“Yuk.” Thomas spat it out into a tissue.
I love young clients.
When my daughters were young, they loved sharing a packet of jelly beans with their friends.
These weren’t the regular jelly beans but the kind that would trick you. If you picked an orange bean, it might taste of Tutti Frutti or stinky socks or a brown one might taste of chocolate or poo.
I sometimes still buy these beans for young clients, like Thomas, not to feed them sugary snacks or laugh when they get a booger instead of a juicy pear, but to help them understand the role of thought.
When they take a sweet, I can tell how it tastes from their face. If it’s a good one, they want to keep chewing, but if it’s disgusting, their face screws up, and I give them a tissue to spit it out.
And then, I tell them what I want them to do with their thoughts. If they’re thinking about something nice, enjoy the thought, savour it, and chew it over, but if they have a scary or worrying thought, why would they want to keep that?
Spit it out.
You don’t need to hold on to a nasty-tasting sweet or a nasty thought that causes you to suffer.
You Don’t Need to Suffer
It’s a strange phenomenon I’ve noticed over the years that some people feel they should suffer.
In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk talks about working with a Vietnam veteran who is suffering severe trauma and nightmares.
Van der Kolk prescribes pills to help with the nightmares and is irritated when the patient doesn’t take them. van der Kolk asks him why he hasn’t taken them, and the patient says,
“I realized that if I take the pills and the nightmares go away … I will have abandoned my friends, and their deaths will have been in vain. I need to be a living memorial to my friends who died in Vietnam.”
This patient only wanted to eat the shitty sweets so that he could continue to suffer.
Because he thought he should.
I’m not talking here about suffering to master something; believe me, I suffer when I attempt yoga, but this type of suffering eventually leads to a good feeling. At least, that’s what the yoga teacher tells me.
I’m focusing on suffering your thoughts. Or, to say it more clearly, suffering from your thoughts.
Feeling that you can’t let go of a bad memory and should continue to chew it over because it would be irresponsible to spit it out?
You Are Allowed to Spit Out the Thought
Where does the idea that you should stay in a sad or anxious mood come from? What do you imagine will happen if you let it go?
Maybe you think, like the Vietnam vet, that whatever it is isn’t important if you let it go. This is often why people grieve for long periods. They think that if they stop grieving, it means that they don’t care about the dead person as much as they know they did.
But that’s like saying breakfast causes lunch. One thing doesn’t mean the other.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in any given year, 19% of U.S. adults are suffering from an anxiety disorder. How many of them could be free if they allowed themselves?
The body’s version of the taste of the shitty sweet is the symptoms you recognise. You might get sweaty palms, a churning stomach, or fluttery heartbeats, and if this happens, stop and recognise that you are allowed to spit.
Instead of worrying, analysing the thoughts, and getting deeper into the feelings, how would it feel to spit it out?
Don’t be silly, you might think. I know thoughts aren’t sweets.
But I want you to be a bit silly. Right now, you’re taking your thoughts very seriously, but your thought that my comment was silly is just as important as your anxious thought. Thought isn’t graded from low to high; it’s all energy. One thought isn’t any more important than another one because, at source, they don’t have any content.
Thoughts are just thoughts. They aren’t real.
You can’t not think. Well, you can, but let’s not race there. While you’re alive, you’ll think. And yes, you’ll think about things that make you sad, but you don’t have to keep in that thinking. Actor Keanu Reeves has lost many people he loves in his life, and he says, “ It’s always with you but like an ebb and flow.”
You don’t have to suffer your thinking.
“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
— Haruki Murakami
It might seem contentious to suggest you don’t have to suffer. I’m not making light of the casualties of war or natural tragedies; I’m talking about the suffering that mainly occurs in your mind.
Suffering is an emotional state associated with pain. And, as Murakami says, pain in life is inevitable, whether that’s the loss of someone you love or physical pain. But pain generally doesn’t last through time; when the pain has gone, the suffering can too.
When I had cancer, I strongly resisted the term ‘cancer sufferer’ because I didn’t suffer cancer. I had it. I had pain in recovery, and then that went. But many clients who come to me during their cancer journey suffer the experience, and this is because they keep worrying about what might happen next. They’re suffering in this moment worrying about the next moment. But that is optional.
Do you think that there is some kind of reward for suffering? You must have heard versions of the saying that you have to experience the lows to enjoy the highs.
Who said? What makes this true?
Let’s spit out suffering and enjoy a tasty sweet instead.