If you follow my work you know that I view anxiety quite differently than most people. Instead of seeing it as something to eliminate as quickly as possible – usually with medication – I see it as the soul’s way of communicating, via the vessel of the body, that something is awry inside and is ready to transform. Eradicating the anxiety before you understand its message would be like stamping out a headache every time one appears and then realizing that the headaches were trying to communicate an imbalance in your brain chemistry that needed attention. And of course we do that all the time with our myriad of quick-fix band-aid solutions for getting rid of physical pain as quickly as possible.
Perhaps the biggest deterrent to healing from anxiety is the belief that it shouldn’t be happening: that if you were in a different relationship or lived in a different city or had a different job or had more money then you wouldn’t be suffering from anxiety. We’re so culturally addicted to the belief that our internal states are determined by external circumstances that it’s like swimming upstream to develop a different mindset – one that invites you to take 100% responsibility for your pain. I’m not saying that a different job or city might not be more conducive to well-being, but if that’s the case the decision would come from a clear-headed, open-hearted place inside as opposed to a decision fueled by anxiety.
The belief that your anxiety shouldn’t be happening stops you dead in your tracks from doing the work that needs to be done. It’s fighting against reality because the anxiety IS happening, and every time you fall prey to the escape hatch mindset you miss the golden opportunity you’re being given to heal and grow.
Let me also say here that sometimes it can take years to understand anxiety fully. This, again, flies in the face of the cultural mindset that leads us to expect a quick-fix, that fails to understand that the work of the soul takes time. Soul-time is not technological time; we can’t press a button in our psyche or read one book or take one course and expect all of our pain to be washed away. The true inner warrior understands that we heal in waves and cycles, and that the same wound can appear at deeper and deeper layers for years or even decades. That doesn’t mean that you’re living in a constant state of misery or anxiety. It means that when you take anxiety under the wing of your genuine desire to learn it ceases its hold of misery and transforms into a companion of messages on this path of life. Paradoxically, once you embrace anxiety the underlying need usually stops manifesting as anxiety but instead reveals its true face as one of the myriad core feelings: grief, fear, loneliness, uncertainty, disappointment, jealousy. It’s like simmering down the symptom to arrive at the crystal of root cause that lives at the center.
Just as your anxiety is not an accident, so the events of your life are not an accident. My clients often express the feeling of regret over choices or experiences that negatively affected them. Regret is almost always a function of failing to see that every experience in life carries with it the opportunity to learn and grow, and that, quite often, there’s a force bigger at play that guides us toward painful experiences that carry within them the crystal of opportunity for growth.
What if you could adopt the mindset that everything in your life – every symptom, every challenge, every experience – is designed to help you grow? How would your life be different?
And yet… and yet… most people tend to gravitate toward regret. We live with regret until we understand deep in our bones the purpose of the experience.
I recently made peace with one of the few areas of regret I’ve lived with in my life. When I was twenty I traveled to Brazil for four months for my junior year abroad program for what turned out to the most terrifying, traumatic four months of my life. While I’ve understood intellectually why that experience was important for my life, it’s taken me twenty-two to get it so deeply that the regret bellied over into true awe and gratitude.
I never planned to go to Brazil. Having spoken Spanish all through high school and into college with near-fluency, I always planned to travel to Spain. But then the Brazil bug bit me: I had taken a Brazilian dance class the summer after my Freshman year of college and I was hooked. I danced all summer. I danced through the next year. I listened to Brazilian music. Quite impulsively, I changed my plans and set into motion an experience that would alter the rest of my life. And Rio de Janeiro, where there was already a program in place, wasn’t enough. No, I had to travel to the Northeast, to Salvador, Bahia, where the true dance and music originated. So I designed my own program, got it approved, learned Portuguese in nine months, and left. In January 1990, instead of getting on a plane to Spain, I headed for Brazil.
Brazil pummeled me; it was nothing like the fantasy I had built up on my mind. In a single moment, I was yanked from my safe, clean, tree-lined, upper-middle class life and hammered down into the middle of a life I had never known on any level. I lived in favelas where cockroaches the size of snails lined the floors and ceilings with such ferocity that white paint turned black, witnessed a man get shot during Carnival, walked past pools of fresh blood on the streets on a daily basis, and had trouble finding anything healthier than Guarana to drink (basically sugar water). For months I ate what I thought was crushed peanut cakes from vendors on the side of the road only to learn at the end of the trip that they were actually crushed shrimp cakes that had been sitting in the hot sun all day.
For me, those four months in Brazil was a living nightmare. Yet, what I know now, it was also what initiated me into my life’s work. Some people are initiated through ancient rites in the middle of a forest. I was initiated in Brazil. And when I look back now, I can clearly see that I was pulled to Brazil by invisible forces (a divine plan, perhaps?). The dance, the music, some unnamable something pulled me there. As if I was hypnotized, I had changed directions on a dime. It was out of character for me to be so impulsive, but nothing was going to stop me; I had to go.
Had I not gone to Brazil I don’t know that I would be here today, writing this blog, doing the work I do, offering healing through my words and heart. It’s one of my deepest privileges to be doing this work, and tears come to my eyes when I think about the alternatives. Had I not gone to Brazil I might be living a different life, one not punctuated by anxiety, somewhere else with someone else with some other kids. A chill creeps up my spine as I write that as it resonates as wrong in every fiber of my being. As terrible as anxiety and panic can be, I can’t imagine who I would be without knowing them intimately. How could I help others, how could I mother my highly sensitive son, how could I become a humble human being aware of my own perfect imperfections had I not descended into the darkness of soul where anxiety and panic dwell like apparitions in the night? Had I not gone to Brazil I might still be walking around in my glass castle of illusion and fantasy.
But what I know so strongly tonight is that the phrase, “Had I not gone to Brazil,” is non-sensical. I did go to Brazil. I had to go to Brazil. Brazil pulled me there and perhaps had something to do with the bigger plan of my life to become a midwife of soul healing. One of the only positive memories that I hold from Brazil was attending a ceremony in a hidden alley with a wise, old healer. During the ceremony, while in the middle of a trance, the healer looked up at me and said, “You have healing hands.” For years I thought that meant I was supposed to work with my hands directly through some form of healing bodywork. Now I know that he meant that I would write, and that through my words I would offer healing. And perhaps he also meant that I have healing capabilities in the hands of my heart.
My experience in Brazil came flying back into my consciousness lately, and I took it as an opportunity to see if I could flip the regret into gratitude. In the imaginal realm, I sent my current, loving self back to one of the most traumatic experiences I endured there: getting pulled out into a riptide and nearly drowning. When I time-traveled back to my terrified, twenty-year old self sitting in the sand, I sent my loving parent self to sit down next to her to wrap her in the wings of my arms and tell her, “I know you’re scared. You’re going to be okay. This is important. You’ll understand it one day. It’s all going to make sense much later.” Nobody told me that at twenty, but I know it now with every fiber of my being, and when we time-travel we can heal the hurt and scared places inside. In other words, the realm of the unconscious is timeless, so when we bring the wisdom and healing that we hold in present time back to the past, we heal the past as well.
When I emerged from my time-travel, for the first time in twenty years I felt gratitude toward Brazil. For the first time in over twenty years I can truly say, “Thank you.”
Brazil wasn’t an accident. Nothing in my life has been an accident. And your life isn’t an accident, either: not your anxiety, your wounds, your failures or your traumas. In fact, the great sages teach that the seed for healing lives at the center of each trauma, meaning that whatever your greatest challenge is will also be your greatest strength. I see this so clearly now with my trip to Brazil: the trauma I endured there initiated me into many years of anxiety and panic, but it’s that very anxiety and panic that led me to my life’s work.
The same is true for your struggles. When we can flip the mindset that life shouldn’t happen the way it does to a mindset that holds that life is unfolding exactly as it needs to unfold, we step more easily into the river of growth and learning. We are here to grow, and growth isn’t easy. In fact, it’s when life hurts the most that we grow the most. Quite often, it’s difficult to see what we’re meant to learn in the midst of the pain, but if you take the time, even years later, to shine the light of consciousness onto what has been your greatest challenges, you will find the crystals and diamonds that live in the center, the gems and jewels that you could have only found by enduring your own dark night of the soul.