acceptance

Getting to know our feelings

Vimalasara

Buddhist author Vimalasara discusses how we respond to unwanted feelings.

When we are angry a whole host of vulnerable feelings percolates into our hearts. These are so physically uncomfortable they feel as though they are choking us, and all we want to do is move away from them rather than sit with them until we feel something else.

Our aversion to such feelings can be so strong that we believe they need brute force to push them down or purge them. In fact, I have come to realize that, if we can experience all the levels of what we are feeling, and then have the courage to acknowledge and sit with them, our uncomfortable and vulnerable feelings will not get a chance to fester in this way, and in time they disappear of their own accord.

Instead, we often use anger as a distraction from what we are feeling deeper down. Then we end up holding on to those very feelings we fear and avoid — until they become poisonous in our hearts.

So what happens in our bodies when we experience anger? First there is the trigger or the event, then comes the moment when our bodies are invaded by painful, prickly, tense, tearful — even itchy — feelings. These can feel so uncomfortable that we instinctively try to push them away.

The body is a great teacher, so it is important to recognize what is happening in our bodies. Sometimes our bodies become so tense we don’t feel they are ours any more. We can shake, get sweaty armpits, groin, and palms, feel stiff in the neck or shoulders, our hands make fists, our heart beats faster, and so on.

Alternatively, when we are angry we can become so disconnected as to be completely numb to ourselves, our feelings, and everything around us. We can’t hear ourselves think or breathe. Our feelings get lost, and we create a wall around us, not letting anybody in. Our anger keeps everything and everybody out. We can’t listen to anybody, or even consider another point of view. Some people have out of body experiences.

In response to these feelings, a critical voice often steps into our minds and tells us (in our own vernacular) that it’s ridiculous to be feeling so vulnerable, it tells us to grow up, or get a grip. Our bodies become tense during this process of trying to push down the feelings, and we feel tight — most commonly in the throat, jaw, shoulders, fists, stomach, and bowels. Our bodies tense up in order to choke back the feelings that make us feel vulnerable, shaky, and tearful. But instead of becoming lighter, and calmer, our bodies feel heavier and pumped up with adrenaline.

Here is a check list of physical responses to anger. Which ones resonate for you?

  • I feel out of breath or choked
  • my heart beats faster
  • my voice becomes high or shaky
  • I have dangerous thoughts
  • I clench my fists
  • I raise my voice
  • I wave my hands about
  • I make myself bigger
  • I grind my teeth
  • I can’t hear or see anybody else
  • I lose control

Feelings are energy. They evaporate if we trust that they will arise and cease of their own accord. We maintain the lives of our feelings by attaching them to another person, to ourselves, or to objects. Watch yourself the next time feelings of anger arise. See what you do with them and see what you attach them to.

Connecting with the physical sensations in our bodies in this way can be a strong practice. When we pay attention to our bodies, we are beginning to connect with our inner feelings. Anger is energy, and it becomes alive and toxic when we project it internally or externally.

We give our feelings longer life by attaching them to something, including ourselves, and they often turn into toxic stories that poison our hearts. For example, when feelings of anger arise, the anger becomes toxic when we place it on another human being or ourselves in the form of judgmental thoughts and interpretations. If we just sat with the feelings of anger, paying little attention to our thoughts, they would not attach to anything, and the feelings of anger would cease of their own accord. It is a practice of patience.

Learning to sit with our feelings without holding on to them, without pushing them away, without chasing after them, and trusting that they will cease is, I believe, the best teaching of all. By becoming alert early on to the fact that our body is tensing up, or becoming numb, we may be able to take preventative action. We can try to relax physically and see what effect that has on our emotions, take a few deep breaths, and slow down our thoughts. Taking deep breaths has delayed me from acting unskillfully and allowed me to pause, preventing me from saying something I might regret.

Another strong reason to take note of our bodies’ messages in this way is that our anger can manifest in more extreme forms. Most people who work in alternative therapies have found a link between anger and a number of physical illnesses and life-threatening diseases. I realize now that the back and shoulder ache I used to get was connected with my anger. I have no more pain, and when I feel my shoulders tense up I tell myself to let go. Engaging with our anger involves coming into relationship with our bodies.

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Key to family happiness is accepting difficulties

mindfulness unhappy families

Doctors Diane Gehart and Eric McCollum of California State University and Virginia Tech University say that accepting the existence of miserable times in family relationships is better than striving for perfection.

“The myth of problem-free living is easily identifiable in Western culture through its childhood fairy tales and modern love stories,” they say. Gehart and McCollum argue that the very term “mental health” can conjure a false sense of a life without suffering, and that this can lead to unrealistic expectations that can in turn lead to greater dissatisfaction.

Rather than seeking a life free from teenage moodiness and spousal arguments, they suggest that the Buddhist practice of mindfulness can allow family members to “compassionately engage” with suffering.

Mindfulness is the Buddhist practice of nonjudgmentally observing thoughts and feelings in the present moment, and has been used successfully in a variety of therapies to treat depression, anxiety, chronic pain, stress, and eating disorders.

The authors of the paper, “Engaging Suffering: Towards A Mindful Re-Visioning of Family Therapy Practice,” published in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, say that although Buddhism is generally considered to be a religion, the technique of mindfulness can be useful even separated from Buddhism’s spiritual beliefs and practices.

The practice of Mindfulness includes the notion of developing equanimity, which means that we accept painful and pleasant experiences when they arise, without judging them as good or bad. The approach of mindfulness helps practitioners to accept the presence of difficult situations without feeling that they have failed or that there is something wrong with them or their relationships.

The authors argue that “family therapists can integrate mindfulness principles into their work to help clients shift how they relate to the unique forms of suffering that one encounters in intimate relationships, such as abuse, divorce, rejection, and loss.”

Has the practice of mindfulness helped your family relationships? Have you found meditation helps you deal with problems more gracefully? Why not drop us a line using the comment box below?

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Looking into our fetters — and finding freedom

Sky reflected in a mirror that's lying on grass.
As we practice meditation it’s inevitable that we’ll outgrow some of our initial understandings, and sometimes an aspect of practice that at first seemed straightforward is revealed to be richer and more textured than we’d assumed.

For me, mindfulness at first seemed clear enough; one simply notices one’s actions and one’s experience. A person who is being mindful remembers where he has left his car keys, while a person (maybe the same person) who is being unmindful may not even remember where he parked the car. We know we’re angry when we’re angry, and we know we’re content when we’re content. It’s that simple — or so it seemed.

A few years ago my understanding of mindfulness started to undergo a shift. Mindfulness is no longer simply knowing what one is experiencing, or remembering where one has put things. It is richer and more multifaceted than that. As my practice has evolved there are four aspects of mindfulness that I’ve particularly come to appreciate: acceptance, curiosity, lovingkindness, and insight.

Acceptance

Acceptance leads to integration and wholeness. By “acceptance” I mean being with one’s experience without reacting, without experiencing craving or aversion towards it, without experiencing elation or despondency. In order to deepen our mindfulness we have to practice sitting with experiences, even if they’re unpleasant or involve unskillful emotions.

Sometimes we can be quick to jump in with various tools we’ve learned to deal with the various emotional states that that arise and take us away from the object of our meditation practice — emotions such as ill will, craving, despondency, embarrassment, and anxiety — not allowing time to really be with the distraction and to see what we can learn from it.

But if we can patiently sit with our experiences, unexpected transmutations can take place. Ill will can evaporate to reveal tender sadness, or beneath craving we can come to see a wholesome yearning for completeness.

However, the habitual use of antidotes to distractions can lead to a subtle form of repression in which these parts of ourselves are forced out of consciousness, and when reaching for antidotes becomes a habit we’ve lost our freedom — and all meditation practice is about finding greater levels of freedom.

Curiosity

Mindfulness is active rather than passive. Mindfulness doesn’t have to merely notice experiences, but can explore them. For example, an experience to which we apply the label “pain” can be seen not as one thing but as a series of processes becoming and un-becoming.

As we investigate an experience of physical pain we can see interweaving currents of pressure,
heat, cold, tingling, throbbing, and pulsing — and sometimes the pain seems to vanish altogether. An experience we may have wished to escape now becomes a source of fascination and an object of concentration.

We can also come to see pain as part of an interconnected system, noticing how the body responds by tensing up, how the emotions respond with aversion, how thoughts of self-pity arise. And as we bring those responses into mindful awareness we realize that we don’t have to amplify our suffering through reacting to pain but instead can simply experience it as it is.

Lovingkindness

The Persian poet Rumi writes of how when dark thoughts appear we can “Meet them at the door laughing / And invite them in”. I often recall those words when challenging experiences arise. If a friend turned up on my doorstep full of self-doubt, anger, or hurt, how would it be most helpful to meet him? Would I want to try to cheer him up, or send him away, or even to try solving his problems for him?

Although I confess that trying to solve people’s problems can be hard to resist, what I’d ideally like to do is to greet him with compassion: inviting him in, sitting him down, and listening. Ideally I’d like mostly to just listen, and to provide the curiously, love and encouragement that my friend needs to let his story unfold.

When I take this approach with myself and my own dark thoughts, embracing troubling experiences with loving mindfulness and sensing the often unacknowledged pain that accompanies each one, a profound sense of relief and gratitude often emerges; the kind of sense you might have if you’d been lost without hope in a dark wood and had at last found a path home.

Insight

The Buddhist tradition offers us the paradox that freedom comes not from trying to escape our inner fetters, but from looking deeply into them and seeing their impermanence and insubstantiality.

As mindfulness develops it becomes permeated with insight. As we notice pleasant and unpleasant experiences, skillful and unskilful emotions, as they arise and fall, we come to appreciate the transience of all our experiences, and we can further come to see that those experiences – pleasant or unpleasant, skillful or unskilful — are not an inherent part of who we are.

Our sense of who we are starts to shift, and a greater degree of freedom, spaciousness, and contentment begins to emerge as our fetters dissolve into emptiness.

Mindfulness has many facets — many more than those I’ve touched upon here — and I’d encourage you to let your mindfulness reveal these and other hidden aspects, not simply noticing your experiences, but accepting them with equanimity, actively exploring their texture with an inquiring mind, embracing them with metta, and looking deeply into them with an awareness of impermanence and insubstantiality. The more deeply you look into your inner fetters the more you will find yourself to be free.

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Anais Nin: “The personal life deeply lived always expands into truths beyond itself”

Anais Nin

It’s easy to think of a spiritual life as trying to escape who we are, or as being something that we can only aspire to in the future. But a true sense of spirituality comes from looking deeply into our present-moment experience and seeing more truly than we currently do.

When we sit to meditate we don’t try to escape who we are, rather we learn to be comfortable with who we are and what is arising within us. All too often we look at our experience and don’t like what we see. We have aversion for what’s there, dislike and even hate it, and crave to be or to experience something else.

Living deeply, in the context of meditation, means unlearning our habits of craving, aversion, and delusion: habits which prevent us from acknowledging our experience fully.

In practical terms, this means opening up to whatever happens to be present in any give moment. We call this acceptance, or in Buddhist terms, equanimity (upekkha).

Fear arises, and we fully acknowledge and experience it. Anger arises, and we don’t indulge it, but neither do we push it away. Instead, we notice it; take an interest in it; even have compassion for the suffering that accompanies it like a shadow. Craving arises, and we appreciate its qualities of aliveness and its tender beauty, until it fades back into the void from where it came.

Ultimately, we learn to appreciate in meditation, by means of this process of mindfully observing phenomena, that all experiences whatsoever are impermanent. All experiences pass; both the painful ones and the pleasant ones. And in time we can come to see not only that they are transient, but that they are not, never were, and never can be a part of us in any real sense. They’re simply experiences that arise and pass. This is a truth, “beyond ourselves,” that we can only realize by living life more fully, not at some distant time or place when conditions will be perfect for living spiritually, but right here, right now, in this very moment.

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