Kate’s previous evening had culminated in a post-midnight event of Moo goo gai pan. When she arrived at my office the next morning, she was not only full of chicken and mushrooms, but even more full of remorse and self-loathing. She was swimming in a cocktail of emotions, which included shame, frustration, disappointment, disgust, sadness and more. Kate felt like it was impossible to be present in our conversation. She had come really just to tell me that she couldn’t stay. Her attention was imprisoned by her bloatedness, and the feelings of being fat, gross, unlovable, and a failure at life. She had decided that she couldn’t be present in her session that day, or present anywhere, until the bloating and self-hatred subsided. Her life was on hold for the time being, uninhabitable, at least until the food had passed through her system.
What was clear was that Kate was not only living the experience of fullness that day, but also the experience of what that fullness meant about who she was as a person. It was in that secondary experience, the story about herself, that the unbearable suffering was housed. It wasn’t the Moo goo gai pan in her belly that kept her from being able to be in the present moment, but rather the “me” story her mind had crafted out of the previous evening’s experience, which in fact made her present moment intolerable.
In a similar event, while out walking together, my friend stubbed her toe. I could see from her reaction that she was in real physical pain. But as I soon also witnessed, the suffering that the stubbing caused was not in her toe or foot—the real suffering was in her mind—in the story that she told herself about herself, as a result of what had happened to her toe. In the minutes that followed the stubbing, I watched as my friend transitioned from a happy, confident, and calm woman to a clumsy, inattentive and anxious little girl, the person that her father had berated and in whom he had been chronically and un-correctably disappointed. I watched as she re-dressed herself in an old identity, which included being a person who was perpetually distracted and to blame for not being able to improve her life. The pathways that connected the pain in her toe to the suffering in her mind moved with lighting-speed and were mighty powerful.
Back in my office with Kate, I asked if she could, just for a moment, experience the physical phenomenon that made up what she was calling her fatness and her disgustingness. Quite simply, what it felt like in her body at that exact moment, twelve hours after having eaten the last bite of food. At first she reported a series of emotions; she felt icky, leaky, fleshy, gross, a mess, and more. But all of her descriptions related to how she felt about herself, about who she was. Her body’s experience was nowhere in her description or awareness. I could only hear her mind raging on about how it felt about her, what it had decided about her worth and value—as a result of what she had eaten. When I brought Kate’s attention to this distinction, she immediately switched to a new chapter in the story about herself, specifically, her own psychological problems. At that point, a host of interpretations about herself and why she had eaten the food came tumbling out of her mouth; ideas about her parents, her psychological trauma, and her need to escape the moment into the anesthesia of food. Her body had still not been invited into the dialogue.
It took many attempts, but when Kate was finally able to drop out of her mind and down into her body, this is what she found: a tightness or presence at the waistband in her pants, a kind of achiness in her knees and pelvis, and a mild sense of fuzziness in her head. When the body’s present moment was allowed, such was the extent of her actual experience of the Moo goo gai pan and the whole event. A bit of tightness at the waistband, an achiness in knees and pelvis, and mild head fuzziness. When Kate was able to experience the moment directly, having untethered it from what it said about her and her identity, she felt profound relief. She even started to laugh, and suddenly she was entirely present in the room, the very same room she was going to have to leave just minutes before.
In that moment, stripped of its “me” story, the bloatedness (as she called it) in her body could just be what it was, a set of mild, completely bearable sensations. She realized that the problem, the suffering, had never been the sensations or the food in her belly. In fact, the sensations themselves had never even been experienced, never made it past the mind’s gate and into awareness. At last her experience could simply be what it was, which amazingly, was virtually nothing. Lightness entered the room, and the day once again belonged to Kate. Having unhitched her me-story from the present moment, disrobed her experience into its sensorial nakedness, Kate was delivered back into her life.
In the Advaita tradition (a part of Hinduism) there is a remarkable expression. It says this: you are not experiencing suffering, you are suffering your experience. Experience arises but how we want to be in relationship with that experience is up to us. An experience always appears as sensation in the body; it may be unpleasant or not, but either way it need not become an experience of profound suffering. Our experience becomes suffering when we give it to our mind to run with, and to use as material in its narrative about who we are and how we’re doing in our life.
As an experiment, try unhitching your experience from what the experience says about you. Try experiencing the present moment directly, as sensation. Try refraining from using the moments of your life as material with which to construct your “me” story. Try experiencing your life instead of using your life to define yourself. It turns out, not taking your life so personally can bring great relief and even give you back your life!