The paradox of pain

The paradox of pain

The last two years of my life have been intensely painful, physically and mentally. In fact, they’ve been so painful that I was forced to deeply examine my relationship with pain and attempt to change it drastically.

In the summer of 2016 I was thrown suddenly into a terrifying chronic illness which changed my life.

I was no longer able to sleep at night due to constant, bone-deep itching like I’ve never known before, and then the accompanying pain after I’d literally torn my skin off with my nails, bleeding all over, and in the end I would fall into a fitful sleep early in the morning out of pure exhaustion.

Itch is a strange phenomenon. It’s arguably more intense than regular pain, since we tend to try to counteract itching with pain.

Anything to stop the itch

To be fair, normally people don’t get itches that are strong enough to warrant real pain, but I promise that if it gets intense enough you’ll do anything to stop it.

Although the itch may have been more intense, the pain I felt day in and day out all over my torn up body was a sort of chronic, high level burning sensation.

I often felt like a burn victim. It was that bad. I would lie in bed, staying completely still. If I could do this for long enough, the pain would subside slightly and I could calm myself down. If I moved an inch, the wounds and sores would open up again, causing me great pain and even more itching.

And when something commands your attention every waking moment as chronic pain does, you have two options if you want to try living a regular life : you can medicate it away as I did frequently (although I used weed instead of poisonous over-the-counter pain medication), or you can re-examine the way you react to pain.

Change your relationship to pain

At first I refused to face my pain, and I would look for activities absorbing enough to let me forget about it temporarily like video games and porn, and later with good old marijuana.

In essence, physical pain isn’t that different from emotional pain. We seek relief in many forms. We use porn, gambling, alcohol, weed, video games, sugar, and television to help us escape, to help us forget our pain, whether emotional or physical.

Pain

At the core of it, we’re talking about avoidance versus acceptance. In the end, I finally did admit to myself that if I wanted to avoid going absolutely insane, I would have to face what was happening to me and try to accept it.

What is pain?

I began by trying to understand what pain actually is. What the hell is it, really? The most obvious answer is that it’s a bodily mechanism that alerts us to damage being done on a physical level. Not much help there.

It’s also a concept that makes us very uncomfortable and that we avoid talking about. We’re getting closer to a model of pain that we can work with.

Life is all about perception. There is no ultimate reality, only our various perceptions of reality. In other words, in some sense we create reality. So pain, as terrifying as it is, is only as horrific as we allow it to be. If we can change our relationship to it, we can change its essence.

It’s all in the mind you see. I know that’s a cliché, but as you know, clichés exist for a reason. When I started really delving into the nature of my relationship to pain, I discovered some very liberating truths.

My greatest epiphany regarding the problem of pain, is that pain is a bodily sensation. This is a powerful concept, because as a sensation, pain has no real power to harm us. Just as we can choose how we react to sadness, anger, craving and itching, we can choose how we want to react to pain.

Pain and mindfulness

This is one of the precepts of mindfulness practice. Many sufferers of chronic pain, myself included, have discovered the incredible benefits of mindfully observing painful sensations.

In the here and now, there is no pain, technically speaking. “Pain” is a concept, and as such it resides on the mental plane exclusively. When we remove all our negative mental connotations that we’ve accumulated over the years, via family and friends, television and the culture we grew up in, what’s left?

What’s left is the essence of pain. The nucleus of the concept of pain. It can’t be spoken of, not really, because speech relies heavily on conceptualization. It’s ineffable.

The most powerful tool for dealing with pain

Mindfulness is a very powerful tool, or rather a mindset. It simply refers to experiencing reality directly in the present moment, instead of relating to experience mentally, as we usually do. We think of future events, or past events, or we think endlessly about the meaning of things that happened five minutes ago, or the likelihood of things happening five minutes from now. But we don’t ever think about what’s happening right now. The now can only be experienced directly.

Mindfulness takes us from a place of identification with pain, to a place of detached, or I should say non-attached observation. To be clear, I don’t mean to say that the pain actually goes away, rather that our capacity to deal with it improves. More specifically, our relationship to pain can change. It can change to the point that we only feel pain, without suffering.

“Detachment means letting go and nonattachment means simply letting be.”

Stephen Levine

We often feel like pain and suffering are one and the same, but there’s a massive distinction: pain is a sensation, suffering is a thought.

As such, pain may be inevitable, but suffering can be overcome by various forms of mental training.

Sitting with the pain instead of avoiding it

This is a different path that many don’t understand.

When I discovered the potential of mindfulness for changing my relationship with pain, I started doing a lot of strong-determination meditation sittings, which consist of sitting perfectly still for long stretches of time, without reacting to pain or discomfort. They are incredibly difficult, and incredibly rewarding. I would normally sit for 30-40 minutes at a time.

Pain2Only once have I managed to sit for an entire hour without moving, and it was a truly transcendental experience.

Simply observe

The pain had become incredibly intense, and my mind was screaming with frustration, but I wouldn’t give in.

And the more I directed my attention to the painful areas to directly experience the sensations of pain, the more I realized that that’s just what it was : Sensations of pain.

Our reactions to pain may seem absolutely determined, but in fact they are our own choice. The name we give to that choice is suffering.

We all instinctively know the difference between pain and suffering. If someone punches you in the face and breaks your nose, you’ll inevitably feel a lot of pain. But it’s the fear, confusion, and anger at the person who punched you that causes you to suffer.

Who dies?

The book Who Dies? by Stephen Levine really got me to think about pain in a completely different way. It’s one of the most poignant and profound books I’ve ever had the pleasure to read.

“If there is a single definition of healing it is to enter with mercy and awareness those pains, mental and physical, from which we have withdrawn in judgment and dismay.”

-Stephen Levine

Overcoming our fear of pain in this way is truly liberating, and has numerous benefits. I believe that one form of enlightenment may be found in the person that has transcended the fear of pain altogether.

A few of my own observations from working with and accepting the place of pain in my life:

Reduced Fear in General

When you’ve sat through an hour of stabbing pain in various parts of your body, or your daily life is brandished with a painful chronic illness, the numerous fears that we feel towards all kinds of things may start to diminish.

In my own life, I’ve discovered that I’m way less worried about humiliating myself, so I’ve started putting myself out there in many ways. For instance by starting this website. The old judgmental part of my mind that shouts “But what if what I write isn’t good enough and nobody wants to read it and everybody will laugh at me and I’ll be exiled and forced to live in the wilderness…” and so on, can be effectively countered with “I’ve had worse”.

I’ve also seen that fear of failure has greatly diminished. All fear is rooted in pain, be it emotional or physical. Fear of failure is actually a fear of the pain that accompanies failure, like humiliation (see above) or blows to our self-esteem.

A Drive to Live a Meaningful Life

Thank god my chronic pain didn’t last forever. In the last month or so it has rapidly gotten better. So much better that I’m finally able to exercise again, to sleep through the night, and to go out and about without being constantly distracted.

The most powerful result of my work with pain has been this powerful desire to live my life exactly as I want to.

Partly because I now know by direct experience that health is fickle, any number of things could happen to me and life is too short to waste it on worrying about consequences. But also partly because I know that I can handle whatever the universe throws at me. I know that nothing that happens to me can actually break me, especially if I keep cultivating my insights on pain and reality.

An Unobserved life is not worth living

There are some harsh truths inherent in the fabric of human existence. Pain is abundant. It’s everywhere.

People die in agony every single day. Many people lead lives that are so physically painful that it’s unimaginable to those of us blessed with good health. Pain is as much a staple of being human as is being born, loving, and dying.

Even those of us born with a healthy body and healthy mind will know pain at some point in our lives. If you haven’t already experienced some kind of storm in your own life, there’s certainly someone close to you who has.

This is just an inextricable part of being human. We’re playing this human game, and pain is an aspect of that game, whether we like it or not.

It’s funny, I took a course in Vipassana (insight) meditation a while back. The teacher told us that every now and then, a student would come to her after much meditation and strong determination sitting and tell her that he had actually started enjoying the aches and pains of sitting for an hour.

The game

We can make a game of it. We just have to be open to the possibility that pain isn’t what we always thought it was. You can start catching your mind, Ah I see, an old thought pattern of aversion is coming up. Is it anchored in reality? Or is it a mental creation?

Just think of the potential benefits of doing this! The fear of pain and suffering can limit us in so many ways, but when we start to question the fabric of this fear, we find that doors start to open to us. We start to open our minds and hearts to unheard of possibilities and potential changes in our reality.

With an open heart and an expanded mind, we become unstoppable. Fear can no longer crush our spirits, and pain can no longer hold us down. We will cease to suffer.

When we stop avoiding the things that scare us the most, like pain, we find that it leads to a feeling of wholeness. A feeling of acceptance of the nature of things.

When we fully accept pain, a paradox will become apparent to us:

Pain only causes suffering because we allow it to do so.

Much love.

The difference between pain and suffering (and how it can save your life)

Today I want to explore the topic of crisis. More specifically the inevitability of crisis, and what we can learn from that inevitability.

You see, there are few certainties in life. Very few. The fact that things will keep changing, that is a certainty. The fact that you will die is another. But the one that keeps many of us on our toes is that at some point, we will experience disaster in our lives, and suffer for it.

It’s scary, but it’s also true.

We tend to marginalize this idea, thinking that sure, it happens to people all the time, but it won’t happen to me.

We’re good at ignoring important stuff. It’s just a funny coincidence (or is it?) that the most important stuff in life is also the scariest.

I know you may not want to think about pain if you can help it, but I’m telling you, you need to make time to contemplate this fact. The reason I say that is because ignoring it will not make it go away. The more we come to terms with this reality of existence, the smoother we can deal with the crises when they inevitably arrive.

It may not be obvious what this work of contemplating your own inevitable pain will actually give you, but I can tell you this, from my own experience: When I finally put the pieces together and understood this simple law of human existence, my general anxiety about life disappeared.

I don’t mean to say that I attained buddha-hood or something, although it can be viewed as a degree of enlightenment. I still go AHH! when something goes BANG!. I still get nervous when talking in front of groups of people. I still manage to worry about deadlines or tests at school.

What I’m no longer afraid of is pain.

This actually lead me to contemplating death as well, and soon my fear of death greatly diminished as well.

The two often go hand in hand. Understanding the former eases us into understanding the latter, but that’s a topic for another day.

The terrifying truth of human existence, is that people are constantly in pain. All the time. People are diagnosed with excruciating terminal illness every single day. Every day, people get into debilitating accidents, or get betrayed by someone they trusted, or lose a loved one.

This is a fact of life. The Buddha said it best: Life is suffering.

And I know at first glance this all seems absolutely, dismally pessimistic. Even nihilistic. But I say that ignoring the truth is infinitely more damaging and limiting than facing it, however scary it is. Monsters hide in a dark for a reason: What can’t be seen, cannot be understood. What cannot be understood is most terrifying of all.

We need to direct the searchlight of our awareness on these things in order to understand them, and when we do, peace follows.

So let’s start with my experience.

How did I come about this knowledge? By direct experience. A little over two years ago, my life was shattered. I discovered that I had developed a dependency on corticosteroids, a class of drugs used to treat inflammation of all kinds, and that they had stopped working for me. I had used them for years to treat my mild eczema.

However, what I hadn’t been told at twelve years old when I was first prescribed these drugs, was that prolonged use had major side effects, and worst of all, as the body became more dependent on them, there would be a need for ever stronger steroids.

I came to the point where the drugs no longer helped my skin condition except in very high doses, and my eczema seemed to have gotten so much worse over the years.

After a lot of research, I finally figured out what was going on. I was stuck in a positive feedback loop. You see, the corticosteroids are an analogue of a hormone produced naturally in the body, cortisol. When we infuse the body with artificial hormones, the body systematically reduces its own production of said hormone.

The result was that as I stopped using the medicines (I’m loathe to call them that, as intuitively I think of medicine as something that actually heals the body), my body went into full on withdrawal. Topical steroid withdrawal, as it’s called, or Red Skin Syndrome, which is the technical term.

A little further research revealed that this withdrawal was no short term thing. 2 to 5 years on average. I was devastated. To show you why, let me list some of the effects of withdrawal:

  • Intense shedding of skin. I had to sweep the floors in my bedroom every night, because of all of the skin flakes I had scratched off during the night. Think of the sand all over the floor after a day at the beach. This has lasted until the present day, although thankfully it’s gotten a lot less intense, and on fewer parts of my body.
  • Bone-deep itching red skin. My entire body became bright pink, and itched like you wouldn’t believe. I would scratch so much at night that I woke up glued to the sheets due to bleeding, oozing sores. The worst of this lasted for 18 months.
  • Severe lethargy, so that I had a hard time getting up out of bed at all. A big part of this was the insomnia I experienced due to the terrible itching and pain.
  • Nerve pain and “zingers”, meaning my skin was painful even where there were no sores, and I had these sort of heat cramps, like little zaps of electrocution.

I’ll leave it at that. I would say that despite the horror of these symptoms, what got to me the most was the trauma it entailed. I became deeply depressed, developed debilitating social anxiety due to my appearance (my face was swollen, red, and I had scratched off my eyebrows at some point), and generally felt like dying.

In fact, about 18 months in, I was seriously contemplating suicide. The pain and suffering was just so intense and miserable, and even though I (thankfully) knew that this was temporary, it already seemed like it had lasted a lifetime.

At that point I realized I had become fully burned out by staying in school that whole time when I should have just quit right away, so I stopped. That became the first step in regaining my health. I stayed home, slept a whole lot, read loads of books, meditated and journaled. This would be a complete turning point for me.

I started researching ways to optimize my diet for healing. I looked for ways to exercise that were possible for me in this condition. I started to really try to figure out what life meant to me, and what I wanted to get out of it. Did life have value to me, even if it meant this amount of unbearable pain?

Of course, I’m eternally grateful that after much contemplation, I decided that the answer to that question was a resounding YES.

Now that you know my story, let me tell you how I came to this not-too-obvious answer to life’s most terrifying question.

This is an axiom that changed my perception of existence to it’s core:

Pain is a given, suffering is a choice.

If that doesn’t shake your reality tunnel, then you’re more enlightened than you think.

This isn’t obvious, not by a long shot. So allow me to elucidate.

Pain cannot be avoided. Pain will be experienced in life, in varying amounts, to various degrees of intensity.

It can manifest as physical pain, like burning your fingers on the stove, or a car accident, or chronic illness, as in my case. I know you can easily find more ways in which we feel physical pain, so I won’t dwell on it.

It can manifest as mental or emotional pain as well, as in cases of betrayal or great loss, like the death of a parent, sibling, or spouse.

It’s strange, but in many cases we wouldn’t want to remove our pain, even given the chance. My grandfather died a few months back. We were quite close and I loved him dearly. The pain of his absence is what reminds me of what a kind, loving, solid human being he was. It reminds me to miss him.

In the same way, physical pain teaches us to appreciate the times in our lives when we were in good health. I can tell you this much: I will never look at my health in the same way again. I took it for granted once. Now it’s my most valuable asset of all.

Good health is one of those things you don’t even notice until it’s gone.

Pain takes many forms, as we’ve explored here. But what about suffering?

Well, first off, what’s the difference between suffering and pain? Simply put, pain is the event, suffering is the response. What does that mean?

Thus spake a wise soul, eons ago:

I may not be able to control the winds, but I can adjust my sails.

When we’re faced with dire circumstances, we usually have multiple options for responding to the situation. We can run and try to escape (literally by physically running off, or figuratively by for example depending on drugs to escape reality), we can freeze and submit, or we can stand and fight. We can even accept what’s happening and decide to make the best of it.

When most people are faced with disaster, they have no idea how to respond. That’s because they’ve consciously ignored the inevitability of crisis their entire lives!

How can you expect to weather out a storm if you haven’t even thought about the possibility of it ever coming to that?

Let me throw another great quote at you:

Life isn’t about trying to outrun the storm, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.

So here you are. You’ve had an accident. Or you’ve been diagnosed with a chronic illness. Or you find out your wife or husband has been cheating on you for the last two years. Or your sister just died.

If you’re anything like I was before my own midnight of the soul, you’re in for a very difficult time. Your entire paradigm of the world around you and your place in it will crumble down all around you. What you thought was stable and eternal suddenly seems ephemeral and fleeting.

To be totally honest, I’m not sure if these insights on the nature of pain and suffering can ever be gained without having actually suffered greatly. But the fact is that most of us have, at some point in our lives. Everybody knows what suffering is. Nobody is naturally immune to it. The only difference is how you decide to respond to your pain.

If you decide to dull your pain, escape your misery, you will be just as susceptible to suffering, if not more so, when the next wave strikes.

If, however, you decide to face the thoughts, feelings, and sensation full on, contemplate them, fully feel them, you will gain insight. And through insight, you will become wise. That wisdom will be there for you when you inevitably meet with the next life-crisis.

There’s no trick to this. It’s not easy, but it’s overwhelmingly simple. There’s a lot of fluff surrounding meditation, contemplation, spirituality, but for this life, for the here and now, there’s no need to complicate things.

Sit with your pain, with the conscious intention to understand it and explore it, no matter how terrifying and repugnant it seems to you, and you will be taken to a better place. Your relationship with pain itself will change, and you will transcend suffering.

This takes a lot of work, make no mistake. This is no quick fix. You need to work at everything. Your mentality and attitude, your self-discipline. But rest assured, this is the way to permanently overcome your anxiety towards life.

Taking on this work entails so much more than that, though. You will find that, as your relationship to pain and suffering changes, so will your attitude to life as a whole. As your fear of suffering diminishes, so will your fear of expanding. You will become open to experience in a way that you weren’t before.

You may find yourself following your own bliss, without caring if others judge you for it. You will become more compassionate, doing all you can to alleviate others’ suffering and teaching them to change their own relationship to pain.

You will stop being afraid.

You can partake in life without being hung up about it. You can have fun instead of fretting.

This approach to suffering is ancient. Many attribute it to the historical Buddha Gautama, but it’s older than that. Way older. The Buddha himself relates that he “rediscovered” a technique that had been lost for millennia. Others have done it before us, and more will do it after we’re gone.

In Buddhism and other eastern traditions, this approach is called Vipassana or variations thereof.

The word itself is Sanskrit and simply means “insight into the nature of reality”. It relates to direct experience, as opposed to knowledge gained from an external source.

Mindfulness, as it has been popularized here in the west, is  another approach (which is essentially the same). To call mindfulness a tool is misleading. Instead, it is an all-encompassing approach to existence, in favor of directly experiencing the sensations and events of here, now, as opposed to constant thinking.

The primacy of direct experience is undeniable. We can read, listen, and learn all we want, but in order to fully grasp anything, it must be experienced. Knowledge is power, in every way.

Know thyself, said Socrates.

The better you understand what it means to be a human incarnate in this place at this time, the better time you’re going to have playing this game. The game of life. I believe self-knowledge should be the prime imperative of any human being.

If you learn anything from this article, let it be this:

You are more than the sum of your parts.

In our modern, materialist-reductionist paradigm, we tend to overlook the simple fact of our consciousness. Of our awareness.

You have a body, and a brain, and a mind. You have friends, a job, a personality. But the fact is, you are so much more than all of that.

It can’t be explained, so I’ll stop there.

In conclusion, I will say this: Start to meditate.

Start as small as you have to. One minute, five minutes. Then gradually increase the time. Find guided meditations. There are plenty out there. Stop being reluctant to be fully present with your pain.

It will save your life.

YOU are the creator of reality

Do you ever find yourself asking “What the hell is going on?”?

I mean in general.

We have all these concepts. Life, reality, me, you, self, other, future, past. We talk about our property, our country, our family. We have names for all of this. But sometimes I feel like the naming and conceptualizing detracts from the actuality of what this is. Maybe I should say THIS, because I simply mean what there is.

What is going on?

What does it mean to be sentient, inhabiting a sack of flesh and bones, in this strange, strange place we call the earth? Does it have to mean anything?

I often find myself forgetting, for long stretches of time, just how weird all this is. Wouldn’t it have been easier to have nothing? To be nothing? Simpler, at least.

It’s so strange that anything can seem trivial. The mere existence of the most minuscule, unimportant thing is a miracle! The simple fact that something is here at all is a reason for wonder.

It’s very easy to overlook this fact.

We may all share this reality, but then again, our perceptions of said reality differ so vastly, that we might as well each be absolutely solipsistic.

And you never know. Are other people actually conscious? Or are they just pretending to be conscious, like characters in a dream. Or maybe they even believe that they’re independently conscious.

When I look around me I see an apartment. My apartment. I see potted plants, furniture of all shapes and sizes, electronics, food, picture frames. Cups, mirrors, lamps…

Most of this stuff is man made. They started off as ideas, or concepts, in somebody’s head. Their powers of creation made it solid. And here I am, enjoying these marvelous things without having any true idea of their origins.

Concepts are a funny thing. We make them up in our minds, or we learn them from somebody else, and then we glue them onto objects we encounter in the universe. Like when you put one of those cut-out cardboard celebrity faces over your own.

Then, having adequately labeled our surroundings, our reality, we promptly forget the true nature of what they are, and go on through life acting as if the concepts are the ultimate reality.

Like I said, it’s weird.

What does it mean though, for us normies? Concepts are incredibly useful, as are labels. They allow us to quickly understand what something is without having to constantly reexamine it. For example, because we have a concept of an apple in our minds after countless encounters, when we see one on the table we go right ahead and take a bite.

We don’t need to check if it’s edible, compare it to the other objects on the table, taste it, etcetera. It’s just an apple.

On the other hand, sometimes our conceptualizing is very limiting. Like when we label ourselves. We say that we’re depressed, we’re shy, we’re anxious, we’re lazy. These labels are probably true, some of the time, but nobody’s lazy all the time. We have moments when we’re shy, and then we have moments where we’re assertive.

Self-conceptualization is a major problem for people everywhere. Not only do we frame ourselves withing concepts, we also allow other people to frame us within concepts. And we do the same to them!

Sometimes this is necessary, like if somebody’s prone to violence, the label of thug is appropriate and may save us from a nasty encounter.

But more often than not, these labels limit us to a certain personality type, to certain actions, to certain behaviors. These behaviors may be destructive, humiliating, depressing. The power of social conceptualizing is such that breaking free from these imposed limitations can be a very daunting task.

In many ways, this is the work of meditation. We meditate in order to see reality as it is, not as we believe it to be.

Sometimes we get moments of clarity, often out of the blue. This is often related to the appearance of some sort of anomaly, like seeing a shooting star, or an explosion, or somebody dancing naked with a street lamp (actually saw this a few years back, it really sticks with you).

Sometimes it’s due to some kind of shock, like illness, an accident, or a betrayal. Something that disillusions you so much that it breaks down your model of reality. It can be traumatizing, and in fact, that’s what trauma is. Trauma is a veritable smashing of your reality tunnel, when you encounter something more unpleasant and unbearable than you previously thought possible.

When somebody you love dearly betrays you, your concept of them is shattered into pieces. You need to reevaluate them, you need to reevaluate your relationship to them, not only in the here and now, but past and future as well.

When you unexpectedly lose your health, you need to reconceptualize your mortality. You realize that you’re not indestructible, that in fact you might die today, or tomorrow.

In this way, concepts that have been helpful up until now may become crushingly incomplete in the future. That’s why we need to learn how to see clearly. To live a life of fulfillment and prosperity, we need to be prepared to change our perceptions of reality when the time comes.

There’s a great quote:

Life isn’t about avoiding the storm. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.

Can’t remember who’s it is.

Isn’t that awesome?

Whoever we are, wherever we are, we are always susceptible to change. That’s the nature of being. Change is the only constant.

When we don’t acknowledge that change is possible, we become susceptible to trauma. Can you believe that a person could meet with a disabling accident, a chronic painful illness, or the death of a loved one with equanimity and peace?

No suppression of grief. No repressing emotions and acting like everything’s okay. We can partake in all these human emotions without letting ourselves be crushed by them.

Dancing in the rain is actually possible. Not pretending to have fun, mind you, but actually accepting the inevitability of crisis and taking it in. There will be storms in life. In fact, that’s what life is. A succession of storms. Some of them we manage to weather out quite nicely, but others will shake our foundations.

In the long run, learning to stay strong in the face of disaster may be the most important skill you ever develop.

My own life, though it hasn’t been perfect (whose is?), was relatively trauma free, up until a few years ago. I guess the most traumatic events in my life before the age of twenty-three were my parent’s divorce at around seven years old, and then successions of moving between cities and countries and new step-dads.

Which in itself has a deep impact on a kid, but being so young I didn’t have the skills or self-knowledge to actually work myself through that trauma until years later.

However, at twenty-three, my life changed forever. I was diagnosed with a chronic skin disease (Red Skin Syndrome) of terrifying proportions. I developed insomnia due to intense itchiness during the night, infections due to endless sores and cuts from scratching my skin raw, and massive psychological trauma.

It’s now been two and a half years since that fateful moment, and I’ve managed to improve my condition by at least 80%. I should clarify, that this disease is most likely temporary (2-5 years average), so a big part of my regained health is due to the passing of time.

However, I also believe that my own efforts for survival and betterment have been invaluable.

I started eating an absolutely clean, whole-foods diet. I cut out all sugars and carbs in general. Stopped smoking weed, stopped using pornography, started exercising as much as possible (although sweating is a real issue with this disease), started a steadfast meditation habit, started journaling a lot, and generally diagnosed everything that was holding me back in life and decided to remedy it as best I could.

Even though I knew there were things I couldn’t control, I decided to do everything I could control as well as humanly possible.

Taking responsibility for my circumstances in life has been the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. It has also made me intensely grateful for the mere fact of my existence.

This life is a perpetual roller coaster. We slowly gain altitude in times of peace, and that’s when we have a chance to prepare ourselves in every way for the inevitable swooping, dizzying descent.

When we manage to prepare ourselves and overcome our fears of the inevitable crises, we can actually have fun, just like even the most terrifying roller coaster becomes exhilarating in the absence of fear.

So this brings us the question we posed in the beginning of this article:

What the hell is going on?

We exist, obviously, but why does it have to be so hard?

Why does life have to be so fraught with misery and suffering? Wouldn’t it be easier to just have the pleasant bits and smooth out the splinters and hang-nails?

Well, here’s a profound insight for you: Good is only possible when it’s balanced with bad. Pleasure is only possible when it’s balanced with pain, in the same way up is only possible with the inevitable down.

We live in a reality of opposing extremes. Everything has an opposite, because without it, nothing would have meaning.

It doesn’t take a lot of pondering to see that this is absolute truth.

What this means is simple. Without the dark times, there would be no happiness. Without suffering, there would be no bliss. Without nothing, there could be no something.

When you truly realize this, and take it to heart, you’ll find that you start appreciating what’s wrong in your life. You may not welcome pain, but you start to see its value.

Another thing to consider, is that as there are categorical opposites, like pleasure and pain, up and down, light and dark, there is also an element of opposites within the effects of each category.

This will take some explaining.

When you get into a boating accident, fall into the middle of the pacific, a shark bites your leg of, and then you’re pulled out by your ship-mates, that seems pretty Sh**ty. And it is.

But no matter how terrifying and negative an event is, there is always something to be learned, some insight to be gained. And the value of said insight will be as positive as the event was negative, and vice versa.

It’s impossible to know in advance what the silver lining will be. In the example above, the most obvious positive insight will be your increased compassion for amputees. Your increased awareness of danger and of your own mortality. Expanded awareness, in other words.

There can be zounds of hidden positive aspects to negative events, it all depends on how you decide to react to them. A mountain can be teeming with gold nuggets, but if nobody thinks to look for them, they’re worthless. In the same way, there can be veritable jewels of insight hidden within a break-up, accident, illness, or death, but if you don’t focus on them, they might as well not be there at all.

I know it’s difficult to think this way. Illness is incredibly unpleasant and often painful, and there’s no way around that. But as you take responsibility for that pain and discomfort, you are in a better position to mine the insights and become aware of ways to make up for it. It’s a process, but it can be done.

We are creators of meaning.

Even if we don’t intend to be. We create meaning through the simple virtue of our humanity. It’s what being human entails. And we may not be aware of this, but we get to choose the meaning we apply to anything at all.

It takes self-knowledge, and it takes contemplation of the nature of reality and consciousness. But when we gather together the simple truths and laws of the universe, of human nature, we can effectively change our reality.

And that, my friends, is magic.

 

Overcoming resistance

Inner resistance is a weird thing. You feel as though you know what it is you want to do or where you want to go, but somehow some other part of you seems to disagree.

Since I came home from Santiago de Compostela, I’ve been experiencing inner resistance to all kinds of things, but especially with regards to restarting my routine of meditation and journaling.

It hasn’t managed to stop me completely, but I’ve definitely been half-assing it.

So I’ve been pondering the challenge of working through this resistance, how to actually do what you know you want to do.

I’ve found the biggest challenge for me personally has been getting started. Like actually sitting down for a formal meditation session.

As soon as I manage to sit my ass down on the cushion, mental muscle memory kicks in and the meditation goes smoothly.

It’s as if I overestimate the willpower required to sit for an hour. It takes willpower to actually sit down, but staying put does not.

I believe that a change of perspective is required. Instead of, in my case, trying to get myself to do a 60 minute meditation session, I should try to get myself to sit down on my cushion and get comfortable. Break the resistance down into smaller parts.

Then as soon as I’m sitting comfortably, the next 55 minutes become a whole lot easier.

What is inner resistance, though? It’s as if there’s a part of you that actively tries to sabotage you, tries to convince you that you can’t or shouldn’t do something. Sound familiar? It should.

I believe that inner resistance is actually a subtle form of self-judgment.

I wrote about ways to deal with the inner judge in another post, but resistance is a bit more tricky.

It’s definitely a form of sabotage. We all know the feeling when we manage to break through this resistance, like when we exercise when we don’t feel like it, go to a party or make dinner.

The judge tries to convince us that it’s a waste of time, it’s easier to just watch tv, play a video game or order fast food, but in these instances we often see through it.

However, the more aware of this process we become, the more we see that the resistance goes way beyond these more obvious manifestations.

We feel resistance to all kinds of things. Any activity that the inner judge deems to be unstimulating (even though they may actually be very stimulating, like reading or journaling), pointless (even though they may be very useful, like exercise or cooking) or out of our league (even though they may be intensely satisfying, like playing music or making art), this is where we meet resistance.

This is a manifestation broken self-esteem, which is itself a consequence of constant inner judgment and criticism. We feel like we’re not adequate, not good enough to do these things, that we don’t deserve the benefits these activities may bring.

The first and most important step to overcoming resistance is to become aware of it. As soon as you become conscious of the resistance, and of the subtle judgments that are at the essence of resistance, removing it becomes possible.

This takes practice and patience. We need to give ourselves time, plenty of time. And we also need to be aware of self-criticism that may arise when we recognize resistance after the fact.

We have to understand that every single time we recognize the judge for what it is, is a step in the right direction. Even if we realize it a week later, or a year later.

When you become aware of your own resistance to something that you know you want to do, break the challenge down.

Instead of going out for a run and then doing an hour of exercise and stretching, the challenge becomes to put on your running clothes and shoes and stepping outside. A five year old could do that.

Instead of writing 10 pages in your journal, just go get your journal, your pen, and set it up on the table in front of you.

Instead of doing an hour of concentration meditation, just sit the fuck down.

The rest will sort itself out.

Much love.

Building a habit is like building a fire

I’m not really the world champion in self-discipline. In fact, I’m a pretty lazy dude. Actually, I think we’re all mostly lazy. It may be human nature.

I’ve found in my own life that while self-discipline is certainly important, it gets way too much attention in self-development circles, more than it deserves.

Self-discipline is like the scraps of newspaper we use as kindling to make a bonfire. So what’s the actual bonfire in this analogy? Easy, habit. However, the logs that make up the bonfire proper are perseverance.

Kindling is incredibly important to get the fire going, but if you build a bonfire using only scraps it’ll burn out in no time at all. And if you only have big logs without kindling, you’ll never get the fire started.

In the same way, we need the right balance between discipline and perseverance to build habit.

Most of us know the feeling of burning out on something. Playing an instrument, drawing, meditating. We decide that from now on, we’re going to do an hour of running or three pages in the journal every day.

We may even manage a few days before our discipline simply runs out and we give up with our tail between our legs.

It’s true that self-discipline is like a muscle, in that it gets stronger the more you use it, but it has definite limits. It always runs out in the end.

That’s a mistake I’ve made way too often, but I’ve made a lot of progress in habit building since the early years.

The trick is to start small. So small that it’s easy to keep it up. There’s a point in time (21 days has been thrown around a lot, although in my experience it depends as much upon the person as upon the habit itself), where discipline is hardly necessary any more to keep up the habit.

When my meditation habit of two hours daily was still in its infancy, I had a hard time of it. I was too ambitious, really. I decided I wanted to do 30 minutes of medition every morning before work. A worthy goal, to be sure.

But at this point, I found it hard enough as it was to wake up for work at all, let alone make space for another 30 minutes in the morning to sit and do nothing.

Apart from that, I was having difficulties sitting still for 5 minutes, so 30 minutes were quite a stretch.

I would manage to keep it up for a day or two at most, and then I would give up. But I kept beating the dead horse so to speak, and tried again and again. Not only did I not manage to build the habit, I was steadily corroding my self confidence by failing again and again with nothing to show for it.

Not until I decided to change the rules of the game did things start to get better. I decided that to start with, ten minutes before work would suffice. It still felt like a bit of a hassle, but convincing yourself of sitting for ten minutes when you’re groggy in the morning is exponentially easier than convincing yourself of 30 minutes.

I had been trying to light the logs of the bonfire directly, and nothing had happened. As soon as I started to use smaller goals as kindling, the fire started to mature slowly.

After a few weeks I was so accustomed to sitting for ten minutes that adding another ten minutes was easy enough. And then another ten minutes in the evening before bed. And so on until I reached an hour for each session.

It took a long time, don’t get me wrong. It took a year of steady increments and not missing a day to build the two-hour-daily habit.

I didn’t say perseverance was easy, but it is effective. Slow and steady wins the race, as the tortoise said.

To conclude the bonfire analogy, as soon as you have a fire, no matter how small, making it bigger is no big deal. Steadily add bigger and bigger pieces of wood until you have a raging inferno.

And so it is with habits. They seem impossible at the beginning, until we create managable goals. The rest is just sticking with it, adding onto the baseline.

I wish you all the luck in the world with building your habits, but as we both know luck on its own gets us nowhere. It’s what we do with the luck we have that makes the difference.

Much love.

Dream or reality?

Dreams have always fascinated me. I’m sure they fascinate most people to some degree, but I’m always surprised by how most people (myself included sometimes) manage to brush them off so easily.

Vague explanations like “it’s all in your head” or “it’s just the brain sorting out the events of the day” have never really convinced me.

After all, a rock is “merely” a collection of atoms and a star is “simply” a giant nuclear reactor. Does that in any way reduce their significance? I don’t think so. At least I don’t any more.

Last week I finished reading a book on the Tibetan yogas of dream and sleep, and though many of the concepts didn’t really resonate with me, one idea in particular slapped me in the face: the idea that dream and waking “reality” may not be so different after all.

In fact that idea seems to me to be the very basis of dream yoga, or lucid dreaming.

In the dreamscape, things are fundamentally unstable. Everything changes constantly. Impermanence is the only rule in dreams.

The state that we normally identify as “real” is fundamentally stable (relatively), and seems to have a ton of rules by which the objects within it abide, but in the end the only certainty is that everything changes.

The desk I’m sitting at right now may seem stable to me now, but it’s easy to imagine what it will look like in 10 years, 100 years. In 10,000 years, nothing will remain.

That’s why I said that waking reality is relatively stable, because what’s stable to me is not stable in a mountain’s perspective. A

mountain is not stable to a star. A house fly is fleeting to us, living only a couple of days, but from the point of view of a molecule of plutonium, two days is eternity.

The reality check

One of the main practices outlined in the various guides to lucid dreaming is the so-called reality check, which means exactly what it sounds like.

For example, my go-to reality check is to close my nostrils with my thumb and index finger and try to breathe through it. If I can’t breathe, I’m most likely still awake. If I can breathe, I’m almost certainly dreaming.

This has worked countless times for me in dreams in the last few years, but I’ve had limited success in actually doing anything within the dream after the fact.

The trick to making this happen is to make reality checks a habit in waking life. The theory goes that once the habit of questioning reality becomes ingrained enough, we start doing it automatically in dreams.

I haven’t been consistently working with dreams since I discovered lucid dreaming, but in the last few months I’ve found a renewed interest in them. After all, the possibilities for growth and learning is practically limitless within the dream world.

The missing ingredient

However, I’ve found that simply making reality checks an automatic habit is missing a crucial ingredient: awareness.

When I finally did start doing an automatic reality check in dreams, I would realize that I was in a dream but still somehow not fully understand what that implies.

It’s weird, really. I would think “hey, I’m in a dream!” but then just keep reacting to it as if I didn’t know.

After I started to do reality checks habitually with full awareness, things started to change.

I’ve only become lucid in dreams a few times after I started to do this, but there is a definite difference in clarity and understanding, though to my infinite consternation my dreams keep falling apart after about 10 seconds of lucidity and I end up waking up.

What do I want?

Still, I see every moment of lucidity in the dreamscape as a step forward, and I try my best to view it in a positive light, as in “yes, 10 seconds of lucidity” instead of “dammit, only 10 seconds of lucidity”.

Which brings me to my last point in this rather all-over-the-place article on lucid dreaming: intent.

I’m sorry to say that I’ve been very lazy with implenting this particular key practice in dream work, but the times that I do, the results have spoken for themselves.

What I mean by intent is simply this: going to sleep with the actual intention of becoming lucid in dreams. It seems so obvious but to me and many others, it’s very elusive. I’ve been working on a nighttime ritual to remedy this, linking it to my meditation habit.

After meditating, I’ll sit quietly for another 10 minutes and reflect on the day that’s coming to an end, focusing on the more dreamlike qualities I’ve experienced, like strange encounters and weird coincidences.

Then I’ll reflect on the endless possibilities for the conscious dreamer: flight, exploration, understanding, *cough* SEX *cough* and so on.

I try to foster the feeling of excitement and anticipation for developing awareness within the dream and learning to control it.

For some reason I’ve been experiencing loads of resistance to this simple formula, but persistence is key. I won’t give up.

I’m gonna wrap this up now, but you can expect way more content on dream awareness in the near future.

Until then, much love and pleasant dreams.

Dimensional dysfunction – My evolving OBE experiment

In the last month or so I’ve been reading about and experimenting with OBE (out-of-body experiences), AKA astral projection.

Strange stuff. I’ve had some weird experiences so far, but as of yet I haven’t been able to project. If you wanna know what the hell I’m talking about click here.

So what have my results been? Well, I’ve taught myself to relax very deeply, which is very pleasant to be honest.

Deep relaxation is supposed to be a cornerstone for achieving the OBE state.

Multiple times now I’ve started experiencing projection related phenomena while or after doing these relaxation exercises, like a very heavy feeling in the body, vibrations, rapid heart beat, auditory and visual hallucinations, but no success with actually having my consciousness exit my physical body.

There was one instance especially where I was sure I was on the verge of projecting.

I had been lying flat on my back without moving for about 40 minutes, focusing on relaxation and sort of encouraging the vibrations to spread throughout my body, when quite suddenly everything became way more intense.

I started to feel very heavy, my heart started pounding, I started hearing voices, I felt a strong tingling or vibrating sensation all throughout my body and I started seeing strange visuals behind closed eyelids. The visuals were like falling through a colorful, swirling tunnel or wormhole or something.

It was all very strange and I became very excited and thought ‘This is IT! This is IT!’ and I opened my eyes. I was still lying in my bed, certainly still in the physical, and all the sensations faded away. I couldn’t help feeling a bit bummed.

I’m pretty sure I just opened my eyes too soon, if I had allowed what was happening to keep happening, maybe something would have happened.

Frankly, after that I became a bit discouraged for some reason. It’s weird, because I feel like I came very close to the goal but somehow stopped myself short.

Instead of seeing it as a sign of major progress, it felt more like a failure. I was busy walking the Camino de Santiago at that time, and I kind of stopped trying after this episode, I’m sorry to say.

I started to focus more on lucid dreams again, and I’ve had some minor success with that in the last few weeks. Now that I’m back home I want to start working on the astral projection stuff again.

I want to combine it with lucid dream work, as I’ve learned that many skills necessary for the one are also immensely useful in the other.

Stuff like visualization, relaxation, prospective and retrospective memory, and concentration all seem to play a major part in both.

I already have a little experience on and off with dream work, and I’ve had some major success with it in the past, including one particularly clear and powerful lucid dream that sort of redefined my view of the world as a young adult.

I’ll write an in-depth post on my experience with lucid dreams at some point.

Suffice it to say, I’m ready to do some real work on OBEs and dreams in the coming weeks and months.

This is an area of spiritual discipline that I find incredibly interesting and I’m sure there are endless opportunities for growth and learning hidden within (and outside) the unconscious mind.

I’ll be writing a lot more on this topic in coming days. For now I’m still getting my mind to accept the fact that I’m no longer walking 30 km a day, that I’m back home in Iceland.

Much love, until next time.

Home again

I’m back! It’s been six weeks since I wrote anything on here. The reason? I was walking the Way of St. James.

That was a doozy, 800 kilometers… It was long and arduous, but well worth it. This post is really just me welcoming myself back from Spain.

On my walk I had more than enough time to ponder about my plans for my life. I came to realize that starting this website is one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself.

Even though hardly anyone ever visits it (yet), I still feel immensely proud for having taken this step. I’m putting my spiritual life out on the web in blog format.

I feel like I’ve come a long way in the last 6 weeks, pun very much intended. I was diligently mindful most days, and the rest of the time I was reading, meditating, talking to some pretty amazing people (and sadly, some assholes as well), and reflecting upon my existence.

I’m grateful for having had the opportunity to make this journey. It wouldn’t have been possible without my midnight of the soul, ironically, because without it I would still have been in school and not had the time to spare.

That’s life, ups and downs, yes and no, happy and sad, the whole bit.

I’ll keep this post short. I will say this though, I’m all in on making this site a thriving hub for spiritual awareness, full of meaningful content and insights.

I have all the time in the world, and slowly but surely this will become something magnificent.

Stay tuned.

A long, long walk

This is going to be the last post I write for the next seven weeks. Fear not, however, because I’ve been writing every day for the last seven weeks, so that new articles and content will be released every three days until the beginning of May!

Actually, I sometimes feel like I’m just talking to myself here, since I have practically no readers at this point. I don’t mind though, because I’m just getting started. I’m confident in the content I’m releasing, and I know that my writing and artistic skills are only going to improve the more I work. And anyway, I’m having loads of fun.

I won’t be writing for the next seven weeks is because I’m embarking on a journey. The first few days will be spent in Riga with my mother and sister, and then I’ll head over to Albania, where I’m meeting up with my girlfriend Sylvía, and we’re going to spend two weeks discovering that relatively obscure country.

After Sylvía flies back home to Iceland, I’ll be flying over to Bayonne in the south-west of France, from there I’ll take a train to Saint Jean Pied-de-Port. That’s where I’ll start a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and beyond.

Its a long, long walk. More than 800 kilometers. I’m a bit nervous, since I’ve never walked that far in a single stretch, but at the same time I know it will be an excellent opportunity for adventure, expanding my comfort zone, and meditative self-inquiry.

So that’s all for this last post, wish me luck on my trip!

Until next time, much love.

 

Staying sane in an insane world

I’ve been in kind of a fog recently. I guess you could call it brain-fog, but it’s not quite that bad though. It’s more like a state of anticipation, on the verge of being anxiety. I feel like I haven’t been thinking clearly.

I’ve been very busy planning my pilgrimage on the way of St. James, figuring out what I need to take with me, what I should leave behind, and constantly reassuring myself.

Doubt and fear have been making regular appearances in my mind in the last few weeks. I’m no longer fully in the wonderful state of bliss I experienced after my last mushroom trip, although the experience was very helpful for me to overcome the residual depression of my midnight of the soul.

After that beautiful trip I felt invincible, fully at peace and present, for a whole month. Much of that bliss can be attributed to the fact that I started to meditate for two hours every day and writing many pages in my journal daily. I also started this blog after some magnificent revelations, and it continues to give me a sense of purpose and happiness.

However, after a few weeks I felt that wonderfully peaceful feeling starting to fade, as I became immersed in everyday life once more. The feeling never faded completely, and with mindfulness I’m able to reconnect to it without much hassle, but it takes some effort. And that’s fine. Life would be boring if there weren’t ups and downs.

One thing I learned in the last few weeks, a sort of epiphany, was that as life starts to get more stressful, the first things to be thrown overboard tend to be our most nourishing activities.

For example, when all the ‘important’ stuff starts to pile up, like having to pay rent, or looking for work, or traveling to my grandparents for my granddad’s 87th birthday, the things I started to cut down on to make the time for it were meditation, journaling and reading.

Now, writing it out like this makes me feel a bit ridiculous, because I know from bitter experience what happens when I don’t give myself the time I need to do these nourishing activities. It happens slowly, but it’s also insidious. Our energy slowly drains, and having removed the things that normally replenish it, it just keeps draining.

This becomes dangerous. Literally. It’s called burnout. In my own life, it came to the point of suicidal thoughts. Granted, that was after a horrific illness had shredded me down to a shadow of my former self (makes me sound like Voldemort). It’s a very real thing, and way worse than you think if you haven’t experienced it for yourself.

What I’ve been working on today is figuring out what exactly drains my energy, and what replenishes it. We can split our day into two rough categories, plus and minus.

For me, my morning might look something like this:

Wake up, get a glass of water and drink it – PLUS

Sit down for an hour meditation session – PLUS

Have a cup of organic black tea – PLUS

So far so good right? Starting the day off like this is wonderful, and gives you the energy you need to tackle the less attractive things you need to do. But what if it looks more like this.

Wake up to the sound of my phone ringing – MINUS

Talk to a pushy salesman on the phone, trying to hang up – MINUS

Realize I don’t have time to meditate any more, or have tea – MINUS MINUS

Rush to school/work – MINUS

Shitty. This happens. We try to plan our day, to make it the way we want it to be, but sometimes something comes up, something doesn’t go the way we expected, or we just oversleep. Does that actually have to ruin our entire day though? I don’t believe so.

We have a tendency to manifest our day as a continuation of the way it started. What I mean is that if we have a shitty morning, we project that shittiness out onto the rest of our day.

In the second example, I can a) go to school, work all day on minus activities, then go home exhausted and watch TV or whatever, or I can b) go to school, work on minus activities but taking frequent breaks for mindful contemplation, to make up for my lack of morning meditation, and even go home early to have time to chill out and have a cup of tea.

Sometimes we feel like something requires our full attention, so much attention that we can’t afford to do the things we enjoy and give us meaning. But nothing is that important. Would I lose my job to keep my sanity? Absolutely. It’s all a question of priorities. I know it’s hard to put yourself first, but it is a choice.

After experiencing burnout first hand, I can tell you it is not a pleasant experience, and it’s a hole that’s difficult to get out of. For your own sake, make the decision now to put yourself, your energy, your love and joy and awareness before all else.

Until next time, much love.