I used to crave friendly gazes from people, even strangers.
My highly sensitive, empathic self would shrink when my eyes were met with a glare or a snarl from a stranger. I would give my power away, unconsciously merging with an unknown soul, and join them in their space of suffering.
But recently, this all changed…at a traffic light.
I was coasting up to the lights when they changed from yellow to red. I remember taking a deep breath, consciously letting go of my chronic impatience, and feeling patient and mindful, even with the ensuing long red light wait.
It was in this moment of patient observation that I met her: sour lips and crinkly, glaring eyes scanning me like laser beams. She seemed ready for a fight as she drove around me to make her left turn from the expressway exit. I imagine, if she had fangs, they would have been covered in saliva. As our eyes met, I smiled from the inside out. Her eyes missed the upward movement of my lips. I think if she saw it, she may have winced.
I was shocked by the joy that overtook me as I hit the gas when the light turned green. The bubbling well of positive feelings triggered this thought:
Her pain is my joy.
The thought was somehow comforting and entertaining. This is what my spiritual teachers had been telling me all these years. This was my aha moment. The pain of another—the grumpy, wounded suffering—was what made joy, bliss, and all that other feel-good stuff more apparent. We truly cannot have one extreme without the other.
Is it weak to let another’s suffering bring you down?
As an empath and highly sensitive person (HSP), I’ve spent my whole life merging with others. I’ve let total strangers that I’ve had two-second interactions with pull me into the hallows of their suffering with a simple look. I’ve let friends, lovers, and family members’ rage, anxiety, and insecurity pull me down into the muddy waters of discontent. Why? Because I felt that I was doing the right thing—that by connecting to this person’s inner experience, I was somehow making them less alone.
In the end, I was left feeling alone, off balance, overwhelmed, and extremely anxious around people. Suddenly, a simple trip to the grocery store became an anxiety-provoking event. I had a stronger urge to isolate and avoid even the most mundane social interactions.
My stoplight moment has taught me that duality is a normal human state. The grumpy-faced driver reminded me: without pain, this world would not know joy.
It seems simple. And yet, the human mind fights it, and the empathic heart mourns it. And as we fight and mourn, we eventually get tired. And, in that state of exhaustion, we discover the true meaning of surrender.
Surrender: The gateway to compassion and acceptance.
Surrender’s gentle face is okay with saying: the world’s pain is also its joy.
When I first learned about the law of attraction, I thought it common sense: what you focus on manifests. What I did not understand (and what was also missing in the teachings I was introduced to) was that believing in the law of attraction feeds and supports the belief in the law of duality (everything has an opposite).
I spent years fighting duality, seeking the yogic path of the neutral mind, ignoring the fact that the mind is hardwired for dualistic thinking.
Her pain is my joy.
When this thought hit me, it sent a surge of the feel-good hormones, dopamine and norepinephrine, to my brain. I can’t have one emotional state without being aware of the opposite. Suddenly, I was immersed in joy.
Why did a woman’s painful, disgruntled expression trigger joy in me? Was I being sadistic, perhaps feeding off of her pain? Not at all. I was actually able to feel deep compassion for her emotional state.
As I drove off toward my destination, my smiling mind thought: Is she having a bad day? Did she just receive bad news? Is my face the doppelgänger of someone who wounded her?
Perhaps that’s why my smile didn’t form until her big black SUV drove past me and her frustration was a blurry memory in my mind.
How can empaths/HSPs make the duality of emotions a strength?
I’ve been trying two things recently that may have led to this recent moment of acceptance or surrender.
1. Accepting your own feelings. I’m pursuing my Master’s degree in Mental Health Counseling. I, like many (maybe most) empathic, highly sensitive individuals, have struggled with anxiety all my life. One day, I realized that I was thinking about my anxiety in a dualistic way. Why was I viewing it as a struggle and not as a state that was no different than any other state? Well, rewind to the early part of this article: her pain is my joy. How can I apply this to myself? My anxiety is my peace? For some reason that didn’t quite register—until I accepted it.
That moment at the stoplight, I accepted that woman’s pain as her pain, not mine, thus I did not take it on. I’ve been having this same experience with my own anxiety, as crazy as that may seem. When I accept it, I breathe with it, I appreciate it, and I thank it, then suddenly it shows me what’s on the other side of it—deep and unending peace.
When we accept our current state, it makes it easier for us to accept where others are. When we accept, we don’t merge. Instead, we ground deeper into our own experience, thus creating a healthy boundary between self and others.
2. Be more present. Another word for presence is mindfulness. When we are present with ourselves—like my stoplight moment—my impatience turned to patience and then to joy in a moment where I saw the face of pain; the face that acted as a mirror for duality.
When we are present, we see things as they are, not as we want them to be. When we are present, we are fully embodied in the here are now. Presence has perhaps been the best antidote for my anxiety, which usually feeds off of past or future thinking. When I am present, I am using all my senses—most importantly—my breath, to really experience what’s going on in the here and now.
Surrendering isn’t a thing you do.
My dear reader: you can’t force surrender.
In fact, the more you try to, the more it runs from you. But, you can practice presence. Take a deep breath and pay attention. How do you feel right now? What are your thoughts? What is going on in your body? What’s happening around you? Just notice, even the judgmental thoughts. Notice. Breathe. And, in that space, a sense of being will be revealed.
In that space, someone’s joy could be the face of your pain. Or perhaps, just perhaps, you could see a face of rage with a well of compassion and be reminded of the deep place of peace that resides within you—within all of us.
Author: Sarah Theresa
Image: Tareck Raffoel
Editor: Lieselle Davidson
Copy Editor: Yoli Ramazzina