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Over the last several years, I’ve come to believe that the greatest, most powerful, most courageous thing we can do in our lives is learn to befriend our pain.
This idea is a major theme in my new book, Secrets of the Eternal Moon Phase Goddesses: Meditations on Desire, Relationships, and the Art of Being Broken. The Tantric goddesses I write about in the book are experts at drinking deeply of their own loneliness, heartbreak, and pain, and turning them into nectar that can make them stronger, more connected to themselves, and paradoxically more joyful.
While at a recent book event in Montreal, a young man stopped by my table, very curious about my book. He wasn’t sure about Tantra, especially, and asked me about desire. I explained that if we can learn to work with our desires rather than trying to eradicate them, they can teach us lessons about ourselves and guide us in important directions in our lives. He nodded, but told me that his spiritual practice is about trying to get rid of his desires. He didn’t like Tantra or what I was writing and wanted to stay far away from my book. Then he backed away slowly, as if my table was actually a black hole intended to suck spiritual men into its fathomless depths.
What a dangerous thing, indeed, to suggest that our desires could be helpful to us! It’s so uncommon in spiritual and self-help contexts to suggest that we get closer to our difficult emotions. So much advice is about stubbornly feeling positive contentment no matter how terrible your situation may be.
No one likes feeling sorrow or stress or anger. Our desires can be frustrating when they force us to look at what we don’t have. If we try to paste over those emotions with something more positive, like gratitude, however, we lose an important opportunity for growth. Modern science and psychology is just beginning to show what some branches of Tantra and Buddhism have known for generations: that trying to push away your negative emotions only gives them more power. Further, you can’t only numb some emotions—muffling pain necessarily also muffles joy, connection, and pleasure. The best way to manage your feelings, it turns out, is to let yourself feel them.
Our difficult emotions have important functions. Fear can tell us when we are not safe. Anger is a guardian of boundaries. Desire can whisper possibilities in our ears. No social movement fighting for the rights of the oppressed could be possible without anger, grief, frustration, or the desire for a better world. Placidly accepting our reality tends to maintain the status quo.
Befriending our pain can make us braver. When we practice slowing down and creating a space to feel, whether that’s through yoga, meditation, or going for a long walk, we give ourselves to opportunity to show up to what’s actually happening. When we do this, we find that our emotions aren’t as scary as they may seem. When we give ourselves a chance to fully, honestly feel them, they tend to slip away—we can’t hold onto them any more than we can prevent the world from spinning. Knowing that means knowing we can handle almost anything.
There’s plenty in life that we can’t control, but when we can stop trying to force ourselves to be content with that which isn’t satisfying, our difficult emotions can guide us towards the choices we do have. If we can find the courage to drink from the cup of our own pain, like the Tantric goddesses, we may indeed transform it into the sweetest nectar.