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Commusings: Freedom and Suffering by Hala Khouri

May 02, 2021

Hello Commune Community,

If you’re anything like the other 108 billion people who have been born over history, then you’ve probably asked yourself the question, “Who am I?”

Here’s a way to think about it:

You live at the intersection of consciousness and personhood. Consciousness being the thoughts, emotions, and sensations that arise and subside in your awareness moment by moment. And personhood being the contents of consciousness — the stories you tell yourself about yourself that gird your sense of identity.

These snapshots of three-dimensional space-time stack up like a tower of cheese singles within your subconscious and somatically in your body, providing the psychological continuity of what it is like to be you from day to day.

Your stories may become fossilized below the crust of consciousness. The happy ones can elicit sensations of joy and lightness. However, the traumatic and painful ones may produce fear, doubt, and sadness. Unexcavated, our personal biographies can create what Michael Singer refers to as Samskara, unfinished energy patterns that end up running your life.

Fortunately, there are brilliant humans like Hala Khouri, the author of this week’s missive, that help us stand in our pain and move through it. I have had the pleasure of knowing Hala since we were wee college students. Her professional and charitable work epitomize the spiritual path.

Let me know what you think at [email protected] and you can follow my rantings on IG @jeffkrasno.

In love, include me,
Jeff

P.S. If this week's missive inspires you to offer your own story and perspective on life's perennial questions, email us at [email protected] and we may feature you here.

• • •

Freedom and Suffering

by Hala Khouri


There is no coming into consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. CG Jung


I’ve always been a happy person. People often commented on how optimistic and bright I was. All that was true, well, mostly. I was happy, I was optimistic—yet my positivity was slightly manufactured. I was positive because I refused to feel the negative stuff. I believed that “everything happens for a reason,” that there is nothing “bad” because those things help us grow, and that I can create my own reality.

I was positive because I had learned to bypass the negative, but that comes with a price.

My senior year of college I went through a difficult breakup with my high school sweetheart, our split finally finished while sitting in a park in downtown Manhattan. I boarded the subway back uptown in tears. Heartbroken. By the time I got to my stop at 116th Street the tears were gone, and I had decided this happened for a reason and it was for the best. When my roommate asked me what happened, I told her that Al and I had broken up, but that I was fine because I had learned so much from the relationship and had grown from it. I shed not one more tear over it.

I did this with most difficult things in my life. Now I like to call it “over-understanding.” I would try to figure out the lesson in something so that I wouldn’t have to feel the pain.

Five years later, I found myself sitting in a stark, sterile doctor’s office as the doctor explained I had cancer cells on my cervix. My mother burst into tears. Me, I looked at her and told her that this happened to teach me a lesson about my second chakra, and I was going to embrace it. Again, not one tear or acknowledgment of fear. I knew there was a lesson and I was going to be a good student and learn it so that I wouldn’t have to face this again. 

Yeah, right.

So, what’s the price we pay for manufactured positivity?  Well, if we refuse to feel the pain, fear, grief, heartbreak, anger, or rage, those emotions are held hostage in the body and make our mind and emotions unstable. The shadow, as Jung called it, gets gagged and tied and put into a closet somewhere. And the less we acknowledge the scary stuff, the louder it bangs on the door of our psyche. If we don’t express ourselves and feel the feelings, we can end up sick, disconnected, unable to have true intimacy.

We can end up with cancer cells on our cervix telling mom that this was just another lesson. It’s amazing how the universe can manufacture its own irony.

For me – today – yoga is a practice of being with discomfort and breathing through it. On the other side of sitting with this, is more freedom. Don’t get me wrong, I spent years doing yoga without feeling my discomfort: I was simply focused on getting the poses exactly right. One day a teacher was inviting us to try to lift our supporting hand off the floor in half moon pose.  He walked over to me and said, “Try it, you won’t hurt yourself if you fall.” I realized I wasn’t afraid to fall, I wasn’t trying it because I was afraid of doing it imperfectly. My perfectionism was keeping me from taking risks; it was also keeping me from having to be present because all I focused on was how I could make the pose better. My habits on my mat revealed to me my habits off my mat.

As my practice matured, it got simpler, and I got more present in my body and in the moment. As I learned to tolerate discomfort (and imperfection), I got present to the ways in which I’m limiting myself by needing to always seem so happy, perky, and put together. I began to feel my anger, rage, sadness, sensuality and fabulousness. (The shadow is not all bad stuff by the way — it’s anything we’re afraid to acknowledge.)

I’ve gotten way better at sitting with discomfort. As a therapist, it’s one of the most important things I can do for my clients: bear witness to their pain without rushing to take it away. As a parent, I’ve found that if I can sit with my kids’ discomfort for a moment or two, they will more quickly pass through tantrums and upsets because I’m not rushing them out of their experience or trying to tell them they shouldn’t have it.

And yet, the spiritual path is not one direction through the dark woods. We walk in circles, but with eyes a bit more open every time. During the birth of my second son, I watched my old habits come back at the point where things got very intense. Here’s a somewhat graphic synopsis:

I’m squatting in my living room starting to push. Since I had done this before, I was overconfident. My first birth was “easy” as far as births go, so I assumed that number two would be even easier. I wasn’t anticipating that he would be a pound-and-a-half bigger. That makes a difference, let me assure you! 

As I’m doing the final pushes and feeling like I’m going to be ripped in half, I start to get scared. Maybe I can’t do this, I think to myself. To cope with the pain, I start imagining the tranquil women I saw in a water birth video, and I visualize holding my baby in my arms. Ahhh… I start to breathe deeply… But each time I do that, I feel the baby slip back up the birth canal.

My midwife catches it, “No more deep breathing Hala,” she says. “You have to bear down and push as hard as you can, and I need you to go here,” as she points to the part of me that feels like it’s literally on fire. But that’s just the part I was trying to avoid!

Shit, I think to myself. I know that if I don’t go there, to the most painful place in my body, I will not be able to get my baby out. And in that moment, I remembered all I had learned in my life about bypass, and I knew I was at a crossroads. If I didn’t go directly to the place that scared me the most, I could have complications and go to the hospital. I knew that going right into the fear would be the quickest way to get my baby. So, I shut down the old emotional survival mechanism, bore down, and in three pushes he was out.

Whenever we are birthing anything, we face death: death of who we were, death of old belief systems, death of old habits. It’s never easy, but when we avoid the pain, we avoid the joy and possibility as well. 

Khalil Gibran says it well when he warns that if we seek only peace and pleasure, then we will live in “the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.”

Embracing our shadow is about embracing life, vitality, joy, and happiness. I often imagine a plant rooting into the nutritious, dark, compost-filled soil. It is precisely the rooting into the rich darkness that allows extension up toward the sunlight. 

I think many of us suffer because of the habits we have that keep us from feeling our deepest discomforts. Habits like drinking, using drugs, over-eating, numbing out with TV, co-dependent relationships, and on and on. 

Trying to avoid pain is at the root of all addiction. Even the side effects of these addictions seem to be more tolerable than the thing we’re avoiding, yet the more we avoid that monster all bound up in our closet, the bigger it becomes. Or so we think.

What I’ve learned through decades of personal work and years of being a therapist is that the thing we’re avoiding is usually not going to destroy us. But our avoidance mechanism might. Allowing ourselves to feel the things we think will take us down often opens us up to transforming our suffering. 

When we’re no longer trying to avoid ourselves, then we are truly free.

• • •

Hala Khouri, M.A., SEP, E-RYT (she/her), is a sought-after speaker and trainer on the subject of trauma, yoga and social justice. She has been teaching yoga and movement for over 25 years and has been doing clinical work and trainings for 15 years. 

Hala is a co-founder of Off the Mat, Into the World, a training organization that bridges yoga and activism within a social justice framework. She also leads trauma informed yoga trainings nationally and works with A Thousand Joys training direct service providers and educators to be trauma informed and culturally responsive. She leads a monthly, online membership program called Radical Wellbeing and is the author of the new book Peace from Anxiety: Get Grounded, Build Resilience and Stay Connected Amidst the Chaos (Shambhala). Learn more at halakhouri.com.

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