It was late in the evening when my son told me he’d left his backpack in the car. That’s not a huge deal, but there were things in it that he needed for camp tomorrow, and because of where I live my car’s parked a few minutes’ walk away from my apartment. Again, not a huge deal, but I was tired and I was in the middle of getting both kids together for bed, and would have to wait until they were asleep before I went to retrieve the backpack.
So, with the kids asleep, and my energy failing, I trudged downstairs to fetch the forgotten backpack. I was grouchy and a little resentful — you know, where you have to do something you hadn’t expected to do because someone didn’t do what they’re supposed to. Grumble, grumble.
I was just exiting the building when I realized that I was making myself unhappy with this train of thought. I noticed that my state of mild resentment had eroded my wellbeing, making me feel weary and put-upon. It wasn’t a pleasant state to be in.
Fortunately a wiser part of myself stepped in. If this part of me had been verbalizing, it would have said, “You’re making yourself suffer unnecessarily. Drop the story. Look at your actual experience, and you’ll find that there’s fundamentally nothing wrong.”
So, first of all I recognized that I was making myself suffer. That’s key. A lot of the time we don’t realize we’re doing this. Maybe we think it’s life that’s making us unhappy, and so we think we don’t have any choice about it. But it’s not life that makes us suffer: it’s our reactions to the things that happen to us in life. Realizing that we’re making ourselves suffer gives us the freedom to stop doing that. It gives us the freedom to act differently.
One of the things we can do differently is to drop our stories. It’s our stories about events that make us unhappy. I had a story about how my son “should” have remembered his backpack, and how I “should” have remembered to check he had it, and how I’d “failed” in that task. And the story was also that going to the car was an unpleasant task and that I could be doing better things with my time. Those stories were making me feel mildly miserable. To drop our stories, we need simply to turn our attention to something else. In this case, “something else” is our immediate sensory experience.
When we focus on what’s arising in our present-moment sensory experience, we reduce our capacity for rumination — overthinking that creates or increases our suffering. The mind has limited bandwidth, and the more attentive you are to the body’s sensations, to perceptions from the outside world, and to feelings, the less capacity there is for the mind to carry thoughts — thoughts that make us unhappy.
So when I turned toward my attention in this way, I was aware of the movements of my body, the rise and fall of my breathing, the coolness of the night air, the darkness outside, the smell of the river nearby, the sound of traffic on Main Street. I was aware also that unpleasant feelings were present. There was a tense, knotted ball of resentment in my chest. Now the important thing here is just to accept these unpleasant feelings. React to them or try to get rid of them, and you’ll just make things worse. So you need to find a way to remind yourself, “There’s an unpleasant feeling present, and that’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with having an unpleasant feeling present.” You just allow that feeling to be there.
This is a radical thing to do. Our mental reactions are attempts to escape or fix unpleasant situations. It seems counter-intuitive to turn toward painful feelings. But turning toward our suffering reduces our suffering.
Once you’re no longer bolstering your pain with reactive thinking, you’re still left with the feeling. It may still be strong, or it may be that now all you experience is a just a kind of “echo” of the original, which quickly dissipates. But even if the suffering is strong and persistent, in the absence of obsessing about what you think is wrong, each moment now becomes bearable. (If you think your feelings are unbearable, you’re back into rumination. So drop the thinking and turn back to the feeling again.) Simply let go of thinking, observe painful feelings, and you feel more at peace.
In fact you may become aware that there are pleasant things happening too. The night is cool. the darkness is soothing. You’re getting a little more exercise than you expected. You’re alive. You’re breathing. Fundamentally, everything in this moment is OK. You’re OK. There’s just this moment, and this moment is fine.