Shaking Hands with Demons

“Suffering is part of our training program for becoming wise.”

This famous quote from the American spiritual teacher Ram Dass might sound harsh to some. It might even send some into a head shaking, eye rolling scoff. ‘Why would I want to suffer? I don’t deserve to suffer- I’ve worked too hard in my life.’

But Ram Dass isn’t suggesting we not enjoy our lives. He’s simply reminding us that the discomfort of grief, embarrassment, guilt, longing and empathy are states of being that we are actually hard wired to handle. In fact- they are experiences that we all require in order to authentically be in the world.

But, alas! The beauty of Instagram allows our head to stay down as we encounter the homeless man asking for money. The glorification of busy-ness and exhaustion rewards us the chance to blatantly ignore our unresolved problems. Today’s fluffy world of ‘self-help’ often drops the requirement for actual self-analyzation, and sugar coats the psyche with misconceptions- including but not limited to the idea that being calm, comfortable and smiley are always to do with self change and growth.

But by putting blinders up on a daily basis, we take ourselves out of a “wide-angle” view of life. And doing so is dangerous. Because something ignored does not disappear. In fact: things (or people) disregarded as real, even in the presence of their reality, tend to become 10X stronger. Try ignoring a person that is directly next to you for an entire day, non stop. The physical and psychic tension that compounds from pretending what’s real is not, is at best a disservice to all involved, and at worse- a grave mistake. Even the brief moments of deliberate disassociation from what we dislike still add up- and leave us walking blindfolded without a guide through life. Because the things we choose not to look at will still be there, affecting us. And to look the other way does not save us- it just takes away our handle on the situation.

The famous actor and playwright Sam Shepard has said of getting to know the dark, interstitial matter of his own human nature- “Catharsis is getting rid of something. I’m not looking to get rid of it, I’m looking to find it. I’m not doing this in order to vent demons. I want to shake hands with them.” Shepard is sharing with us the importance of getting to know all aspects of ourselves. Because, how long would we be able to falsely believe that ignoring our demons and overcoming them, are synonymous actions? We can only mask the rugged topography of our inner landscape with layers of fluff, for so long. Easy outs like overworking, over drinking and frenzied hobbies built on capitalistic ego allow us to deny that the demons in us are even present at all. But they are- we all have sunlit skies and murky waters, and it’s important to get to know both- because doing so allows us to see all that is real.. without judgement. Having to manage the: anger, disgust, mortification, vulnerability and discomfort of looking at ourselves fully, like being with another’s suffering- serves as an important element of our own self evolution.

To see suffering in another is to understand it could be us. To truly see the poor and hungry is to recognize our own fragility. To stop being “too busy” to heal our relationships is to have to look at our role in the wound. To really be with what’s true is to feel responsibility to it. And the newsflash is- that’s the bottom line. We do have a collective responsibility to recognize the suffering in our world- and we each have an individual responsibility to take a deep look inside our own dark waters.

In my life, I have done some very high-profile things. I’ve performed on some of the most famous stages in the world. I’ve been on the cover of a magazine. I’ve been the star in films. I’ve traveled the world and have at times, made lots of money. But the accomplishments that have made me feel like I am finally beginning to ‘get’ this whole being a human on planet earth thing- are the moments where I am helping people. A pre-natal yoga client gets back pain relief and anxiety reduction from our sessions. Another client recovering from addiction and depression finds a renewed sense of vitality in her body. A client discovering the memory of childhood abuse learns to consciously release her body’s reaction to the trauma, 3 decades later. It’s not just their overcoming something that’s fulfilling, though. It’s the process of me being with their suffering, and their willingness to be with their truth, that allows both of us the “AHA” moment.

For a short period of time, I worked with elderly people in a retirement facility, many of whom were chronically ill or dying. On many levels, it felt like new schooling in the art of vulnerability. To look into the eyes of a man with Parkinson’s who had been a successful mechanic his whole life- and listen to him say he’s sorry because he’s just urinated in his bed, or to sit and hold hands with a dying woman one third my size as she waits for her son to visit yet says ‘will never come’- is vulnerability. Because in each of their stories, I recognized- is us. Each and every one of us is a beautiful encasement of skin and bones and memories and traumas, and each of us will lose our capacity to function well, and we’ll long for and need the help of another. And then we’ll go. And this is life. And why would we want to miss out on all of it’s depth while we’re here? The good and the difficult. Why would we skip out on knowing all that is real?

“Choose what is”, a mentor once said to me. As in- if we, on a moment to moment basis, accept what may be out of our control, our tolerance for it can strengthen and our capacity to see the value in the experience becomes suddenly available. Something as small as a traffic jam goes from maddening to relaxing, and something like being with human suffering goes from distressing and nauseating to being an experience we have the power to hold. And we do-have the power. And the strength. To be with our deep waters.. to really see, and look into our own- and then into one another’s.

After all, we are all sharing the same sea.

Being faced with hard facts about the sick and dying can be difficult. But take a look at the sheer empowerment that can come from taking action towards healing in the face of chronic illness and loss, in this brave story:


Jessica Cadden Osborne is an actor, writer, producer and director now based in Maine. Follow for updates.

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