Metabolizing Our Suffering:
I noted in my second article in this series that “Without the mental skills by which to metabolize our suffering, the memory of our suffering—and with it, our emotional pain—keeps the fight or flight reaction going.” That is true.
The memory stays lodged in our intrapsychic craws. From there, it haunts and even plagues us our entire lives—whether the memory is one of family dysfunction growing up, a terrible relationship with an ex-spouse, or an ongoing disease.
But it doesn’t have to stay that way.
We can dislodge the memory of suffering or trauma from our craw. We can indeed learn to “metabolize” it. In doing so, we can not only become, by degrees, free of its enslaving impact, but we can use it to build character. Both the apostles Paul and James have noted just that.
The starting point—and key—to digesting our suffering is facing the pain. We must fully embrace our suffering. NOT embracing it is what keeps it lodged in our craw. But how do we face it strategically?
We must follow King David’s example. I call this approach the “King David Search.” (KDS) Innumerable great saints of the church over the millennia intuitively but wisely used his approach—without the modern scientific information we now have about the power of such a tool. The fact is, psychologists clinically use King David’s method in various nuanced ways to effect healing and transformation…but without my religious label.
In psalm after psalm, David simply asks the Lord to search his heart, whether about his anxieties or his depressed moods or his outright sin. Then David reflects. Here is an updated clinical version of his approach:
- Sit down for five minutes each day to do the KDS;
- Close your eyes;
- Start by asking the Lord, “Lord, search out my heart that I may see my suffering and feel my pain;”
- Then let the Spirit bring to mind whatever pictures the Spirit will.
Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? So simple that this tool seems impotent in the face of trauma, like throwing stones at a military tank. But this method is actually the most powerful way to access suffering, whether we’re talking about suffering from the deep past, including infancy (which is where my trauma began), or recent combat trauma. I used this tool to open up my own repressed traumatic memories as chronicled in my book. The fact is, though this method seems so simple to do, it is nevertheless extraordinarily tough for clients to actually follow through on. Why? Precisely because it walks them right into the hornet’s nest of their pain and suffering.
Here’s more technically what is buried in that seemingly overly simplistic method:
- From learning theory, we know the more we practice something, the more powerful the training effect on the mind. (Remember the old days of using index cards to learn a language? Or studying definitions? We’d flip through the cards periodically through the day in order to get the vocabulary words or definitions through our skulls!) From research (including MRIs and PET scans) on organic brain trauma as well as emotionally charged psychological trauma, we know practicing the KDS can rewire our brains substantially.
So our starting point for the KDS is five minutes a day. But if you want to increase the training effect, practice several times during the day…each day…seven days a week. Practicing more often is more powerful in rewiring the brain than practicing longer. Some Christians, myself included, have turned this tool into a way of life.
- When you sit down to do this search, you will be making the spiritual or existential choice to face your pain and suffering. This new choice will stand over and against the long-standing choice to not “see” and not “feel” your pain. This choice to face oneself harnesses the mind’s drive to reshape its own defensive architecture in order to allow the actual memories of the pain and suffering to emerge into consciousness. Your mind will automatically begin searching for the truth…that is, once you decide you want the truth.
Why will your mind do that?
All of psychotherapy stands on the basic premise that the human mind wants to heal itself. This should not be too surprising since all of modern medicine stands on the same premise for the human body: it wants to heal itself. No doctor heals. Nor do I heal my clients. The doctor “midwifes” the body’s own drive and power to heal…as I midwife the mind’s own drive and power to heal. After all, the mind and body are two dimensions of the same holistic system.
So, for example, if you badly slice your arm wide open in some accident and go to the ER, the nurse will clean the wound. Why? So your body’s own defenses against bacteria have less work to do. Still, it is your own body that does the nuts-‘n-bolts hard work of fighting infection. The doctor will then stitch the wound. Why? Because stitching just makes it easier for the body to do its job, with less area to coagulate to stop the bleeding. And scar tissue has less distance to crawl to cover over the muscles below so the skin—and arm—can function again. The body does all this on its own.
So too your mind. Once you ask the Lord to search your heart, your mind intuitively begins the search. It will drive itself to “see” and “feel” the truth…if you let it.
- Why close your eyes? Because for people sighted from birth, most memories are consolidated primarily (though not exclusively) visually. You close your eyes so you can more vividly face the memories that emerge. I did just that as I faced the terror of my nighttime isolation in my attic as a little boy. To strengthen soldiers’ visualizations in facing their traumatic memories, the military is now using computer simulations of their personal battle scenes in order to help them metabolize their PTSD.
You can soften the impact on your painful memories emerging by opening your eyes to get a fix on reality around you. Some people do something similar in a movie theatre. If they come to a gory or frightening part of the movie, they might close their eyes to block the impact, or dart their eyes around the theatre to momentarily distract, or quickly look down at their lap to shift the focus from the unnerving scene.
- In doing your search, you want to allow your mind to brainstorm—letting your mind’s eye picture whatever it wants to picture whenever it wants to picture it. No holds barred.
Because of how your brain and mind are designed, the pathway to your memories is rarely a straight line. Your mind may picture all kinds of things, from simple colors…to geometric shapes…to surreal imagery…to a list of things you need to do…to what happened during the day…to the actual traumatic memories themselves. The varying images are ways for your mind to worm its way through your defenses to get to the memories. Often, clients will experience “nothing.” They tell me it was “black” or “blank.” That’s because black or blank are pictures of the mind blocking the flow of memories.
If you find that your mind stays blank, or stays focused on one thing, and you have no idea why, then simply pray, “Lord, I have no idea why the Spirit has brought this image to mind. Please show me.” Believe it or not, with practice—and ruthless self-honesty about wanting the truth—your mind will eventually lead you to the painful memories.
The KDS is the spiritual journey of facing the dark side of life that slammed you—with the hope that you will transform your suffering into character and greater faith in Jesus Christ. As you begin the KDS, you are making the choice to enter into that adventure.
As you practice the KDS, your mind will create convoluted pathways to the traumatizing memories. In doing so, it will rewire your brain permanently.
As you embark, you are creating a desensitization protocol through which you will get used to the pain emerging into consciousness. You will also train yourself to notice memories trying to break into consciousness. With practice, you will gain both perspective and strength that you can actually do this. You will come to realize that the real trauma has already happened to you; the memory is now only an inner movie. And that movie you can now edit.
How do we do that?