Searching for hidden messages and significance in life’s encounters provides us with an illusion of control that we need to release if we want to fully feel our experiences.
The mind has a tendency to search for a meaning, an underlying message, in every murky or complex experience. It can feel like we’ve only processed and come to closure with a traumatic experience when we’ve come away with a simple interpretation for the traumatic event, a “moral to the story.”
In practice, we want to be able to report to those around us that we understand what a period of depression or confusion “was all about” and have come away “a new understanding.” After a painful and dramatic conclusion to a relationship, we might report “it was for the best, we were heading in different directions.” When someone dies, many feel the obligation to console their loved ones with “well, he lived a full life, got to a very old age, he traveled and got to see the world, etc.” We see this default wiring at work when we stand before an abstract painting, a challenging film or theater piece: What is it trying to say? What’s the message I should take away?
This search for signification and essence boils down to a preference towards filing away life’s rich experiences in terms of thoughts and messages, rather than pre-verbal feeling states, the physical, somatic sensations that arise and pass—for example the changes in breath and feeling tones in the body that occur with being overwhelmed or frustrated. Rather than getting lost in the stories of our setbacks, we can note how tightness in the jaw or shoulders expresses disappointments, or the mind’s jumpiness and agitation articulates fundamental states of confusion.
Feeling the body’s responses to difficulty is what is demanded in order to grasp life’s most troublesome events.
Over reliance and identification with the “figuring it out” impulse leads to a repression of the physical manifestations of our reactions to life, and a delusional belief that every situation or encounter has a simple, hidden message that needs to be uncovered. We’re drawn towards these conclusions and interpretations for the illusion of control and power they represent: If we understand what a painful rejection means, we’ll never have to go through it again. For example “I’ll never ask another redhead out on a date” or “Next time I’ll only invest my money in Apple.” Of course, these beliefs can only promise protection from pain; in real life they fall short, as we’re always subject to rejection, loss, pain and discomfort.
At this point we might reasonably object, well, sometimes there is an underlying warning or directive to be taken away from life’s challenges. Perhaps we find ourselves jumping too quickly into a romantic relationship, isolating ourselves from friends and losing interest in our spiritual practice, only to find the infatuation dwindle and the romance end. Isn’t it reasonable to conclude that, for the next liaison we’ll take it slower while maintaining a balanced life? Of course. But such edicts shouldn’t stand in place of feeling the loss and disappointment in its entirety; noting, feeling and allowing the hollowness in the chest or trembling lips to unfold fully.
Without truly contacting and witnessing the full articulation of loss, all our best intentions, our “go slow next time” mandates, have no weight to imprint them fully into our deeper memory stores. How many times in life do we find ourselves acting out in spite of our best wisdom and intentions? We do so because ideas don’t ingrain themselves as deeply as felt experience.
With careful practice and attuned awareness, one notes that the body registers every single encounter we have in life; beneath each event there’s a defensive resistance, a sense of attraction, or an overall disengagement; the states of like, dislike or disinterest that The Buddha referred to as Vedana. And while its impossible to notice all of these reactive sensations, we can, with practice, notice the clearest markers. And once we truly feel life deeply, its then we can start learning from it.