When you’re neck-deep and soul-soaked in anxiety, when you’re having trouble eating, sleeping, and basically functioning, when the love you formerly felt for your partner has been eclipsed by indifference, doubt, or numbness, when intrusive thoughts invade your brain day and night, you will inevitably ask, “When will I feel better?” This question hits at the onset of anxiety when the symptoms are full-tilt misery, it hits when the excruciating first set of symptoms starts to abate, and it hits when people find my work and sign up for my courses. “When will I feel better?” they ask, with desperation in their voices.
My response: It takes time. As we live in a culture that conditions us to expect immediate results and relief this is soften a difficult concept to accept. Hungry? Order fast-food. Lonely? Send a text. Need a sexual release? Watch porn. Have a headache? Pop a pill. Our fast-food, quick-fix, instant gratification culture is eroding our capacity for accessing one of the most important resources we need as humans: patience. In our warped sense of time, we expect relief now. We’ve lost our appreciation for slow-cooked experiences, from literal food to the emotional realm of soul. We no longer write letters and wait with anticipation for a response. We no longer pull up a chair for loneliness. We’ve nearly lost our capacity to be in any regard, from sitting by a fire with no sound other than the crackling of the flames to lying in the grass and staring out the sky without a phone by our side.
But there is no way to rush healing. The soul, like animals, continues to move at its own pace, according to its own rhythm; its clock cannot be altered by technology. This is a source of frustration to our modern minds that have forgotten how to wait, but if you can shift your focus a few degrees and slip into a new context, one that understands slow living and slow healing, you will find some exhale.
Ironically, we now, as a culture, need patience while we develop the art and skill of patience! We need patience as we learn to find more compassion for ourselves, as we un-learn the defenses and mental habits that we erected a long time ago in order to try to stay safe and avoid risk and now rewire those micro-moments so that we respond to ourselves with kindness instead of cruelty.
As the Archbishop Desmond Tutu shares in The Book of Joy:
“I think it takes time to learn to be laid-back. You know, it’s not something that just comes ready-made for you. No one ought to feel annoyed with themselves. It just adds to the frustration. I mean, we are human beings, fallible human beings. And as the Dalai Lama points out, there was a time… I mean, we see him serene and calm. Yet there were times when he, too, felt annoyed and perhaps there still are. It’s like muscles that have to be exercised to be strong. Sometimes we get too angry with ourselves thinking we ought to be perfect from the word go. But this being on earth is a time for us to learn to be good, to learn to be more loving, to learn to be more compassionate. And you learn not theoretically.” The Archbishop was pointing his index finger at his head. “You learn when something happens to test you.” p. 92
We are so hard on ourselves, and this built-in perfectionist is compounded by the implicit message in the culture is that we should have it all figured out right now. If you start meditating, you expect relief within a matter of days or weeks. When you start excavation your inner world, you expect this exploration to yield immediate results. When you enter into a relationship or get married, you expect to feel all of the feelings of love at the onset. We’ve lost the longview and have adopted the belief that it should all happen right now. The Dalai Lama has been meditating nearly his entire eighty years of life for hours every day and he still loses his patience and gets irritated at times.
Parallel to the need to cultivate patience is the recognition that, when it comes to healing, there is no finish line. From what I’ve seen through working with clients and delving into my own inner world, we each carry a handful of challenging spots that, at each transition or breaking point, can find an element of healing. For example, if you struggle with the need to control outcomes or caring what others think, these core issues will illuminate in stark relief at key thresholds in your life – like getting married or becoming a parent – offering you an opportunity to shine a light of consciousness on them more powerfully than during other times, which will lessen the power they wield in your life. But that doesn’t mean they will magically disappear. We heal in layers and spirals, peeling away like an onion so that we arrive closer to living from our core, so that at each layer of healing we find more spaciousness and well-being. The core issues still live inside of us, but hold less court each time we heal a layer.
When we truly cultivate the mindset of patience and understand that we heal in layers and spirals, we step into the river wherever we’re at. In other words, we stop resisting the process of life, stop expecting it to be different, stop waiting to “feel better” and instead find sustenance and meaning in the process itself. There is no there; there is only here. And here, in this moment, the entire universe is revealed. Here, in this moment, is the opportunity to learn and grow and feel your pain and, in doing so, open up the pathways to joy and grow your capacity to give and relieve love. It’s not out there. It’s not in another house or city or job or partner. It’s not when you finally get pregnant or when your baby arrives. The work of learning about love is here. The path of finding joy is now.
We are all participants in this grand experiment of what it means to be human. Our classroom is planet Earth. Our teachers are fear, doubt, pain, and change. We can rebel against our teachers, falling prey to the belief that when life gets hard we’re being singled out or punished in some way, or we can accept that we’re all in this together. We are all challenged in different ways, at different times. No two paths look the same, but they all share the common theme that there is no way to be a human on this planet without experiencing pain in some form. Pain is not the tormentor. Pain is the teacher. Fear is the friend in disguise. Anxiety is the messenger. When you shift your perspective, everything changes, and what was previously intolerable because you were trying to get over it and control the pain as fast as possible, now unfolds into a journey of discovery.