It is wired into us to turn away from the negative. To try to avoid anything painful, uncomfortable or anything we label as "bad."
But is working to make our lives as pain-free as possible a useful aspiration?
Most of my life, I struggled with anxiety. When I was little, I thought it was how every human felt. When I grew up and it got worse, I just wanted it to go away. Every thought, every feeling associated with it, I just wanted to forget it and never remember it again like a useless memory that slips from the mind unnoticed.
But that never happened. Because trying to forget is basically the very act of remembering.
Then I realized that life was very much like a Chinese finger trap--the more you want to leave something behind, the more stuck you get to it. What you resist persists. What you fight, you strengthen. That kind of thing.
Many people choose not to keep up with current events, because the state of the world we live in can be devastating sometimes. Many choose not to educate themselves about how their food is made or what the plastic bottles they throw in the trash does to the world. Or about what a single offensive word can cause another human being to feel and why. Because why plague our minds with such negative things, right?
I was once in a very low place myself, when I couldn't handle the tragedies of the world, so I chose to surround myself with positivity. I needed uplifting, because I was trying to crawl out of a hole I had sunk into too deeply. And before I could turn toward the pain of the whole world, I had to gather the courage to slowly turn toward my own.
Only after facing our own tragedy can we turn toward the tragedy of others.
Life is not homogeneous. It is made up of joy and sorrow. Of happiness and pain. Of positive and negative. If we are only seeing one side, our lives are incomplete.
It is so easy to get stuck in pain, which is the very reason we chase happiness. But neither is complete without the other. Wanting to be happy all the time means wanting to live in a lie.
There are so many horrors in this world. Just as many horrors as there are wonders. When someone is hurt, there will be people rushing to their aid. When someone's rights are threatened, crowds will come together in protest. A tree falls in a storm at one side of the Earth, and a flower grows from the concrete on the other. A lion is shot by hunters, and another is rescued by environmental activists. As Thich Nhat Hanh said, "It would be a pity if we were only aware of suffering."
I think it's important to add that it's also a pity to only chase happiness and turn away from pain. Because only by allowing ourselves to live through pain can we experience the other side of the coin--happiness.
When we have an aversion to discomfort, pain, embarrassment, suffering or anything "negative," a fear lingers in the backdrop of our lives like a constant demon behind our backs we are too scared to turn around and face. And with a demon behind one's back, who could be carefree, at peace and happy?
Once I started to practice leaning into my fears, welcoming them, instead of wanting to outrun them, my anxiety was not in control of me anymore. Because I was not afraid of it. I didn't want to leave it behind anymore. I have accepted it as a part of myself. A part that I cannot leave behind, but that can never keep me from going forward anyway. Hand in hand, my demon and I walk.
If you think about the people who are at peace with life, they are not happy because they have turned away from the darkness in the world and in themselves--they are at peace because of the exact opposite; because they turned toward it.
There is razor-thin mountain ridge between joy and sorrow. From this ridge, we can see life as it is. And from here, there is nothing left to turn away from.
A guided meditation on the topic can be listened to here.
"Lean into the sharp points and fully experience them. The essence of bravery is being without self-deception. Wisdom is inherent in understanding emotions." - Pema Chodron