I recently read a little allegory written by Michael Singer which felt like the perfect distillation of how we all suffer as human beings, as well as suggesting in the story some of the roots of that suffering. It also explains, according to Singer, how we might suffer less, or maybe not at all (the removal of our thorns!).
Michael Singer is not a counsellor or psychotherapist. He’s actually a former software programmer, but now makes a living from writing and teaching. I think there are very few psychotherapists however, who would disagree with the essential “truth” that lies at the heart of this allegory, so please don’t let his non-fancy credentials put your mind off, if you can.
Here below you’ll find the print version. But if you’d prefer to listen to the allegory or fable as a bedtime story, there’s also a recording I made of me reading it aloud as I know that sometimes it’s easier to get past the judging or analytical mind when we hear a story told in the voice of someone we like or know: [LINK TO RECORDING – not yet recorded]
THE INNER THORN
“Imagine that you have a thorn in your arm that directly touches a nerve. When the thorn is touched, it’s very painful. Because it hurts so much, the thorn is a serious problem. It’s difficult to sleep because you roll over on it. It sometimes makes it hard to get close to people because they might touch it. It makes your daily life very difficult. You can’t even go for a walk in the woods because you might brush the thorn against the branches. This thorn is a constant source of disturbance, and to solve the problem you only have two choices.
The first choice is to look at your situation and decide that since it’s so disturbing, when things touch the thorn, you need to make sure nothing touches it.
The second choice is to decide that since it’s so disturbing when things touch the thorn, you need to take it out.
Believe it or not, the effects of the choice you make will determine the course of the rest of your life.
THE FIRST CHOICE
Let’s begin with the first choice and explore how it will affect your life. If you decide you have to keep things from touching the thorn, then that becomes the work of a lifetime. If you want to go for a walk in the woods, you’ll have to thin out the branches to make sure you don’t brush against them. Since you often roll over and touch the thorn when you sleep, you’ll have to find a solution for that as well. Perhaps you could design an apparatus that acts as a protective device. If you really put a lot of energy into it and your solution seemed to work, you would think that you had solved your problem. You might even catch your mind saying, “Now I have inner peace. And if I want to, I can set myself up as a psychotherapist, or a healer, or a life-coach, or a writer of self-help books, and anybody who has the thorn problem can get my protective device! I even get to make a living from selling it to others in some way.”
So now you’ve got a whole life built around this thorn, and you’re proud of it. You keep the woods thinned out, and you wear the apparatus to bed at night. But now you have a new problem—you fall in love, or you embark on a project that is meaningful or important to you. This is a problem because in your situation, it’s hard to even hug, hard to even do a little of your project without being filled with all sorts of worrying thoughts. Nobody can touch you because they might touch the thorn. Any thought can bring all our deepest dreams and desires crashing down around our ears. Your self-esteem is always on the line.
So in the first case, perhaps you design another kind of device that allows closeness amongst people without actually touching. In the second case, you maybe give up on the thing you love doing and settle for something else, something that doesn’t touch your thorns. But eventually you decide you want total mobility without having to worry about the thorn anymore. So now you (which is to say your mind) makes a full-time device that doesn’t have to be unstrapped at night or changed over for hugging and other daily activities. But it’s heavy. So you put wheels on it, control it with hydraulics, and install collision sensors. It’s actually quite an impressive thing.
Of course, you had to change the doors in the house so that the protective apparatus could get through. But at least now you can live your life. You can go to work, go to sleep, and get close to people. So you announce to everyone, “I have solved my problem. I am a free being. I can go anywhere I want. I can do anything I want. This thorn used to run my life. Now it doesn’t run anything.”
The truth is, the thorn still completely runs your entire life. It affects all your decisions, including where you go, whom you’re comfortable with, and who’s comfortable with you. It determines where you’re allowed to work, what house you can live in, and what kind of bed you can sleep on at night. When it’s all said and done, that thorn is running every aspect of your life.
Why is this? Well, perhaps a life protecting ourselves from our problems is in some way a perfect reflection of the problem itself? We don’t actually solve anything by doing this, not in the long-term, though short-term it can be quite a relief. But if we don’t solve the root cause of the problem, but instead, attempt to protect ourselves from the problem, it will probably end up running our lives. We end up so psychologically/mind-fully fixated on the problem that we literally can’t see the forest for the trees. And yet we feel that because we’ve minimized the pain of it to some extent, we’ve solved the problem. But it is not solved. All we have done is devote our life to avoiding it. It is now the center of our universe. It’s all there is, and we think about it and talk about a great, great deal.
ANOTHER COMMON EXAMPLE: LONELINESS AND ALIENATION
In order to apply the analogy of the thorn to life as a whole, let’s use loneliness as an example. Let’s say you have a very deep sense of inner loneliness. It’s so deep that you have trouble sleeping at night, and during the day it makes you very sensitive. You’re susceptible to feeling sharp pangs in your heart that cause quite a disturbance. You have trouble staying focused on your job, and you have trouble with everyday interactions. What’s more, when you’re very lonely it’s often painfully difficult to get close to people.
Loneliness is a very deep, but also a very common human thorn. We are social primates, we need other people in substantial and important ways. So naturally it causes you pain and disturbance in all aspects of your life. And unfortunately, in the case of the human heart, we usually have more than one thorn. We may very likely also have sensitivities about rejection, about our physical appearance, and about our mental prowess. We are all walking around with lots of thorns touching right against the most sensitive part of our hearts, right now, even as you read this. And when this happens, we feel pain. And so our ever-helpful, ever-troubled and troubling minds at this point say: “Hey, where’s your protective device? Which may, in this case be something like books or TV, or our phones, or maybe another person (virtual or non-virtual); or a substance like food or drink or drugs. Or maybe it’s just our minds going on and on and on and on at us about how lonely we are, and what are we going to do about it, and how are we going to solve this problem that is causing us so much pain. We may even go to a therapist and talk extensively, and then we have two minds talking about our pain.
We all have the same two choices with these inner thorns as we did with the thorn in our arm. Surely it was obvious that we would have been much better off taking out that thorn. There’s no reason to spend our lives protecting the thorn from getting touched when we can just remove it. Once the thorn is removed, it might be said we become truly free of it. The same is true with our inner thorns; they can be removed. But if we choose to keep them, we must modify our lives to avoid the situations that would stir them up. If we’re lonely for example, we must avoid going to places where couples tend to be. If we’re afraid of rejection, we must avoid getting too close to people who might reject us (i.e. everyone?). If we do this, however, it is for the same reason that we thinned out the woods. We are attempting to adjust our lives, as well as the lives of others, to make allowance for our thorns. In the earlier example the thorns were outside. Now they are inside.
So now when we’re lonely, we catch the mind pondering what to “do” about this loneliness. This pondering is more often than not internal: chatter, chatter, chatter, chatter. Sometimes at levels that are tolerable, but other times in ways that really feel as if we’re being driven insane by the problem-finding, and thus problem-solving mind. Of course, if we’re talking about our thorn to someone else, if the mind gets to have its pain-driven thoughts attached to a voice-box, it will use that voicebox to talk very thoroughly and extensively through its dilemma. And for some problems this can be a genuinely useful and meaningful fix. This story is not to be read as an attack on talking about our problems, or therapy, or anything else. It is a story about our inner thorns.
And about our minds. Our minds usually say something like this with regard to loneliness: “What can I do or think or read in order to not feel so bloody lonely?”
Notice that we aren’t asking how to get rid of the problem; we’re asking how to protect ourselves from feeling it. We may do this either by avoiding situations or by using people, places, and things as protective shields. And in this way, the loneliness (but this is true of any thorn) begins to run our entire life. We marry the person who makes us feel less lonely, thinking that this is natural and normal. And for our culture, for our society, it is! But it’s exactly the same as when we’re avoiding the pain of the thorn, or talking about the pain of the thorn, instead of taking it out. We have not removed the root of loneliness. We have only attempted to protect ourselves from feeling it. Should someone die or leave us, or should something in our lives trigger the loneliness (and there are a million and one ways that a mind can get triggered) it will disturb us once more. The problem will be back. As soon as the external situation or “thing” fails to protect us from what’s inside us, our thorns and their pain, we will feel them again.
If we do not remove the thorn, we will end up responsible for both the thorn and everything we pulled around ourselves in an attempt to avoid it. Should we be fortunate enough to find someone who manages to diminish the feeling of loneliness, we will then begin worrying about keeping our relationship with this person. And of course, we’ve just managed to compound the issue by avoiding the problem.
This is exactly the same as using the apparatus to compensate for the thorn; we have adjusted our lives accordingly. And more often than not, we’re not even fully aware of how we have adjusted our lives to accommodate our thorns. It doesn’t really dawn on us to just get rid of it. Maybe because the protective device often works. Or even if it works infrequently, or doesn’t work at all, that’s all we feel we have to counteract the pain of our thorns. Thorn plus protective device, that’s it.
So at this point we might avoid feeling it. Avoidance is the mind’s chief form of protection. If someone hands you a hot-potato you drop it. Why would you hold onto it? Why would you choose to feel the heat, to feel the pain of the thorn? But now we have no choice but to go out and “fix” everything and everyone (including ourselves! which is to say all the various parts of the psyche) that are continually reminding us about this bloody thorn. We may even have to let the ever-helpful mind step in and start seriously worrying and ruminating about how we dress and how we talk. We may need to let the mind do some very panicky and paranoid worrying about what people think of us because that too could affect our feelings of loneliness, which in some way is also an expression of our universal need for love and attention. Our thorns are often the painful parts of the things we most care about as human beings: belonging, meaning, competence, coherence and understanding, direction and orientation . If someone is attracted to us, and this eases our feelings of loneliness, at some level (perhaps unconscious) the mind might say, as an attempt to protect us, “How do I need to act in order to please this person? I can be, say, do whatever they want. As long as I don’t have to feel loneliness or rejection anymore, bring it on!”
So now the mind (poor mind!) takes on the burden of worrying about our relationships with other people. It does this by creating an experience of underlying tension and discomfort, which might even affect our sleep at night, or get in the way of focusing and working on things that are really meaningful and important to us. The truth is, however, the discomfort we’re experiencing isn’t actually the feeling of loneliness. It’s the never-ending thoughts of “Did I say the right thing? Does s/he really like me, or am I just kidding myself? Am I in so-and-so’s good books or not? And if not, what does that mean for my future security and well-being?”
And if the mind senses this is not the case: WOO-WOO-WOO, EMERGENCY, EMERGENCY!” The root problem is now buried under all these other issues that are all about avoiding the deeper ones. It all gets very complicated. We all end up using our relationships to hide our thorns. One of the deals our minds make with other people might go something like this: if you care enough about me, I expect you to adjust your behavior to avoid bumping into my soft spots. Because that really hurts.
This is what we all do in some way or another. We let the fear of our inner thorns being felt affect our behavior. Another way of looking at this: we end up limiting our lives just like someone living with an external thorn, in order to not feel the pain of that thorn. Ultimately, if there is something disturbing inside of us, we have to make a choice. We can either compensate for the disturbance by going outside in an attempt to avoid feeling it, or we can try to remove the thorn and not make it the be-all-and-end all of our lives.
THE SECOND CHOICE: REMOVING OUR THORNS
Let us not doubt our ability to remove the root cause of the disturbance inside of us. It really can go away. We can look deep within ourselves, in meditation or some other “uncovering” practice, or with a psychotherapist or healer, to the core of our being, and decide that we don’t want the weakest part, most pain-inducing part of us running our lives. We want to be free of this, don’t we? We want to talk to people because we find them interesting, not because we’re lonely. We want to have relationships with people because we genuinely like them, not because we need them to like us. We want to love because we truly love, not because we need to avoid our inner thorns.
So how do we free ourselves? If you ask this question to your mind, it will probably come up with a whole list of things it has already tried and which work to some extent (especially in terms of quick fixes), which is why we continue using these protective devices in the habitual ways we do: work, food/drink/substances, distractions, voicing all our thoughts to a friend or a therapist, starting a new relationship, ending a relationship that is snagging or catching in some way our inner thorn(s), and all the other millions of ways that our clever and resourceful minds come up with to accommodate our thorns (thank you mind!). The mind says: this thorn is bad, painful, wrong, unnecessary, unfair, awful (which at some level, it is) and so we’ve got to protect ourselves or avoid situations in which our thorns get disturbed.
But do these mind-tactics work in the long run? Do they stop our thorns continuing to niggle and stir the mind up, sometimes in ways that are manageable, sometimes in ways that drive it crazy? In my case, no. But maybe it’s different for you.
For in the deepest sense, we free ourselves by finding ourselves. You are not the pain you feel, nor are you the part that periodically stresses out (the mind). We all contain our thorns, and periodically or even frequently stress out about them, but we are not our thorns. I Michael, am not my loneliness. I contain my loneliness, I often feel the thorn of my loneliness, but I am not it. Regardless of what my mind tells me, I am not my loneliness. I am the one who is aware of my loneliness, and then writes it down as I have done here. I am aware of my thorns. I recognise them, I am aware of them, that’s me. Thankfully, because our consciousness is separate and aware of our thorns, we can free ourselves of them. To free ourselves of our inner thorns, we simply need to stop playing with them. The more we touch them, the more we irritate them, the more they sting. Because we are usually doing something (especially in our minds, if that can be described as “doing”) to avoid feeling our thorn, they are never given the chance to work themselves out of our systems. If we want, we can “simply” permit the disturbance created by our inner thorn come up, and then let it go. But as the mind often gets involved, we may need some kind of daily practice in doing this, because if you’ve ever said to your mind: “Notice from your Observing Self or Witnessing Self the pain of your inner thorn, now let that pain be felt, felt, felt, felt, until the energy inside it w0rks its way out and leaves you, you will have probably discover that this is much more easily said or written than done!”
But since our inner thorns are no more (and no less, let us honour them) than blocked energies from the past, from the traumas* of our past, they can be released. The problem is, we either completely avoid situations that would cause them to release, or we push them back down in the name of protecting ourselves.
Suppose we’re sitting at home watching something on Netflix. We’re enjoying the program until the two main characters fall in love. Suddenly we feel loneliness, but there’s no one around to give us attention. Interestingly, we were just fine just a few minutes ago. Have you experienced this? You’re fine, and then suddenly, BOOM, the inner thorn is felt.
This example shows that the thorn is always in our hearts; it is just not activated until something touches it. We might feel the reaction (in the case of loneliness, but loneliness is only one of a thousand different thorns) as a hollowness or a dropping sensation in our heart. It feels very uncomfortable. A sense of weakness comes over us, and our minds begin telling us about other times when we were left alone and of people who have hurt us. Stored energy from the past releases from the heart and generates thoughts. Sometimes these thoughts also dwell on the past where the original injury occurred. Now, instead of enjoying TV, we’re sitting alone caught in a wave of thoughts and emotions.
What can we do at this point to “solve” this problem other than eating something, calling somebody, or doing something else that might quiet it down? What we can do, and although this might sound small, it is actually huge, is to notice that we’ve noticed our thorn. We can then notice that our consciousness (me, Michael) was watching TV, and now it is watching this inner melodrama, and it is starting to hurt. The one who sees all of this is “me”, or “you”, the subject, the person, the observing self, whatever you want to call it. What you are looking at is an object. A feeling of emptiness is an object; it is something you feel. But who feels it? Our way out, and we may need lots and lots of practice in this, is to just notice who’s noticing. It’s really that simple. And certainly far less complex than the protective apparatus with all its ball bearings, wheels, and hydraulics. Which is perhaps also why our minds dismiss the simplicity of this solution. Minds love the ball bearings, the wheels, and hydraulics. I know my mind does.But in this moment, all we have to do is notice and then ask ourselves: who it is that feels the loneliness? At that moment, the part of us that is lonely, is loneliness (the thorn) is recognised by the awareness (you, me) that notices the loneliness. The one who notices is in some essential way “free”. If we want to be free of these energies, we need to allow them to pass through us instead of hiding them inside of us, or asking the mind to do it’s mental magic, to haul in our protective devices with all their intricate and very impressive machinery.
Ever since you were a child, you’ve had energies going on inside. You wake up every day, and realize that “you” are in there, and that you also have a sensitive person in there with you. So let’s watch, let’s feel that sensitive part of us feel its disturbance. Watch it feel jealousy, feel need, and feel fear. Watch the mind freak out in its attempts to “fix things” when feeling the thorns of jealousy, need, and fear. These feelings are part of the nature of human being. If you pay attention, you will see that all these disturbances in the mind are not you; but they are something you’re feeling and experiencing. You are the indwelling being that is aware of all of this. If you maintain your center, and this does take practice, you can learn to appreciate and respect even the difficult experiences. At that point, we can thank the mind when it’s being helpful and tell it respectfully (or disrespectfully) that we will not listen to its ongoing monologues if it is not acting in the service of our happiness and fulfillment.
Some of the most beautiful poetry and music have come from people who were in turmoil. Great art comes from the depth of one’s being. Writers, musicians and artists show us that we can experience these very human states without getting lost in them or resisting them. We can notice that we are noticing and just watch how experiencing loneliness affects us and our minds. Does our posture change? Do we breathe slower or faster? Does the mind start getting very active with problem-solving thoughts? What goes on when loneliness (or any of our thorns) is given the space it needs to pass through us? Let’s be explorers. The thorn brings up energies trapped inside us from the trauma* our past; we witness them, we feel them, and eventually, according to all the other laws of the universe, they go. If we don’t get completely absorbed, or hooked, or fused with our experiences, if we manage to stay in the position of an audience watching a show, rather than always being the performer in that show, the disturbing energy will soon pass and something else will come up. Maybe equally disturbing. Maybe less so. Or maybe something quite lovely. Our “job” as human animals plonked down on a little ball of dirt spinning around in the middle of absolutely nowhere, is maybe just to enjoy the ride, as best we can?
Other animals who don’t have our incredible thought-producing and thus thought-torturing minds seem to be able to do this without too much of a problem. For aren’t we all, every living creature, every plant, every tree, all of us, just bumbling along on this random little lonely planet rotating in the gravity of a single star (“our” sun)? And let’s not forget, that our mighty sun is just one of a hundred billion stars in the Milky Way. And the Milky Way is only a pinprick of significance in the universe. What does your mind do with that? If we can hold this in mind as we witness/watch/observe/notice the stage show from the perspective of the audience (you, me, a tree, a star), this too might free us up. Free us from our minds and from our thorns.”
from The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer (2007)
There you go! Interested to hear what your mind, as well as what “you” make of this. If this little allegory has spoken to you in some way, you might want to reflect on some of the following questions that I found myself asking myself (i.e. “me”, the witnessing/noticing self) after reading this allegory:
1/ Who am I?
Other than what my mind, or my culture, or my parents, or society tells me I am or should be, WHO AM I!?!
2/ What are my thorns?
I counted about three or four really, really deep ones in me. One of them is most certainly the existential loneliness that Michael talks about in this allegory, which is perhaps why it so deeply spoke to me, and I think also speaks to a lot of people (the book in which this allegory was included sold quite well). Some thorns are more common in our species than others. But we really are spoilt for choice as human beings in having or stumbling across, on an almost continual basis, lots of really good and sharp, pain-inducing thorns!
3/ What protective devices do I use to either to avoid having to feel the pain of my inner-thorns, or when those thorns get snagged, to get me out of having to allow them to be in me, and feel their suffering?
There are hundreds of ways that my mind does this for me! But I was able to list without too much reflection about five main ways that the ingenious and resourceful little fellow I call “my mind” tries to protect me from feeling pain, mainly through strategies of avoidance, distraction, use of substances, and fruitless overthinking.
4/ What does my mind do when I try to just be a witness, to notice what I’m thinking or feeling, without being drawn into Mind Agendas? In other words: what does my mind do when I ask it to experience and allow the energies of my past and present traumas* which have planted those thorns deep, deep inside me to start working their way out of my system rather than doing what it normally does (avoidance, changing the topic, getting really stuck into thinking thinking thinking and talking talking talking in order to hopefully “solve” my dilemma)?
I don’t know about you, but my mind often goes apeshit when I ask it to process stuff rather than just vent! It shouts, it pleads, it starts bargaining with me. Basically: it throws a temper-tantrum. And sometimes it throws this temper-tantrum, or some version of it at other people. What does your mind do?
5/ After answering these questions, what does my always-talking, always-on mind, super-opinionated mind tell me should be the next step on my human journey? And what about my therapeutic journey? Also: what does the quieter but maybe more experientially-wise heart feel about all this?
In my experience wisdom comes from experience rather than from books, words, thoughts, ideas, concepts – which are more the territory of the mind. So what I think I mean here is: what does the wisdom of healing or liberation that you or I have experienced even if just in glimpses so far, advise us to do in order to free ourselves of our thorns? And even more importantly, would your mind be willing to practice whatever your wise heart advises, even just for 20 minutes a day? Or even for 20 seconds, or 2 minutes, every time we get triggered. For me, my heart, perhaps thanks to the job I do, knows the terrain of the mind by now fairly well. But my mind is still determined to resist it, and me. Sometimes the resistance gives way and I am able to feel the pain, which sometimes also leads to the release of some of that inner pain. But more often than not, I’m more aware of my resistance in the form of thoughts or avoidance. I still treasure my mind though. Even if it sometimes drives me nuts.
I’d be interested in hearing your answers to these questions if you’d like to spend some time thinking or maybe even writing down some of your reflections.
If however this allegory hasn’t spoken to you in some way, please ignore it. There are a thousand and one really helpful (as well as really, really unhelpful) stories we can tell ourselves or tell each other, and this is only one of them. Maybe together we can find a story, a path, that will speak and guide you too? 🙂
*When I use the word trauma here, I mean any situation or life-event where my mind or coping responses felt unable to deal with the situation. This doesn’t have to necessarily be a BIG, DRAMATIC EVENT. There are everyday traumas too which our minds still get very upset about, The pain we feel when our thorns get snagged/triggered is often due to the energy of that unhealed laceration still trapped inside us.