I was recently asked to speak at a meeting in which the speaker chose a reading from As Bill Sees It. I flipped open the book randomly, and came to the entry on page 226 entitled Give Thanks from the March 1962 episode of the Grapevine. It read:
Though I still find it difficult to accept today's pain and anxiety with any great degree of serenity - as those more advanced in the spiritual life seem able to do - I can give thanks for present pain nevertheless.
I find the willingness to do this by contemplating the lessons learned from past suffering - lessons which have led to the blessings I now enjoy. I can remember how the agonies of alcoholism, the pain of rebellion and thwarted pride, have often led me to God's grace, and so to a new freedom.
I have not read every page of As Bill Sees It, but I don't know if I could have turned to a page that I agree with more. Although I do not practice this in every moment, I try my best to. Turning toward our suffering and not running from it is a indispensable practice. The tendency of recovering addicts to run from unpleasant feelings is often a result of what is taught in twelve-step programs: to call your sponsor, go to a meeting, or help a newcomer.
Generally, I think these things are great. I call my mentors every day, go to many meetings, and work with as many newcomers as I am able to. However, these are not solutions for our own issues. When I am feeling an unpleasant feeling (like anxiety), calling a sponsor may not be the right choice. A sponsor may tell me to go to a meeting or help a newcomer, but these are not helping me grow how I need. Going to a meeting or working with somebody else are both important aspects of my recovery, but again, they do not necessarily offer the best solution.
I have found that the best answer is often to just sit in it. I don't mean whine, play the victim, or blame others. I mean that we simply must sit in our feelings sometimes. When anxiety takes over, we must allow ourselves to feel the feeling. There are many ways I have benefited from doing this.
First, awareness of our suffering allows us to learn about the feelings. When an unpleasant emotion arises, I run. It is one of the foundational parts of being an addict. When I began to sit with my emotions, I began to learn about them. I noticed that my anxiety was generally a combination of tightness in my chest, a feeling in my arms and hands, and racing thoughts. Only when I sat with it was I able to see that anxiety was just a combination of other sensations, and not really as "bad" as I had thought. It was just unpleasant.
When we sit with our suffering, we are doing the most compassionate thing possible. It may not seem this way at first, but when we truly sit with our pain, we are able to change our relationship to it. When we accept our pain and look at it with a curious eye, we are able to treat it with more love and compassion. When we run from it, we are not giving it any attention, nor allowing it to teach us anything.
We also learn a lot about our instinct to run from unpleasantness when we sit with our feelings. When we run, we encourage ourselves to not feel the feelings. Every time we sit with an unpleasant feeling, we are able to strengthen our ability to change our relationship to unpleasantness. We may see our immediate reaction of aversion, and work on changing it to a more loving and compassionate response.
Finally, as the reading in As Bill Sees It points out, suffering has a lot to teach us. If we are willing to learn, our pain may be our greatest teacher. Pain is a motivator for change, and without it, we probably wouldn't be on a spiritual path. When we suffer, we are truly offered a chance to learn something about ourselves. Buddhist monk Ajahn Chah says, "In each moment of suffering lies an opportunity for awakening."