This morning, I reached down to pick something up off the bathroom floor. As I stood up, I accidentally banged my head against the corner of the medicine cabinet door. The pain was sharp and intense. I screamed out in pain as I clutched my head with my hand and felt my eyes start to fill with tears.
Almost immediately, my mind started to lash out with stories about why this happened.
This apartment is too small. I don’t have enough space.
I was preoccupied and rushing.
I’m tired because I don’t sleep well here.
I need to find a better place to live.
I was looking for someone or something to blame.
In this case, the thing that caused my pain was an object. The door was just being what it is: a door. The door didn’t do anything to me. I cannot ascribe it any motivation for hurting me.
In the absence of something external to blame, I started to turn it onto myself.
I left the door open. I reached down to pick something off the floor without remembering it was open.
I stopped the stories in their tracks. I was not going to play the blame game today.
Taking a deep breath, I got back into my body. I looked in the mirror and saw my tears. My finger was applying pressure to the side of my head. I was in pain. And I did the only thing I could do in that moment:
I acknowledged it and allowed it.
This hurts. I’m in pain. And it’s ok.
The impact was hard enough to cause bleeding. It naturally triggered memories of the last time I hit my head hard enough to cause bleeding. I spent months recovering from a concussion and still experience lingering effects. I know this is something to monitor closely.
Last time, I collapsed to the floor in the middle of the night while asleep. At least this time I was awake.
I stayed present to the pain as I tended to the wound, checking the tissue to assess if I was bleeding hard enough to require a trip to the hospital.
Breathing. Aware. Feeling.
No panicking. No ice pack. No pain relievers. Nothing to numb the sensation. No escaping.
The only way to accurately assess the pain is to feel the pain.
Blame is an Instinctive Reaction to Pain
As the pain started to subside a bit, I reflected on how quickly I had jumped into stories of blame. It’s human nature.
The urge to lash out is instinctive. Reactionary. We get hurt and immediately seek to blame someone or something external. And if there’s nothing external that makes sense to blame, we turn the blame inward.
If you read the news, you know this story well. If you don’t, this is the news in a nutshell: here’s what happened, and here’s who we’re blaming for it.
Blaming is a protective mechanism in two ways.
(1) Pain Avoidance
We blame as a way to escape our pain. By focusing our attention on who or what is responsible, we avoid feeling our pain. It’s a detachment mechanism. Even when we’re blaming ourselves, and thus inflicting pain of self-aversion and judgment, we avoid the original pain.
It feels good to make some external force responsible. When we feel pain we feel diminished, powerless. Blaming something or someone else is a way we try to reclaim our power.
Blame Doesn’t Work to Serve These Ends
Blame actually works the opposite way we believe it does.
The idea that we gain power through blame is an illusion.
In fact, blaming only entrenches us in victim mode. When I make another person or a circumstance responsible for my pain, then I become a victim of that person or circumstance. And when we feel victimized, we look for perpetrators. This keeps us locked in a cycle of victimization.
And blaming does not make the pain go away. In fact, it makes it worse. Because when I tell and retell the story of the event or person who caused my pain, I relive the experience of it, and further entrench myself in the pain.
What if there’s nothing or nobody to blame?
Here’s a thought: what if there’s nobody or nothing to blame?
Again I’m reminded of a question that Tony Robbins asks,
What if it’s not happening to you, but happening for you?
And again I wonder:
What if it’s not happening to me or for me? What it it’s just happening?
In these moments I tend to look for the lesson. Today I wondered,
What if there’s not even a lesson to learn right now?
There are certainly lessons. I could think of some that I learned last time that I’ve been reminding myself about lately. I’ve been getting signs of the need to slow down, to rest more.
But what if, in this moment, there is not even the task of distilling a lesson?
What if the only thing to do is to be with it, to notice what happened and the circumstances around it, and awaken to what might emerge from this?
There may be lessons to learn, but we can learn the lessons only once we’ve felt the pain. Pain is the signal to pay attention. It’s information. It tells us what needs our attention.
We are in such a rush to heal — to correct the wrongs, to cure the disease, enact legislation. But we often get the healing actions wrong because we haven’t felt the pain.
It feels so passive. I feel the pressure that I should be doing something.
This is, again, our cultural conditioning. We live in an era of doing.
Our Typical Pain-Response Sequence
Here’s how we are conditioned to react to pain:
Something happens. We feel pain. Our desire to do something, avoid pain, and empower ourselves leads us into a cycle of blame, judgment, and victimization. The pain doesn’t go away. And we continue to feel disempowered, unless we turn around and cause others pain. Cue the cycle of abuse.
As the saying goes: Hurt people hurt people. The abused become abusers.
Our instinctive habit of reacting with blame becomes a big power struggle and pain avoidance technique.
And because we are avoiding pain, we don’t create space for the wisdom that may emerge through the pain.
An Alternate Sequence
We don’t have to continue a strategy that doesn’t work. Here’s an alternate sequence:
Feel the pain. Be with the pain. Investigate the pain. Then seek to understand. Allow the wisdom to emerge in its own timing.
Ending the Cycle of Blame and Victimization
No question that this is easier to do when our pain doesn’t involve other people. When the “perpetrator” is a person who abused you or walked into your school or house of worship with a gun, intent on killing, it’s harder to resist the instinct to blame.
In some ways it’s easier to escape through blame. It’s much harder to hold your hand to the wound, to feel the blood ooze out, to feel the scab under your hair, to look in the mirror and see the tears, to feel the throbbing in your head. It takes immense courage and patience and compassion to sit with the pain of your experience without laying blame.
The cycle of blame and victimization, of hurt and abuse, will continue until we choose to break it.
So this is our practice.
When we see ourselves instinctively reacting with blame, we must stop the stories. Take a look in the mirror. See your tears. Acknowledge your pain.
You are hurting. You feel pain. And it is ok.
There will be a time for lessons and a time for action.
But first, you must feel.