At our Grief, Loss and Difficult Emotions Retreats I sometimes talk about "the three worlds" as a way to frame our work of dealing with suppressed feelings. While this is just one map, it can be helpful to participants to view their situation as being stuck in the underworld, the lowest of the three.
These three worlds are an ancient way of describing our states of being. It's a model that was used in China (as in QiGong) and throughout the world, but it also fits our western mindset very well.
We suppress our uncomfortable feelings into the "underworld."But in doing so we end up stuck as we also suppress our our power and light held in and by those feelings.
The energy that it takes to push away uncomfortable feelings (such as sadness, anxiety, and anger) leaves us with less energy, and less awareness, for our daily life.
Our conscious lives shrink and we feel stuck. We can end up spaced out and not able to function well in the world.
As we recover what we've lost, which is the work of the retreats, our awareness and energy returns, and we become more present, alive, joyful and capable of taking constructive action again.
We are no longer stuck.
To do this we learn to say "yes" to all of our life, not just the good parts. We learn to say yes to all of our life, to stop compartmentalizing and living in just a small part.
We learn to accept this moment, and the next one. And the missing key to being able to do this lies in our emotions that we have suppressed, that we have denied. The underworld is where we suppress our feelings...where we push them below our ordinary awareness.
The true underworld can be hard to reach because we've contaminated it with our suppressed feelings and end up trapped in them. These feelings aren't bad, just uncomfortable and not compatible with our sense of self, our ego. And because we haven't accepted them these emotions are raw and uncomfortable...fear, anger, grief and so on.
In psychological terms we suppress these raw feelings out of our normal awareness. And they go into the underworld, down below our ordinary awareness into our body consciousness and the physical world.
The underworld is actually the world below our everyday awareness, which so often is focused on thoughts and perceptions about our life.
The underworld is not bad but it can feel that way because we don't want to deal with the feelings we are trying to get rid of and store there!
Some religious systems have said it is a bad place (Hell), and suggest that the physical world and our bodies are evil, but that has not been my experience.
It's only 'bad" if we don't deal with our feelings we've hidden there. Then our lives can be hellish!
The underworld is the world of our karma, our "work to be done" as Russell Paul Schofield put it. It can be a hellish experience to be stuck in all that stuff we are trying to avoid!
It's actually a soulful, grounded place, connected with nature, the physical world. People who have done their work in this region, are grounded, comfortable to be around and have depth of character.
What is this work?
It is the work of dealing with suppression. At our retreats we learn to lean into the old suppressed feelings, and they soon begin to transform, become allies instead of enemies.
Grief and sadness, for example, is really just stuck love–we only grieve because we've loved.
(If our trauma is from a very early age it can feel like it is a very real part of our beingness. Rather than an act of suppression, the trauma was there even before we had a sense of our self. But now, as an adult, we can deal with the feelings. Mark Epstein in his recent book The Trauma of Everyday Life does an excellent job of describing this process, focusing on Buddha's trauma of losing his mother as an essential component of his awakening.)
At the retreats we learn a safe way of entering this underworld of suppressed feelings, and we find that it is very much like our dreamworld, filled with metaphor and wildness...and gifts! It is here that we can feel our feelings, and work them through. As they are worked through our feelings become less raw and we realize they are essential parts of ourselves. We reclaim our lost feelings, and in doing so reclaim our lost power and light–and amazingly so, our love.
This is the world we live in day-to-day. And for many of us it's not a very large space because we have suppressed our old feelings. And these feelings keep coming up (from below) and haunting us.
People come to our retreats because their world has become a narrow place, filled with uncomfortableness. There is not a lot of space to relax or stop thinking. The suppressed feelings keep intruding. The trauma may be recent or old, but the result is our daily lives are painful.
We may try to rise up out of our lives, out of the middle world, into the upper world. Various practices such as prayer and meditation can help us temporarily rise up. But if we haven't done our emotional work of healing grief, anger and fear, then we'll come down way too soon. I know, I've tried it. That is the main reason people have difficulty with meditation...they can't get out of their thoughts.
They are boxed into a small world. Just below those busy, busy thoughts are all those suppressed emotions.
When we reclaim our suppressed feelings and worked them through they change...and we change! Our world not only becomes safer and larger, but we are more empowered. And, almost magically, we have access to the third world.
This is the world of our hopes, aspirations and ideals. It is the golden world, the world of the divine. God above. The world of goodwill and generosity and self actualization. The world of enlightenment that is separate from our ordinary, dualistic awareness.
When we suppress our emotions into the underworld we also disassociate from our lives. We can feel numb and spacey. We try to escape into the Upper World, but we are not ready, and so it is only a temporary high, if at all.
Something amazing happens as people work through their stuck feelings. The middle world gets larger, participants feel more grounded and soulful. They feel more alive, more real, more substantial. It's like the separation between the middle world and the underworld gets thinner, and the soulful underworld becomes the true earth beneath our feet, filled with beauty and safety.
And there are glimpses of the upper world too, especially when people work on their suppressed fear. Participants start to step into the holiness of the bigger energy from above, by whatever name they call it. The present moment is infused with a sense of oneness and glory, not as an abstract notion, but one that is real.
Instead of disassociation we re-associate, we come home to our lives and our world. Our daily life becomes more heavenly, the upper world (like the underworld) becomes more accessible and real. Meditation, prayer and other practices become more valuable and integrated into our lives. We live more and more in one, expanding and inclusive world.
Of course there is more work to be done, and the wondrous feelings at the end of a retreat do begin to fade somewhat. But now there is hope, and glimpses of methods that can help sustain a full and joyful life.
People get a taste of meditation (Agni Yoga) and other skills. They may choose to come back for more feeling work, to uncover more suppressed feelings and bring more life back into this world.