numbness bandaid trying to cover large crack in pavement

Numbness – is this going to hurt?

5 weeks ago I had all four wisdom teeth removed. It took me less than a second to tell the surgeon that I wanted to be knocked out for the procedure. “I don’t want to remember or feel a thing” I said.

In that situation, I was grateful for the gift of numbness by way of a general anaesthetic. There is certainly a time and a place where being unconscious is useful. But those situations are rare, and as my inflated face would attest, there is always a cost on the other side when we emerge from numbness. A cost much steeper than the $280 anaesthetist fee.

wisdom teeth removed head bandage

Suppressing or avoiding pain is a short term game with long term consequences. That’s why the road to numbness tends to be paved with daily decisions – to disconnect from others, to disconnect from ourselves and to disconnect from being present. After all, who really wants to be present with pain, right? Even the thought of future pain and discomfort can cause us to make strange decisions in the present moment.  

Eventually, numbing ourselves becomes a habitual way of life.

The trade-off for avoiding pain is severe. Anyone who has experienced the mildest of addictions knows how long and hard the road back to freedom is. But it is, in my experience, a road that is always, always, always worth taking. Even if you have to fall to your knees just to get back up again.

How do we discern if we are hindered by numbness or helped by it?
It’s starts with self-awareness. With knowing the tipping point between being anchored versus being handcuffed.

paper sail boat origami

Deep down, each of us know if we are truly capable of pulling up anchor and setting sail at any given moment. Or whether we are simply too numb and sedated to move. 

In fact, people mistakenly think that self-awareness is more common than common sense!

“While 95% of people believe they’re self-aware, in reality, just 10% to 15% actually are”


Organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich.” (source: EAB / HBR )

As a thought experiment, consider this:

“Two men have been drinking at a bar for most of the night. They wander out onto the street together after consuming a large quantity of alcohol and they are both clearly intoxicated. One of the men knows that he is drunk. The other man does not know that he is drunk. Which of the two men is more dangerous? The one who knows he’s drunk, or the one that doesn’t know he is drunk?”

Each of us live in the thought created reality of our personality, our ego or our ‘way of seeing and coping in the world’. Sometimes though, we simply are not awake to it.

They say ignorance is bliss. And I totally get it. Like Cypher in the The Matrix who betrays his friends, just to be plugged back into an illusory world devoid of consciousness – it really does feel appealing to “disconnect” from reality by numbing ourselves.

woman with her hands covering her eyes

And before this gets all “judgy, judgy” – I’ll be the first to put my hand up and admit to “numbing out” many times using any number of the techniques in the following list. There’s no point judging each other on this stuff. Because we are either in the middle of it right now and too numb to notice, or if we are sober enough to see our personality and habits in action, we will already have heard our inner critic speaking up long before another human does.

So while we’re going to talk about self-narcotising behaviour, please, join me first by taking a nice big sip from the cup of grace. Be kind to yourself. This topic is so big that I am yet to meet someone unaffected by it.

  1. Watching ‘mindless’ TV – Netflix, Stan, YouTube, Binge, Disney, Sport or any combination of these 24/7 streaming services.
  2. Exercising to a fault. Anything to stop the furious thoughts or uncomfortable emotions…
  3. Taking drugs. Legal or illegal. Including antidepressants. (1 in 8 Australians were on antidepressants in 2019. I have no doubt that the number has increased significantly throughout 2020 and 2021). 
  4. Eat. Yum. Eat some more. Yum. You know how this story ends…
  5. Drinking alcohol. Designed by definition to “reduce arousal or stimulation”. Reduce it enough and you’ll forego consciousness.
  6. Playing video games. “just one more turn…just 5 more minutes…”
  7. Praying repetitious prayers. Strange, I know. But if you don’t have to think about what you are saying or doing…well…that sounds a bit like number 5 to me.
  8. Sleeping the night and day away.
  9. Escaping in a book, or seven.
  10. Scrolling through social media endlessly
  11. Porn addictions
  12. Gambling
  13. Being a workaholic

Alright. Alright. Enough.

This is part of the human condition. Whether you think the activities above are good or bad is up to you. Some people will shrug and say “so what?” to the list above. Others may recoil slightly at how close this is to home. That’s normal.

But forget the activities above. It’s time to go down a level and ask the question: “what are they used for?”

And what they tend to be used for, often, is to ‘escape’. Isn’t it strange that almost all of these activities happen at home? We go to the most comfortable place on Earth (our home) where we can truly be ourselves – only to try and escape from ourselves.

Huh?

What exactly is this prison that we are trying to free ourselves from? When did we start needing to go on holiday to feel normal again? That doesn’t make sense, does it? Retreating from normality in order to feel normal for just 4 weeks of the year?

One of the most dangerous misgivings of numbness, is that it becomes a substitute for reality. We are trying, in many ways, to deny the miracle of an ordinary life. Of just “being”.

man trapped by cables and devices

The challenge with numbness, is that given enough time and use, you will become dependent on it. Like a baby that is conditioned to need a pacifier to be “ok” and at peace. Continued use drives us to believe that we need something from the outside, to feel ok on the inside.

And this simply is not true. You were born whole, complete and loved. You still are! You are magnificent from the inside out.

Most people believe that certain emotions are bad and should be avoided or eliminated. However, it is our resistance to experiencing certain feelings and thoughts that causes most of the stress and tension. It’s the equivalent of sacrificing your health over many years to try and avoid death. We are so worried about death that we will kill ourselves to avoid it.   

I had my first remedial massage this year. I know that the lady who provided it was good at her job, because 20 years of pent up toxins and embodied stress were finally released, leaving me in a catatonic state. For the first time in my life I was unable to get to my feet and walk for 24 hours. I have been hospitalised a few times and was on the brink of asking my wife to take me in.

But something shifted for me this time – instead of thinking of the crippling pain as something that needed to be avoided and stopped immediately, I recognised that it was a natural response and part of the body’s self-healing system. So I just acknowledged the waves of discomfort and pain as they grew larger and then faded. Was I comfortable? Nope. In being present with the pain and seeing it as a healthy process, did it flow swiftly? You bet it did.  

rolling sea waves ocean

When it comes to numbness, basically we are looking for anything that will either:

  • Temporarily alter our reality
  • “switch off” our thinking OR
  • Numb ourselves from having to experience the truth of our current state of being

We put all of this stuff in our bodies and our minds, to try and flatten out the waves. To arrive at a state of sedation and to escape. But every single one of us has watched enough hospital TV dramas to know that when the highs and lows of the heart rate monitor waves finally ‘flatten out’, we are left with a single deafening ‘beep’.

heart rate monitor with ecg

So it emerges: The war we are fighting is no longer one of life and death. It is one of numbness.

And after all of this, what is the antidote to numbness?

Truth is – it will be whatever wakes you up. It will be listening to something far more powerful from within yourself.

In my experience, waking up starts with insight. With growing self awareness. Because ultimately it is the limitations of how we see ourselves and others, that holds us back.

It is the gentle letting go of ‘self’ that allows us to see a much bigger picture. To finally move from being self-ish, to self-less. The humbling and yet grace-filled experience of realising there is so much more to us, than our self.

Many traditions say this is to be born again. To start each day anew. To be loved and whole – just as we are.

The next time you want to run from your thoughts and feelings, you may find solace in the wise words of Rumi the poet:

The Guest House by Jalaluddin Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

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