Many of us have heard the story about how the leopard got its spots, but the tale about how the peacock got its beautiful plumage is lesser known. In this origin myth, the peacock starts off as a drab, ordinary bird, going about it’s business hunting for food and shelter.
One day, it encounters a lair of many deadly snakes. But, just before the snakes rise up to strike and kill the peacock, they are quickly gobbled down by the bird. In this way, the peacock avoids venomous bites and instead ingests the snakes, poison and all.
Low and behold, as the peacock digests the poison, it begins to shake and tremble in it’s efforts to cope with the dangerous substances and when this process has finished, it’s dull feathers have been transformed into glorious iridescent plumage and the bird is healthier and more robust and beautiful than ever before. This is the peacock we know today.
This deceptively simple story conveys a kernel of ancient psychological wisdom… transformation is the outcome of facing, taking in, and working with the threatening emotional “poisons” we experience in our daily lives. Take anxiety as an example.
This is an unpleasant feeling of worry, nervousness, fear, disquiet, agitation, angst, nervousness, misgiving, tension and is often accompanied by obsessive behavior and sometimes panic attacks. Because anxiety is so unpleasant, many of us spend a lot of time and effort attempting to avoid it. The ways are many… alcohol, drugs, excessive work, extreme busyness, attempted control of others, etc.
Yet, it remains distressingly in our psyche, often just beyond conscious awareness, but there nonetheless, disturbing our peace. And we compound the unease with the health and social problems that are caused by addiction, compulsive action, and other effects of our attempted escape. We are like the peacock caught in a swarm of poisonous snakes on the attack, with no escape in sight.
So how do we go about digesting anxiety, thus transforming ourselves into the uniquely beautiful human being we suspect we have the potential to become? Well, we can start by recognizing when we are anxious.
We pay attention to where we feel anxiety in our body… Maybe we feel it as a gnawing in the pit of our stomach, or perhaps as a nervous flutter in our heart, or we might even notice that it comes in disguise as an urge to turn the TV on, get out our phone for a quick game, or whatever else we do to escape unpleasant feelings. That’s all, we just notice where in our bodies anxiety shows up and let ourselves feel it. So simple. We do this over and over, day after day.
Simple doesn’t not necessarily mean easy, though. Anxiety is uncomfortable. Think of a belly full of snakes still slithering and coiling and roiling and maybe even biting us from the inside. Tuning into these unsettling feelings is certainly not anyone’s idea of fun. (Reaching for a drink or a distraction, though, now that sounds like more fun, for sure!) Over time, though, as we build our capacity to notice and tolerate the feelings, an almost imperceptible shift begins to occur.
The hold anxiety has over us begins to diminish slightly. Just a little at first. Maybe this is because it has become more familiar, and has lost some of it’s capacity to surprise us. Or maybe with practice noticing it, we’ve begin to build some confidence that we can endure the inner turmoil, and it won’t destroy us. Whatever the case, our relationship to anxiety changes; we ‘have’ anxiety, but are no longer quite so ‘had by’ it.
And, somewhere along the line, we begin so learn how to self-soothe. Maybe when we notice anxiety messing with our insides, we imagine our adult self rocking and cuddling our anxious baby self. Or, perhaps we imagine cool water washing away the hurt and pain we feel. Or, we let the beauty of nature into our mind and heart, which can be so healing.
Or, we read a book that comforts us. Or any of countless other activities that allow more goodness and love into our lives. And then eventually, the miracle happens. We discover that the root of anxiety is some combination of lies that we have accepted as true. That we are not smart enough, good enough, worthy enough, lovable enough. And we discover the truth about ourselves, that at our core, we are the universe unfolding in love. Safe at last. Beautiful at last. Transformed at last, like the peacock.
In every way that matters, our freedom from emotional suffering comes about through mindfulness, from being present with what is occurring within, no matter how great the urge to escape those feelings. So, let’s not wish our suffering away. Let’s instead use it as a guide to find our way home. At last.