Poker players call it a “tell.” A change in behavior or demeanor that gives a clue as to what kind of hand they are holding. I suppose some tells are obvious (a huge grin on the face, bouncing up and down excitedly, throwing one’s cards down in disgust), but most are far more subtle.
I think of this dynamic often when one of my counseling clients gets close to talking about their pain. When the tears start to flow from someone who is naming their deep grief the tell is obvious.
It is hard for us to get that close to our pain, though, so we develop ways of warding it off. Humor is a tool many of us employ to avoid talking about our wounds. Changing the subject quickly is another tell. I have a friend who can speak about her emotional suffering for about ten seconds and then quickly says, “Well, that’s enough about that.” I know at that point she is finished with the subject regardless of how much more I say or ask.
All of this makes sense to me on one level. Who wants to feel the depths of their grief, anger or shame? Who wants to get too close to their worst fears or losses? Those things hurt like hell. Swimming with hungry sharks sounds more appealing.
On the other hand, avoiding or denying our deepest wounds doesn’t seem to work in the long run. Fears can overtake us. Anger can become unmanageable. Emotional disconnection can become a way of life because of our unattended suffering.
So, what to do? Two stories from ancient religious traditions come to mind that may offer a different path toward healing.
There are many versions of the Buddhist story that goes something like this. Mara, the demon personification of doubt, fear, temptation, etc. was constantly trying to distract the Buddha from reaching enlightenment. When the Buddha would notice Mara lurking nearby, he would not run from him or fight him. Instead, the Buddha would have tea prepared and invite Mara to sit with him. In other words, the Buddha did not deny the presence of fear, pain and temptation. He acknowledged those realities and asked them to sit with him and talk.
It reminds me of the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness for forty days. During that time of testing the devil appears three times. In each case Jesus does not run from the devil, or fight him, but engages him in conversation.
What a different way of approaching one’s suffering. Inviting Mara to tea, or engaging the devil in conversation, are metaphors for how we might learn to acknowledge our deepest pain. And the reason I like these metaphors so much is that it is harder to feel like you will be destroyed by something or someone with whom you can drink tea.
A person I care about very much, who I will call John, keeps teaching me this lesson. John was like many people in the LGBTQ community who kept his orientation hidden for decades. Revealing his secret seemed certain to destroy him. Then, finally, he invited Mara to tea and looked his fear squarely in the face. John came out, and now years later, confesses it was the most important step he has taken toward his own healing.
Then, recently, John had to face a powerful demon. Alcohol had caused him problems on and off again for much of his life. In recent months the addiction had gotten a stranglehold on John and was undermining everything he cared about in life. But John did the smartest thing imaginable at that point of desperation. He entered into a treatment program and started a 30-day conversation with his alcohol problem. Now he has two months of sobriety under his belt and a sense that life can be good again.
John is no different than any of us in that he suffers. What does make him different is that twice he has been willing to confront his fears and problems in ways that many people will not. His courage and wisdom in doing so are an inspiration to me.
We can run from our pain, thrash at it with unhealthy addictions and behaviors, or invite it to tea. Only one of those approaches leads to peace.