The monster in the cellar
Imagine you’ve lived in a house your whole life. In the house there’s a door that leads to a creepy cellar. Since being a child you’ve heard strange noises coming from the cellar.
You’re terrified of whatever is down there. Over the years you’ve imagined it to be a huge, hairy monster that will devour you if it catches you. You always keep a big padlock on the cellar door.
But as an adult, you get more and more curious about what’s making the noise. You also gain more courage.
One day you hear the strange noises again. You decide to see for yourself what’s in the cellar once and for all.
You unlock the padlock and open the door. You creep down the wooden, creaky stairs as the noises continue.
Your heart is pounding. Your stomach is tied in knots. Your hands are clammy.
You reach the bottom of the stairs. Just as you start to lose courage, you see it. You’re shocked into a standstill. You process for a moment.
And then you laugh out loud.
You’re staring at a tiny mouse.
I use this analogy all the time with coaching clients. Let me explain.
Joseph Campbell famously said,
“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure that you seek.”
The most terrifying cave for all of us is our own psyche. As children we were emotionally wounded. Lacking the cognitive ability to process our hurt emotions, we buried them deep into our subconscious mind (the cellar).
These buried emotions create our false and limiting beliefs about ourselves, our dysfunctional and destructive behaviors, our fears, our prejudices, our emotional triggers.
As much as we try to ignore them, they constantly make noise in our lives in the form of self-sabotage. We do our best to limp through life without facing and dealing with them — because we’re terrified of what we might find by going deep into our psyche.
But eventually, the noises become too loud, our souls yearn for freedom, we hit a breaking point. That’s when we’re ready to do the inner work of emotional healing.
Most people are well into adulthood before they’re ready, because we’re terrified of this process. We’re terrified of dredging up old wounds, reliving past trauma.
But when we do it, we find that it’s not nearly as scary as we thought it would be. In fact, it is profoundly beautiful and liberating.
Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle calls the mouse in the cellar the “pain-body.” In an interview he explained,
“The pain-body is my term for the accumulation of old emotional pain that almost all people carry in their energy field…It consists of negative emotions that were not faced, accepted, and then let go in the moment they arose. These negative emotions leave a residue of emotional pain, which is stored in the cells of the body…
“If you are not absolutely present, it takes over your mind and feeds on negative thinking as well as negative experiences such as drama in relationships. This is how it has been perpetuating itself throughout human history.
“Another way of describing the pain-body is this: the addiction to unhappiness.”
And how does he suggest that we eliminate the pain-body?
“We release it by cutting the link between the pain-body and our thought processes, so that we no longer feed the pain-body with our thinking.
“Every negative thought has a similar frequency to the pain-body and so feeds it. It cannot feed on positive thoughts. When the pain-body no longer runs the internal dialogue of our compulsive thinking, we become aware of it directly.
“We feel the emotion in our body, and so we bring awareness to it, the light of consciousness. The old emotion is then transmuted into consciousness in the same way that a fire transmutes everything into itself. So disidentification from the emotion and just being in the now moment is the way to stop the cycle of constantly recreating painful experiences.”
I find his suggested process useful. In my personal work, I have also discovered that my pain-bodies are released through loads and loads of self-compassion.
How it works for me is to dig up the memories, the pain, the false beliefs — all that baggage that manifests in my dysfunctions and triggers. And then I hold the pain in self-compassion. Then the pain-body energy simply dissolves over time.
It’s quite simple, really. We overcomplicate the process by staying stuck in our thoughts. But we can’t process emotion at the level of thought; emotion must be dealt with on its own terms.
This means we must allow ourselves to feel that original emotion — which is the scary part. But again, when we finally face ourselves we see that, like the mouse in the cellar, it’s never as scary as we imagine it to be.
Another key I’ve learned is this: All emotion registers as physical sensation. Emotions are exacerbated by our thoughts about them. But at the most basic, fundamental, REAL level, our emotions are simply physical sensations.
When I feel overwhelmed by powerful emotions, I stop my thoughts about them and find them in my body. In my thoughts, they are a terrifying monster. Reduced to physical sensation, they are a mouse, relatively speaking. They’re still big and powerful, but not nearly as much as I make them out to be in my mind.
The greatest treasure we all seek is freedom from our self-imposed limitations so we can live our purpose and fulfill our potential. And to find this freedom, we must enter the cave that terrifies us the most: our deepest emotional wounds.