Despite how hard we work to escape feelings, when they’re gone, we miss them. People recently bereaved often feel numb but experience the numbness as unsettling; the sting of grief, though awful, feels more vital. A common symptom of depression is anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure), and it’s one of the most troubling. People born without pain sensations injure themselves and die young.
Escapism is a poor solution. Like numbness after loss, it’s sometimes a useful stall. But sooner or later we must feel our emotions, our pains, and our bodies.
My advice is thus: don’t run from your feelings; embrace them!
But what about physical pain, like the chronic ache of arthritis or the awful throb of cancer? Should we force ourselves to feel such discomfort when pharmaceutical drugs can relieve it?
When the pain is too much to bear, analgesic medications have their place. After surgery, or in the terminal stages of cancer, it would be inhumane to withhold them. Nevertheless, hospice patients sometimes refuse such drugs as death approaches. They value clarity and social contact more than pain relief and detachment.
We all value life, and life is about feeling. Living behind a wall isn’t really living, whether the wall is a medication or a drug of abuse, whether it’s compulsive eating, gambling, or web-surfing. We all value life, so deep down we know addictive behavior doesn’t serve us. On some level we know the wall is only a short term solution, even if we cower behind it our entire lives.
Most of us have an entire kit of escapist behaviors that insulate us from discomfort. In years past I kept the world at bay with marijuana, alcohol, cocaine, shopping, rage, and sex. These days, my addictions are less severe, but I still drink tea when tired or blue and check my smartphone when lonely. These feelings arise often, so even though they’re typically mild, I drink tea from morning to night and glance at the screen several times an hour. I’m trying to build enough fortitude to doff these last paddings and confront life unarmored. Still, I feel more engaged now than I did when my go-to insulators were powerful drugs, expensive sprees, and interpersonal intensity.
Quitting compulsions is hard, because without them we experience more emotion and body sensation, which makes us feel vulnerable. Feelings are often uncomfortable, but vulnerability is scary, and I suspect it’s the primary driver behind addiction. Perhaps it triggers flashbacks to childhood, when we could be so easily hurt. Perhaps it threatens our self-image as independent, defended adults. Perhaps it just feels strange and unsettling.
Whether it lessens sensations or hides vulnerability, or both, the escape that addiction offers blocks us from fully engaging life. The wall isn’t our protector; it’s our prison. We must break it down, brick by brick.
The only cure for escape is to stay rooted in our experience. This is a central purpose of mindfulness meditation: it teaches us to observe mental and bodily surges while remaining still and nonreactive. As we learn that feelings come and go, that they aren’t as dangerous and damaging as we once thought, we grow accepting and even curious. What exactly does sorrow feel like? I look inward and feel a warm heaviness in the middle of my chest. What does neck pain feel like? It’s a sharp, burning sensation stronger on the right than left, stretching down into my shoulder and up into my skull. Acceptance and curiosity don’t lessen discomfort, but they make it more bearable. Knowing that I can investigate sorrow, loneliness, and pain makes them seem less distressing and more familiar.
Opening oneself to pain is helpful, but opening oneself to joy is life-changing. Wanting to feel in control, we resist surrendering to the giddy, sparkling radiance of exhilaration. No longer free like children, we believe ourselves too mature to giggle with abandon, to spin in circles and fall down dizzy for the sheer silliness of it. But even though it may not be appropriate to look childish, it’s always healthy to feel child-like. Once we begin to embrace our sensations, once we quit resisting our fears and discomforts and simply feel them, we recover the child’s birthright. We view the world with amazement, as if for the first time. We notice beauty at every turn. We thrill to the spontaneous bubbles of happiness in our chest.