Everyone experiences emotional pain, but it’s the wise ones who know how to harness it and to put it to work to drive positive changes. We feel pain when we’re caught in particular conditions at discrete times. If we can conceive of different conditions, then we can put the pain to work for us. Visualizing the change we desire, however commonplace, is a big help.
Here is a way to do it. When you identify the patterns that have dragged you down, away from who you want to be, or away from God, make note of the other choices you might have made. If you had known more, if you had had more self-control, if you had been free from coercion, if you had only realized… what might you have been able to choose? Pick the best choice, and ask yourself what character traits are
required to choose them. Construct a scenario that places you in its center with those characteristics. That’s your destination.
Here’s an example. Someone leaving an abusive relationship confronts fear of retribution, shame for having accepted the abuse for a time, guilt for not preventing danger to self and perhaps to children, and, poignantly, grief for the relationship that was desired but never was. She fears independence because her abuser has told her she can’t make it on her own so many times she believes it. For that abuse survivor, the destination might look like sitting in the living room of her own apartment where her children are relaxing comfortably regaling each other with funny stories. They are safe, free to be themselves, and at peace with one another. When she confronts an obstacle, she can taste the fuel and level her sights with determination on that living room.
It’s wise to maintain some curiosity and flexibility about the destination. Abraham’s story of setting off on a journey with no clear vision of his destination speaks to recovery seekers, newlyweds, teenagers and anyone else embarking on radical life change. You don’t know exactly how things will unfold. It’s ok to be unsure whether you’re focused on the best possible destination. The important thing is setting out—lech lecha, go fourth. Do your best to construct a provisional destination, and revise it as mercy and truth are revealed.
Dallas Willard in Spirit of the Disciplines offers another visualization. “The old leaf automatically falls from the branch as the new leaf emerges.” Define the old leaf, the one that needs to fall. Visualize the new leaf, that which is budding. It’s hard to “Just say no” to one thing without saying “Yes!” to something better. When I realize God’s imagination for me is better than mine for myself, I can relinquish my silly notions that I know best. Whether those notions have led me to complete devastation or to a dull ache of emptiness (“There’s got to be more”), relinquishing them will free my imagination for the destination God would have for me.
Our culture conditions us to remedy pain quickly, so we must resist the impulse to avoid or to medicate it. If we can think about how badly it hurts here and how much we
want to be there, pain becomes our rocket fuel. Don’t avoid it and don’t waste one
ounce of it. Use it all to reach the destination.
Join the conversation. What visualization techniques have helped you process pain?
Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.