is going to fix the complicated social and environmental problems we are facing in this moment, that cannot stop me from doing my part, from saying, I refuse to accept this. I refuse to look away or descend into despair. I believe that each of us has a role that only we can play, and that our actions—no matter how small they seem—reverberate outward.
And so I bring you a humble two-part offering today. The first is a meditative pain-release practice; the second is an opportunity to have your pain witnessed by another person (me!). If you would like to engage with these, great, but if they don’t resonate with you, that’s cool too.
1. A Pain-Release Practice
This practice doesn’t have to take very long—if five minutes is all you have, that’ll be just fine, though ideally you’ll have enough time that you don’t feel rushed.
First, settle into a comfortable position in a place where you will not be disturbed. Begin by taking three deep breaths. As you breathe, feel the weight of your body on the chair, or the ground, or wherever you are sitting. Notice how you feel: Antsy? Anchored? Achy? Angry? Try to treat whatever comes up with curiosity instead of judgment. If it’s a negative emotion, don’t immediately try to shut it down or dismiss it. You are allowed to feel however you are feeling.
Close your eyes or soften your gaze. Imagine yourself standing at the edge of a threshold. Don’t cross it just yet. This threshold exists in a place where you feel safe and comfortable. What does it look like to you? Is it a door in a secret garden, an archway of tree branches, a bright sandy beach? Wherever you find yourself, try to bring in sensory qualities if you can. What temperature is it? What does it smell like? Do you hear any sounds?
Let your body fill up with the sense of safety that you feel in this comfortable place. This safety surrounds you, envelops you, travels with you wherever you go. You are strong, loved, and protected. This feeling is something you can call on whenever you need it.
And you may need it soon, because your pain lies beyond the threshold. Gaze through the threshold now. What does your pain look like? Is it a human-like figure, an animal, a pulsing ball of light, a dark void? As you face it, how do you feel? Notice. Stay curious. Remember that you are protected.
It’s time now for you to greet the pain. Take one brave step toward the threshold, then another, until you are across. What does it feel like to be in the same space as your pain? Do any new sensations arise in your body? If your pain immediately floods you with images and emotions and regrets and fear, you can ask it to take a step back, to separate from you so that you can see it clearly. Let it know that you are here because you want to understand. Because you want to hear what it’s trying to communicate.
Listen. Stay curious. If emotion comes up, let it flow through and out of your physical body. Cry if you need. Scream into a pillow. Punch the air. Curl up into a ball. Shiver and shake. Whatever feels right. If you’re not sure what feels good, you can try asking your pain what it needs in order to find release, within certain firm boundaries: harming yourself or someone/something else is not an option. Your pain is intelligent and creative. Surely it can think of other possibilities.
If you treat your pain with respect, you may be surprised how it reacts. You may find an instantaneous feeling of lightness, a burden lifted. Then again, you may not notice any difference. Whatever happens, when you are ready, thank your pain for allowing you to witness it, and step back through the threshold. Once you’re on the other side, take a moment to soak in that feeling of comfort and safety, then return attention to your body. Feel its weight on the chair, or the ground, or wherever you are sitting. Notice how you feel. Has anything changed? Take three long, deep breaths. If your eyes were closed, open them and reorient to the room.
If you have time, spend a few minutes writing or doodling about the experience. What came up for you? What did your pain want you to know? Are there any actions you want to take as a result of what it showed you?
To close the practice, place your right hand on your left shoulder. Keep it there while you place your left hand on your right shoulder. Surprise—you’re giving yourself a hug! Now, lower your cheek to rest upon one of your hands. If it feels good, really snuggle in. Give yourself that hug you need. And if you have access to a beloved person or pet, go give them a hug or a snuggle too. This is hard but necessary work, and even if it feels like nothing happened, see if you notice any difference in how you feel in the coming days.
2. If Your Pain Needs a Witness
Though I’m tempted to give you the option to share about your experiences in the comments, I have decided to turn them off for this post. At a time of deep division, and when so many are hurting intensely, it is hard to truly listen without getting activated by other people’s pain. This can lead to needless debates where pain is compared and judged, where some forms “count” and others are deemed invalid. None of this helps the pain be metabolized and cleared.
Instead, I would like to extend an offering to you. For any of my subscribers, free or paid, who want/need to have your pain witnessed by another human being, I’m here to listen. Just hit reply if you receive this newsletter by email, or submit your response via this Google form. I will check for responses until January 10, 2024. (UPDATE 1/11/24: the form has now been closed.) No worries if what you share is raw, unpolished, grammatically incorrect, or stream-of-consciousness—the quality of the writing is not what is important; the feeling behind it is what counts.
I will read what you send me, reflect on it, and turn it into a short poem, as a way of acknowledging your unique perspective and showing that you have been heard. I believe that stories—no matter how mundane they may seem—are sacred and important. As such, this poem will belong to you; I will not publish or share it publicly (though you are welcome to share it with others if you’d like).
Please note, I am not a therapist, and this is no substitute for professional counseling. If you find yourself lost in constant, overwhelming despair, please seek out help or contact a crisis line.
I also want to acknowledge that it is very vulnerable to share your pain with others, and you may not feel comfortable sharing it with me. Totally fine and valid! If you do want to reach out to someone, I would encourage you to be intentional about who you share with. Find a person you trust and ask them if they’re willing to listen. Everyone’s going through a lot, and much of it may not be obvious on the outside, so it’s always good to get permission first.
Regardless of whether you share or not, I encourage you to come back to this pain-release practice regularly. Maybe make art about it! Turn it into songs or stories or photographs or dances or poems of your own. Every time anyone metabolizes their pain, the collective pressure valve lets off a little bit of steam. And that matters. It helps you make room for complexity and move through the world with greater compassion, which influences your interactions with everyone you encounter. So even if it feels slightly ridiculous or futile, know that it is important—practices like these might just be the thing that helps us survive during these difficult times.
Taking a Break
This will be my last newsletter for 2023. I’ll be pausing all paid subscriptions until I resume posting in January 2024. Until then, wishing you all fortitude, strength, and moments of peace during this holiday season ❤️
Since this is my last newsletter of the year, I’d be remiss if I didn’t slide in a quick note that my series of young adult thrillers makes a great holiday gift!
All paperbacks and the book bundle of the full series are on sale at the Rootcity Press store (shipping to US addresses only); you can also purchase them from your favorite online bookstore or request them from your local indie shop. Regardless of where you buy them, 10% of all proceeds from now until the end of 2023 will be donated to Jewish Voice for Peace, and an additional 10% will be donated to the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund.
Also, some audiobook news! If you have Spotify premium1, you now have access to 15 hours per month of FREE audiobook listening! If you’ve been waiting to check out When We Vanished as performed by talented voice actor Dana Wing Lau, now’s your chance 😉
As of this writing, only the primary account holder on a Family or Duo plan is eligible for free listening; otherwise audiobooks may be purchased a la carte. Hopefully this will be extended to all members on shared plans soon!