Pay Attention to the Cause, Not the Symptom

If we were to identify our inner experience as either wanted or unwanted, pleasurable or painful, we might think of unwanted inner experiences as signals that some part of our lives needs attention and possibly change. In other words, our inner experience could be seen as a guide toward better self care-taking or toward what might result in our growth, inner or outer. The unpleasant inner experience is the messenger. The Buddhists say that if you see someone pointing at the moon, you are supposed to look at the moon, not at the finger of the person pointing toward it. Sort of the same thing: The important thing is the message, not the messenger.

What happens often, though, is that we try to alleviate the unpleasant feeling without thinking about the message it carries. This approach leads to forms of pain relief that stop us from feeling the bad feelings, but ultimately do not change the reality of what is not working in our choices, behaviors, or thoughts. Of course we want to feel better but there can be a pause where we allow ourselves to be curious about why it is that those bad feelings are getting generated in the first place.

Because so many of our assumptions about our inner states rest on the idea that our brains are broken, our chemistry is off, or we are somehow defective, we do  not respect the information that those feeling-states are pointing toward. We assume there is no good reason for how we are feeling and that the bad feelings themselves are the problem. The damage of this view is not only that the causes remain unaddressed but that we have profoundly disrespected our own minds. Over time we turn toward other people to tell us what to do and how to think and we rely on chemical intervention to regulate our inner states.

There is nothing good about being in pain. It makes sense to try to feel better. It is just that if we are only concerned with feeling better and do not make some effort to understand the causes of those feelings, we may be ignoring an important message. Our perceptions are an attempt by our minds to let us know about parts of our experience that we have not thought about. We may be distorted in our understanding of those perceptions, but it does not mean the perceptions themselves should be thrown out.

The balance is in respecting our own experience and also being willing to listen to other perspectives, question our assumptions, and make effort to understand in a more nuanced, complex way what our experience is trying to tell us. We choose the people we listen to, we are open to different views, and at the same time we respect that our own minds have a privileged and reasonable perspective on our own unique lives.

About norasblog

I am a psychotherapist with a private practice in downtown Chicago.
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