An excerpt from Heart Medicine: How to Stop Painful Patterns and Find Peace and Freedom–at Last. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.
For many months, Leila could not stop ruminating about the fateful event of spilling coffee on her ex–mother-in-law’s tunic. Images from the traumatic event on her son’s wedding day returned repeatedly, intermingling with related images of Eleonore undermining Leila’s marriage to her son and of Leila’s grandmother rejecting and shaming her as a child in front of her cousins. Centered around this shaming theme, these frozen images arose seemingly out of nowhere to consume Leila’s attention. They were hard to shake, leaving Leila feeling weak in her body, queasy in her stomach, and with a band of pressure squeezing her head.
Age-old, tender, and sometimes agonizing dispositions like Leila’s tend to repeat themselves despite our conscious wish for them to stop. That’s the R in LRPP (long-standing, repetitive, painful patterns of hurt): repetitive. Our painful experiences recur in patterns of sensing, thinking, feeling, and imagining, which are then often followed by compulsive and unskillful ways of behaving.
Psychology and repetition compulsion
Psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud and C. G. Jung used the term repetition compulsion for this ubiquitous dynamic in which a person repeatedly relives a traumatic event or its circumstances over and over again. Freud saw repetition as our psyche’s attempt to master difficult events; he understood it as a spontaneous yet unsuccessful attempt to heal. Similarly, the psychoanalyst Paul Russell has proposed that by ruminating about a memory, we are reliving a painful experience in order to master the overwhelming feelings that followed the original trauma.
Russell also describes the driving forces behind our repeating patterns as emotional rather than cognitive. Traumatic events change our brain structure and chemistry. They alter our brain physiology on a micro level but also make us prone to defensive and often destructive ways of coping. There is a wordless quality to traumatic memories with little verbal narrative yet with vivid images and bodily feelings—like Leila’s weakness, queasiness, and head pressure. Flashbacks often arise inadvertently, and we are unaware of their underlying patterns. And even when we become aware of the patterns, they remain tenacious, with a driven quality.
LRPPs are characterized by these ruminations, images, sensations, and feelings that intrude into our psyche, demanding to be repeated and somehow released. But in our unconscious attempt to avoid being hurt again, we freeze and constrict, as Leila did.
The Jungian analyst Robert Bosnak describes complexes (what I call LRPPs) as calcified, insulated islands of traumatic memories that must be loosened up and reintegrated by our psychosomatic system. The scar tissue forming a protective shell around our past traumas needs to be dissolved so they can finally be digested and eliminated. Repetition compulsion (the unknowing repetition of thoughts, behaviors, or whole patterns of responding) can then be seen as unconscious attempts to resolve the walled-off memories.
With my LRPPs, themes of feeling rejected, excluded, and not valued have come up again and again as a tangle of emotions, thoughts, images, behaviors, and bodily sensations. In a painful episode fifteen years ago, some teachers in my local Buddhist group let me know, in no uncertain terms, that my approach was too untraditional and that they would no longer welcome me as part of their teaching community. This rejection kept my ruminating mind hooked for years afterward, spinning in never-ending circles through my head. As I repeated the story to myself over and over, I would ponder how things could have happened differently, while self-doubt ate away at me. The slightest trigger in my day-to-day life could bring me back to this hurt and trigger my obsession with this group and their rejection of me. My body would feel constricted and cold, yearning for the warmth of a safe and kind spiritual family. Experiences that brought out similar sentiments of feeling excluded and rejected repeated themselves many times throughout the decades of my life.
Repetitive rumination informed by Buddhist teachings
Rumination—or papancha, as it is called in Buddhist psychology—is the experience of chewing on thoughts and feelings in a way that keeps us stuck and paralyzed. We dwell on and even amplify the upsetting aspects of a situation, like Leila’s nonstop ruminating about the coffee incident with Eleonore. Long after a painful episode has passed, we relive events as if they are happening in the present. It can be likened to the excessive development of scar tissue around an injury. Physiologically speaking, a person who has been wounded develops abnormalities in their stress hormones and arousal patterns in their autonomic nervous system that make their brain prone to hyperactivity.
Ruminating and obsessing about something that went wrong— such as repeating thoughts and feelings over and over again—may give us a sense of taking action toward resolving a situation that feels distressing and out of control. We may hope that doing so will relieve our stress. Usually, however, we’re merely cutting the groove even deeper, ensuring that our painful patterns continue to repeat for even longer.
The Buddha, like a good doctor, understood our body’s and psyche’s attempts to resolve painful knots of trauma within ourselves and tried to lessen the suffering we experience caused by our strong urge to react and repeat. As he explained it, suffering comes from grasping or pushing away our experiences, whether pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral feeling. This urge to grasp or avoid is so subtle, so endemic, that we are inadvertently drawn to repeat whatever gets us closer to our desires or further away from our fears. But that repetition, performed over and over again, is what deepens and sensitizes our wounds, keeping them alive. When we continuously pick off the emotional scab through our repetitive thoughts, the wound will never heal.
There can be an addictive quality to this process. Circular and repetitive thoughts and feelings try to entice us, just like fast food calls out to us to be consumed, offering the possibility of instant gratification and the promise of no longer feeling hungry. We can all recognize a bittersweet seduction exuded by the saltiness of rumination or sweetness of a familiar, repeating behavior. Actions, feelings, and thoughts call out, wanting to be continued and echoed, but this is what I call a “false healing.” Repetition promises feeling better, but in fact this wrong kind of food makes us feel sick and weakened.
Feeding the pain-body
Our obsessive, repetitive thoughts can also be understood in terms of Eckhart Tolle’s pain-body. He describes a pain-body as a semiautonomous energy form that lives in most human beings and consists of a vibrating energy field that is always in motion. This pain-body has its own primitive intelligence with its entire motivation being survival. It feeds itself emotionally painful energy in order to perpetuate its existence.13 You could say that the pain-body is addicted to unhappiness, which is in turn fed by negative thinking and emotional drama.
It can be difficult to recognize this pain-body in ourselves and even more challenging to spot it in others. For most people, the pain-body has both a dormant and an active state. The dormant state can last for hours, weeks, or months, depending on the individual, until it gets stirred up. Leila’s pain-body, which is very similar to a LRPP— the feeling of being an outcast since the days spent at her grandmother’s house—sat dormant in her psyche until it was activated by a new rebuff or rejection. By the time of her son’s wedding, her pain-body was already quite a mighty beast, and when Leila spotted Eleonore, it roared to life again, filling Leila with great distress. Whether the pain-body is merely a resonant metaphor or a definable thing in itself, it’s an image that can help us clearly understand the repetitive, addictive, and even parasitic nature of our own LRPPs.
Psychology, Buddhism, and Tolle’s pain-body all describe an obsessive and ruminating state and its addictive quality. Whether called pain-body, complex, or LRPP, this experience can grab and hold us in the throes of its influence. The Buddha saw attachment, grasping, and clinging as the cause of our endless suffering. He recommended eight basic treatment strategies, named the eightfold path, to heal our sick souls. Yet every treatment plan needs to be finely tuned to the particular needs, environment, circumstances, and times a patient is living in.
Radhule Weininger is a clinical psychologist and author of Heart Medicine: How to Stop Painful Patterns and Find Peace and Freedom–at Last.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com