For a generation Christopher Reeve was Superman. A dashing hero, a heart throb. A household name.
Success brings opportunities and for Christopher Reeve the opportunity was a life competing horses. Perfect dream for so many, yet one which would change his world forever. A bad fall left him paralysed with next to no physical mobility and chronic physical pain.
His life thereafter became the real stuff of super heroes.
He became a champion for those in his condition – supporting research and proving that one could still sustain a continued rich existence.
Hence his quote which I paraphrase in my title, “Pain is inevitable, misery is a choice.” I was reminded of this quote researching the incredible work of Mindfulness advocate Vidyamala Burch, author and founder of the highly successful Breathworks franchise.
There are many parallels between these individuals. And there are fundamental links here too to one of the foundations at the heart of Buddhist meditation – the relief from suffering.
Seemingly we are destined to suffer – we too freely give rein to our emotional reactions – and it is within that uncontrolled reaction that we breed the suffering – be it as a response to what neuroscientists would outline as becoming gripped by the self-reflective nature and memory driven narratives scripted with our brain’s default mode network, or in Ms Burch’s words we create a level of secondary suffering born of our reaction to pain or external stimuli – or actually more specifically to avoid or deny those stimuli. In both cases, we quickly induce emotional reactions which serve to sustain the experience.
The challenge of living an uncontrolled emotional led existence has been understood and written about by many – from Euripides, who talks of the “wine” which we can take control of our brains, to more recently Steve Peters in the “The Chimp Paradox.” None suggest that we have to defeat this existence, but they invite us too recognise it. In acknowledging we become aware. When we are aware we can choose.
In mindful meditation we are invited to turn and face those emotions. To acknowledge them and accept them – not to engage in some battle, nor to seek to deny or block them (both activities have been proven by neuroscience to sustain and strengthen them).
We really do have a choice. It may not be easy at first. And it is definitely not a “quick fix” exercise but we can choose. For some it is how we engage with our physical pain, for others it is the apparently suffocating narrative of our thoughts, but still there is a choice. A choice where we can turn and face what troubles us most, face it and acknowledge it. In facing it we shift our relationship, we develop an acceptance which gently starts to mitigate the hold of our emotional battle.
We hold the keys to our own cell doors, if we choose to find and utilise them. But it is not a journey for the faint of heart, it takes time practice and commitment. We will probably need some help on route, but in time and with experience we will engage our ultimate mentor, ourselves.
So, I return to conclude with Christopher Reeve, “A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”
We all have the capacity to be heroes, but that heroism does not just about bravery but also choice, we must choose if we are to face that which might otherwise overwhelm us.
(c) the mindful horse, 2017