Going Down and Coming Back Up

By Ken Wells - 05/04/2021


Series Two: Blog Twenty-Six

May 4, 2021

Author and Buddhist monk Pema Chodron shares a wonderful story about walking along the beach lost in her thoughts. As she mindlessly strolled, a big wave moved in, knocked her off her feet, and rolled her along the bottom of the ocean floor. She stated that she sucked in salt water, and sand poured into every orifice of her body. She said she thought she might drown. Then the wave released its grip and she stood up, only to get smacked with another wave that knocked her down. She stated that this continued to be the way it was for a short time that seemed like an eternity. However, before she was rescued, she learned that the wave could take her down but she gained confidence that she could rise again. Upon reflection, she observed that much of her life had metaphorically been like the waves she endured. Many of life’s tribulations and trials had knocked her off her feet but she was able to rise again. In truth, she shared that now some of the waves that used to knock her off her feet are not even noticed. Her point was that her understanding of unconditional confidence came not from being able to control the results in life, but rather in the truth she learned that she could be knocked off her feet by life’s trials and struggles and always be able to rise back to the surface. So a key principle of life is that you will go down but you can always rise again.

The challenge to Chodron’s metaphor comes when you break down what it means to go down and come back up. First, you must assess what is it about life that drags you down. It can be a broken heart, physical illness, an act of betrayal, failure, and a number of other types of crisis. Going down can feel like a free fall. If you have never jumped out of an airplane or off a cliff into water, you have missed the experience of your stomach pushed into your throat and the sense of helpless free falling with no control to stop it. Yet, that’s what crisis in life can do to each of us. When the rug is pulled out from under you, there is a stunned response to the disappointment and heartache that failure can bring. Feelings like anger, shame, resentment, remorse, regret. and overwhelming sadness cascade with no way to turn the faucet off. It is overwhelming.

So, when Chodron says you must be able to go down, what does it look like? It is terrifying! Going down means to sit with the reality of negative experience without trying to escape it. Here are some considerations when you face going down after life pulled the rug from under you.

  1. When overwhelmed with grief from loss and trauma, rather than try to escape the painful reality, embrace and validate every feeling that comes to the surface. This is a first step in going down. Many people try to minimize by saying things like “I’ll be OK” or “it’s not as bad as it seems”. The truth is that it is devastating. The painful experience needs to be leaned into, meaning to acknowledge and feel the struggle and disappointment of painful results that always attach to failure and disappointment.
  2. The next step in going down involves stalking every feeling that paralyzes you and redirecting the energy of the feeling to what you hope to create in your life. So, anger, hate, shame, resentment, must be validated and expressed. First, you must direct the hurtful feelings to the source that triggered the hurt. This can be done through empty chair, emotion focus, letter work, and a host of other experiential modalities that will help you to move the energy of your feeling from the person to the issue and then to create an outcome of what you want to be and live with. This can take time. Seldom is this work or exercise one and done. You will need to take a break and commit to gentle self-care during the process of going down. It’s important that you understand that going down is for a season of time. The emotional healing will not be assembly lined. Everyone’s journey is unique to the individual. It will take as long as it takes. So, prepare and condition yourself to go down.
  3. Your current crisis will likely trigger past pain from previous struggles in your life. Marilyn Murray teaches that when you are feeling intense pain from a hurtful experience, it is important to consider pain’s intensity on a Likert scale of 1 to 10. She suggests that most current hurts trigger a pain intensity of about 4 or 5. She states that when the intensity of pain is an 8, 9 or 10, there is a good chance that the extra intensity is about past unresolved trauma. It will be necessary to address the past trauma pain that exacerbates the pain triggered in the here and now. When this is not addressed, then past trauma pain will sabotage the journey of going down and coming back up and experiencing healing.
  4. Going down always includes scrubbing the wound. This is an unpopular procedure. As a child, when you fell and skinned your knee, you would not want your mother to scrub the wound and put Merthiolate on it because it hurts. As an adult, it’s the same. Scrubbing an emotional wound is never enjoyable because it hurts. Scrubbing means that you embrace the pain caused by the trauma that was experienced historically or at present. Often, the pain is immense. Yet, in order to get through it you must embrace it and allow it to pass through your life experience. In time the pain will subside to a manageable level. This is the nature of grieving loss and deep disappointment. The experience will always trigger a painful memory of hurt and loss. In time it will no longer dominate your awareness. 

Chodron suggests that this process is what cultivates unconditional confidence. It is not that the results will be just what you hoped for, but whatever the outcome, you will be able to go down and come back up. Every addict needs to have this confidence when struggling with the recovery journey.

It is important to describe the process of coming back up. Coming back up does not look like the “before” and “after” advertisement from some weight loss or body building program.  There can be the suggestion that when you come back up all is good with no more struggle. The truth is that there is always struggle. While the challenge of healing hurt and disappointment can be overcome, it will always be present and a part of who you are as a human being.

That said, when you redirect your energy of feeling to the destiny you want, you begin to shape a future free of destructive behavior patterns. Your life will open up to the possibilities of transformation that are beyond what you ever thought you could create. This is the way of recovery. In one sense we are a compilation of all that we have ever done in our lives. At the same time, our recovery journey will take us to new realizations in behavior and awareness that we never knew existed. Going down and coming back up is a journey that makes this destiny a reality for those willing to engage lifestyle recovery.

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