Meditating on the Symptom

One of the most powerful concepts in psychotherapy is as ancient as humanity itself, but it's something that we quickly forget--that when we resist something, it usually gets stronger. Jesus said, "Resist not evil," which isn't exactly a winning position in politics, or in war for that matter. But in the realm of intrapersonal dynamics––that is, our relationship with ourselves––healing usually commences only once "lay it down," to use the words of Waylon Jennings. In Ericksonian hypnotherapy (i.e. the work of Milton Erickson), this profound truth is represented by the "principle of utilization," in which the hypnotherapist essentially tells the client to "hang onto to that symptom," or even to "make it bigger." Of course, it's counterintuitive that one must first yield to a symptom in order to defeat it, but it works so very well that most master psychotherapists are firmly established in this practice, and will rarely be caught fighting symptoms, or telling a person to change directly--unless it's a matter of life and death. Indeed, they are much more inclined to lean forward and listen when a person is battling something, looking for ways to positively reframe the symptom, and encourage positive engagement with it, so that the relationship with the symptom will become useful, and the battle will subside.

This stance requires a radically inclusive spirit, in which most of what we consider "bad" is explored for its value. There are practical, ethical, and moral limits to considering everything useful, but most of us stop far short of that limit, and end up doing battle with a lot of would-be allies.

One of the most direct and fruitful ways to explore the power of embracing the symptom, is to meditate on a negative feeling. Sometimes I feel anxious or afraid, or depressed, and the typical reflexive thing for me to do is to struggle against the feeling, and to try to make it go away. I'm not even aware that I'm fighting the feeling until I "go into" it, and discover that the level of distress is largely a function of the tension between my reaction and the feeling; and that when I move toward the feeling, the battle subsides, and the feeling transforms into something totally different. 

So try this. The next time you feel a significant negative emotion, for whatever reason, close your eyes and go into whatever form or meditation or prayer that feels comfortable to you, and then enter more fully into the feeling itself. Allow it a place, and welcome it. See if you can put the thoughts that provoke the feeling aside, and simply attend to the feeling itself. You may find, as I have, that the intensity of the negative emotion subsides, and the feeling begins to reveal unacknowledged layers of subtlety that were hidden by the struggle. You may find that you can completely let go of the struggle and enter more deeply into communion with your deeper self. 

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