“Anxiety, heartbreak, and tenderness mark the in-between state. It’s the kind of place we usually want to avoid… Becoming intimate with the queasy feeling of being in the middle of nowhere only makes our hearts more tender…By not knowing, not only hoping to know, and not acting like we know what’s happening, we begin to access our inner strength.”

–Pema Chodron

I’ve had to learn the hard way that the purpose of life isn’t to feel good all the time.

It’s easy to adopt a goal of learning how to be happy, confident, and centered all the time. Ad campaigns for everything from self-improvement programs to blue jeans promise us that this is the thing that will finally make us feel good for good. Whether consciously or not, marketers know that as human beings we’re wired to pursue pleasure and avoid pain.

Recently I was reminded of why this is not such a helpful way to approach the world.

The Pitfalls of Pleasure and the Perks of Pain

About a week ago I found myself lying awake in bed in the middle of the night wondering where I had gone wrong.

I was feeling sad, anxious, and overwhelmed, and all my best efforts to relax and take it easy hadn’t helped me feel any better.

The faster my mind spun trying to find solutions that would fix my problems and lead me back to the promised land of happiness, the worse I felt. It was like I was hugging a tar baby and the more I struggled to escape, the more ensnared I became.

This made me think of an article I had recently read by Pema Chodron called “The In-Between State”. In it, she says that when we’re no longer able to get comfort from the outside but haven’t yet found our way to lasting internal equanimity, we’re in an in-between state marked by anxiety, volatility, and vulnerability.

The challenge, she asserts, is to stop running from it and start staying with it. This is how we connect to compassion. It’s how we access our inner strength. It’s how “the warrior learns to love.”

Relaxing into Groundlessness

In her beautifully wise book When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron speaks to this in more detail, managing to both pull the rug out from under you and help you feel okay about the fact that you’re now falling through the floor into an endless abyss.

“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us,” she says.

Life will offer us plenty of opportunities to “come to the place where we think we can’t handle whatever is happening.” The key, she says, is to stick with the uncertainty, get the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, and learn not to panic.

She offers a few ways of doing this:

 1. Accept that you don’t know.

“Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all. We try to do what we think is going to help. But we don’t know. We never know if we’re going to fall flat or sit up tall.”

2.Don’t fall into automatic habits.

“When we stop there and don’t act out, don’t repress, don’t blame it on anyone else, and also don’t blame it on ourselves, then we meet with an open-ended question that has no conceptual answer. We also encounter our heart.”

3. Use it as a chance to examine what’s really going on.

“Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look. That’s the compassionate thing to do. That’s the brave thing to do. We could smell that piece of shit. We could feel it; what is its texture, color, and shape?”

Dancing With Shadows

Lying in bed, feeling my uncomfortable emotions of fear, overwhelm, and anxiety, it occurred to me that there’s nothing to be ashamed of. I don’t need to be a conqueror of maladies; I can be a shadow dancer.

It’s easy for me to tell a story in which my journey up to this point has been about developing tools and skills to help me overcome depression, anxiety, and stress. Look, I can say, I’ve learned so much and gotten so good that now I don’t have to feel bad ever again.

But that’s not what’s really going on. My journey up to this point has been much more about learning who I am and what’s true in the world. It’s been about examining my shadows in detail and learning how to dance with them.

It’s absolutely true that being a shadow dancer has helped me to feel far more joy, strength, compassion, connection, and freedom than I ever thought possible. But that’s not the point. It’s just part of the process.

What’s most important about dancing with shadows, I think, is that I’m increasingly able to experience the darkness without pushing it away. I can be okay in confusion and chaos, not just when things are going well or when I’m feeling good.

To be able to be okay no matter what requires staying with the fear, the terror, the confusion, the darkness, the despair. These are a part of the palette of life, of what we all deal with. The question is, can we be okay with them? Or do we strive to be good enough, right enough, or perfect enough to avoid them?

The purpose of the journey to find work you love is not so that you can be happy all the time. It’s so you can dance with your fear, uncertainty, and stuckness and still be okay. Then and only then are you free to follow what the world is calling for from you because there’s nothing to be afraid of, nothing to avoid, nothing you can’t handle.

The most important task we can set for ourselves is to be willing to be with everything, pain and pleasure. Because only when we’re able to do this do our lives become truly our own.

Over to You

What do you make of this? Is there a benefit to being with pain, or is there a point where it’s too much? I’m curious what you think—please share your take in the comments below.

Still feel like too much?

If you’d like help on your own journey, I offer individual and small group coaching. Find out more here.

Photo credit: Mark Freeth // CC (Mark assures us the bird was not harmed in any way in the taking of this photo.)