“FINE” — a four letter word that covers up feeling. This is what we say when someone asks us how we are. This is what we expect someone to say when we ask them how they are.
When someone asks me these days how I am and I don’t say ‘I’m fine’, there is visible discomfort, disorientation, confusion, and anxious laughter. (My mother died suddenly and unexpectedly, nearly seven months ago). After I share that I am grieving the loss of my mother, many have asked, “still?”
All of these comments and body language are symptoms of our discomfort with pain. In fact, the basic drive that people function from is moving towards pleasure and away from pain. In Buddhism, this is seen as one of the root causes of suffering. I agree with this. Our mind naturally wants pleasure and avoids pain, but this never leads to a sense of fulfillment. These cravings are the root causes of addictions and unfulfilled feelings. Both pleasure and pain are fleeting and impermanent. In fact, when we seek to medicate our pain, particularly emotional pain, we can cover or manage it only temporarily with alcohol, shopping, television, sex, sugar, food, work, socializing, or even pharmaceutical medications. Materialism is a symptom of this drive. In fact, most of our socio-economic infrastructure is dependent upon us seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.
What would happen if we just leaned into pain rather than avoided it? What would happen if when asked how we were, rather than saying, ‘I’m fine’, we actually spoke about how we truly felt, what we were struggling with, longing for, or seeking? Would we actually be able to hold space for one another? Would we be able to bear witness to whatever the other was feeling? What would society look like if we could do this, if we actually did this? Bearing witness to another requires courage, strength, an open heart, and a special kind of fearlessness. It requires us to do what feels counterintuitive — to not avoid pain.
Every day, when I see patients in my practice I ask them how they are. At first they say they are fine, but then, the stories of how they really are pour out of them. People working for corporations today are not feeling ‘fine’. They are feeling undervalued, squeezed, undermined, and disregarded. They feel stressed, depressed, anxious, restless, sad, tired, and weary. They are becoming chronically ill due to the feelings they are carrying. Teachers, returning back to school from summer break are anxious, stressed , exhausted, and losing sleep. It’s not because they don’t want to return to teaching, but because the corporate structure of education no longer allows them to teach creatively or from a place of heart. Physicians practicing medicine in corporate health care have a 100 to 400 times greater suicide rate than the general public. The incidence of alcoholism and depression amongst corporate lawyers is at an all-time high. Today’s veterans are more depressed with suicide rates higher than ever before.
And then we have our children. Our country’s rate of depression and anxiety in children is at an all-time high. ADD, ADHD , and learning disabilities are diagnosed in epidemic proportions. Our adult and child obesity rates have sky-rocketed in the last decade leading to chronic diseases in unprecedented numbers. The medical system is medicating and managing these symptoms in record numbers. This is costly, and grossly ineffective. Although it is good for the Gross Domestic Product, it is awful for our individual and collective health and well-being.
Measuring our success from a monetary standard perpetuates illusion. In fact, it is a short sighted and adolescent perspective towards life. Money has now taken over as the greatest drug we use to bring us pleasure and avoid pain. Paradoxically it has caused us more pain than ever and it has not healed our suffering. It has actually deepened it.
So, in answer to how are we doing? — We are really not ‘fine’. We are a hurting culture. We are sicker, more depressed, more stressed, and lonelier than we have ever been.
What can we do to heal this? What if the answer to healing this “dis-ease” is to speak the truth about how we really feel, knowing that we can count on each other to bear witness to our suffering? What if we choose to grow the courage to lean into our pain and stop running towards pleasure? What if we begin to practice being more authentic about our feelings towards ourselves and each other? What if we decide to live from a place of meaning and commit ourselves to practicing healthy love and communication?
I believe, if we can make this part of our spiritual practice, we can allow our suffering to transform us and become a more heart-centered country. I believe we will be happier, healthier, and more authentic. I believe that our authenticity can serve as a role model for the world.
And how am I doing? I am not fine. I am grieving deep and hard for the loss of my mother with no end in sight. I am leaning into my process, my feelings, and my profound sense of loss. I have chosen to be transformed and deepened by my grief and will allow myself the time it takes to be with it. For those of you who can bear witness to this, I am truly grateful. For those of you who can’t, I urge you to find the courage to do so.
I promise you, bearing witness to pain will deepen your compassion and empathy and make you more trustworthy as a fellow traveler through life. I promise you, it will deepen your sense of meaning and heal your feeling of loneliness. You may even find yourself growing in wisdom and being able to love more deeply and authentically.
©October 2016 Kalpana (Rose) M. Kumar M.D., CEO and Medical Director of The Ommani Center for Integrative Medicine, Pewaukee, WI. Website: www.ommanicenter.com Author of Becoming Real: Reclaiming Your Health in Midlife. 2011, 2014 Medial Press