feelings

Loving and supporting whatever is difficult within you

Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash.

Someone wrote to me yesterday, saying that as she was getting into her spiritual practice, anger was starting to arise:

I have very recently started my journey towards freedom of suffering at the hands of myself or others. It would seem as though it has turned into an anger issue with me. So I am looking forward to any suggestions that may help me get to my centered, grounded, healing, happy place.

This can happen. As we’re leaving our comfort zone, fear can be triggered. We can also become more sensitive to the body as we practice meditation, and so we feel our feelings more strongly.

My own experience is that anger is a response to painful feelings that we haven’t yet learned to tolerate. The good news is that we can learn to accept those feelings so that anger no longer needs to arise. We have built up an expectation that they’re threatening and terrifying — like the monsters I used to imaging lurking at the foot of my bed when I was a child. But just as there wasn’t in reality anything there for me to be terrified of then, there’s nothing really there to be scared of now.

It’s not that the feelings don’t exist, it’s that when we do manage to bring ourselves to accept them, we realize there’s no big deal, and never was. They’re just feelings. They’re patterns of sensation in the body caused by ancient parts of the brain; part of an internal communication system that evolved hundreds of millions of years ago. Once you accept them, they often just evaporate, just like the darkness at the foot of the bed vanishes when you put the light on.

Of course there is a part of us that’s terrified of these feelings, and we shouldn’t pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s going to be there all the time we’re persuading ourselves to turn and look at whatever feelings it is that we’ve been trying to avoid.

Maybe those feelings are hurt, or fear, or confusion. When you find you’re angry, drop down into the body and look to see what’s happening around the heart and the gut. Notice what’s there. As best you can, accept it. Tell yourself, “It’s OK to feel this. Let me feel this.” Realize that there’s nothing wrong with having these feelings. It’s not a failure. It’s just a part of you that’s evolved a certain habit in order to try to protect you.

Treat the part of you that’s creating these feelings with kindness. It’s hurt, confused, afraid. It’s not evil. It needs your compassion, not your condemnation.

Practice giving it compassion. Touch it tenderly, laying a hand on the part of the body where those feelings arise most strongly. Tell it you love it. Tell it you care. Tell it you’re there for it and will support it.

By relating to your feelings as parts of you that need help and support, rather than as boogey-men that you’re afraid of, you’ll start to lose your fear.

And you’ll notice along the way that your anger is starting to vanish. It was trying to protect you from your hurt or pain of confusion by trying to push away whatever was triggering those feelings. But when you accept your painful feelings you don’t need to be protected against them.

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Fully embracing this present moment

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.

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Turning toward experience

Person standing facing aurora borealis

Apologies for not blogging these past three months, I’ve been at the home of my teacher, Sangharakshita, living in community and taking part in study and retreats for ordained members of the Triratna Buddhist Community.

I’ve been doing a lot of turning towards my direct experience. It has been a challenging practice. When I turn towards my experience, it’s all in the body: just pleasant, unpleasant, neutral (vagueness) or a mixture of all three feeling tone in the body.

Sometimes I like it and I want more, I cling to it, and begin to crave. Sometimes I dislike it and I push it way, and move into aversion. And sometimes, I just move into a vagueness, a boredom because I want an extreme sensation to arise. And then it becomes pleasant or unpleasant, and I habitually begin to oscillate between clinging and pushing away.

I realize how easy it is for me to become a slave of likes and dislikes, of clinging and pushing away.

When I push away I harden with my stories, reactions, judgments or anesthetize with my choice of addiction. When I push away I think I am pushing the people, the incident, the situation that I don’t like away. And when I turn towards my experience I soften, let go of all the stories, and I begin to see clearly that all I am really pushing away, or trying to block out, is the direct experience of pleasure and pain, or vagueness. That is the trigger, nothing more. No person or thing to blame. No buttons pushed.

It can be so hard to sit with my discomfort, and so I move away automatically by blaming someone, or distracting myself with an addiction or fall into self pity. It’s sometimes seems easier to sit with pleasant sensations, and then I cling to it, and become frustrated when it changes to unpleasant, and then I push it away. Nobody is pushing my buttons, I push my own buttons.

All this is a salient reminder that during the Christmas and New year holidays that if we experience aversion to someone overdoing it with alcohol, drugs, or food, or an aversion to all the consumerism, that our aversion is a strong reaction to not wanting to experience what is going on in the body.

If I feel a strong craving for foods that I don’t normally eat, or to alcohol that I don’t drink, it’s a reminder that I am turning away from the discomfort that has arisen in the body when one of the six senses clashes with the smell and sights of these stimuli.

It can be excruciatingly painful to stay with what is arising in the body, which is why we turn away with our reactions of blame, distraction and self pity. The Buddha taught there are worldly responses to feeling tone and unworldly responses to feeling tone.

Lust, anger, delusion, contraction, and distraction are our worldly habitual responses to feeling tone arising in the body. They inevitably lead to suffering. If we want freedom we have to learn to turn towards whatever is arising with a great expansive and relaxed mind, that is unworldly, unsurpassable, concentrated, and liberated. This will free us from the chains of our six senses that drag us down into a deluded pit.

More next month – be well

New Revised Edition of Detox Your Heart – Meditations on Emotional Trauma published by Wisdom Books Spring 2017

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Happiness is not a choice

Coffee art

The saying that “happiness is a choice” is extremely common. There’s a book by that title, as well as a gazillion articles. They all say that you can choose to be happy.

It’s not true. Happiness is not a choice.

Or at least it’s not strictly true that happiness is a choice. There’s a grain of truth here; we can influence our happiness. But happiness is a feeling, and we can’t directly choose our feelings.

What is true is that happiness is the result of our choices.

We can choose actions that will bring long-term happiness. We can choose what we say. We can choose our attitudes. We can choose to have thoughts that increase our happiness.

You might be thinking, “So, tell me what these choices are, so I can go and make them and then be happy!” as if they were major life decisions, like choosing the right home or the right job. But it’s more fine-grained than that. It’s a case of looking at what we’re thinking, saying, and doing, and making choices about the nature of each of those actions. It’s a question of making moment-by-moment choices, not big, once-in-a-lifetime choices (although those can be important too).

We need to be aware of what we’re doing physically, and how that makes us feel. So, for example, when I’m chopping vegetables I often find that I’m clenching my jaw for some reason. When I’m working on the computer I often find that my breathing is a little tight. These things contribute to a general sense of emotional tension that inhibits my happiness. As soon as I relax my jaw or let my breathing go back to a normal pattern, my being moves more in the direction of happiness. Relaxing promotes happiness.

I’ve often recommended that people watch Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on how our posture influences how we feel. Stand or sit in an open and expansive way, and you’ll feel more confident. Confidence leads to happiness. Stand or sit in a hunched, defensive, closed way, and you’ll feel more fearful and unhappy. This is a great illustration of my point. We choose our actions, and those actions change our level of happiness. We don’t just simply “choose to be happy.” If you try to choose happiness without changing the conditions that are undermining your happiness, nothing much is going to change. You’ll probably just get depressed.

We’re always going to have thoughts arising that contribute to our unhappiness. When you make a mistake it’s natural to think, “Man, that was stupid!” You can make a choice not to buy into and believe such thoughts, however. When we buy into our thoughts we magnify them. We take “Man, that was stupid!” and elaborate and expand it into a story about how useless we are and how we’re never going to be good at anything. And that proliferation of thought makes us unhappy. Simply letting the thought “Man, that was stupid!” pass through the mind without engaging with it makes us happier. Encouraging a more realistic, honest, and skillful thought, like “It’s OK. We all make mistakes,” helps us to be more at ease with ourselves, and thus to be happier. We’re not choosing happiness. We’re choosing how we think, and that can lead to us being happier.

We can choose to pay attention to our feelings, and that will make us happier. When my attention is caught up in my thoughts, I sometimes lose touch with my feelings, and my experience becomes kind of cold and hard. But when I pay attention to my heart (an area of the body innervated by the emotionally important vagus nerve) I’m more emotionally open and sensitive. I feel more connected with myself and with others. That’s enriching, like a black and white movie suddenly turning into color.

We can choose how we speak. Connecting honestly and kindly with others builds up bonds that lead to happiness arising in the short term (saying kind things to others makes both them and us happy in that moment) and in the long term (having positive connections with others gives us support when times get hard, and make the good times better). Again, we’re choosing actions, not happiness. But those actions lead to happiness.

Happiness arises from a million momentary choices. This is why we need to cultivate mindfulness. Without the ability to monitor our actions moment by moment, the mind will habitually and automatically default to decisions that make us unhappy.

Feelings like happiness are, according to Buddhist teachings, not actions. They’re not things we do. They’re the results of actions. They’re the consequences of our actions. You can’t choose happiness. But if you want to be happier, you can make choices that allow happiness to happen.

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What to do when you feel unloved

lonely tree

Someone recently wrote to me, saying that she was lonely and felt unloved, and wondering whether the metta bhavana practice (the meditation for developing kindness) would help. I thought I’d paraphrase and expand on what I’d said to her.

The metta bhavana practice can certainly help with feelings of loneliness. In particular, self-metta and self-compassion — showing ourselves the same kindness, support, and encouragement that we show to others that we care about — would be helpful.

Think about that thought, “No one loves me.” You might say things like that to yourself, but would you tell a friend who was lonely, “No one loves you”? How would that make her feel? Would it help her? I’m guessing the answers are “no,” “terrible,” and “of course not.”

So why do this to yourself? When you’re lonely, why not treat yourself as you would a dear friend who was experiencing the same thing. What might you say to such a friend? Perhaps you’d say things like, “I’m so sorry you’re feeling that way. It sounds really painful. I just want you to know that I’m here for you, and that I care about you.”

How might that make you feel? Better?

Treating ourselves with kindness and compassion reduces our suffering. It doesn’t necessarily make it go away—nor should it—but it makes it more bearable. And in the case of loneliness, this helps free us up to connect more with others, and to care more about them. And that can replace our sense of loneliness with a sense of connectedness.

Going further, cultivating kindness for others and then putting it into practice through acts of caring and kindness (without expecting anything in return) will help you to feel more connected. For example, we could express appreciation or offer support when someone feels down. If we take a genuine interest in that person’s wellbeing, then we’ll be more emotionally connected. If, however, we do those same things with the assumption, “I’m doing something nice for them, so now they should do something nice for me, and then I’ll feel good about myself,” you’re still acting in a self-absorbed way, and you’ll perpetuate your loneliness.

Breaking out of self-absorption is painful, because part of your brain thinks that obsessively telling stories will help you, and it therefore sees dropping the story as a threat. So if it feels uncomfortable when you try to take a genuine interest in others, that’s OK.

My main teacher, Sangharakshita, said that when we feel unhappy, we should do something for another person. Most forms of intense unhappiness are self-absorbed; we get so caught up in our own suffering that we don’t make an effort to connect with others. And when our suffering comes from loneliness, we end up exacerbating our isolation by withdrawing our interest in others. Our suffering isolates us. The way we respond to our suffering isolates us more.

The solution to loneliness is not as simple as “getting out more.” Most people who are lonely feel that way even when they’re surrounded by other people. Loneliness is being emotionally disconnected from others.

My correspondent said that she “felt unloved.” “Unloved,” however, is not a feeling, but a thought or story. A feeling is a sensation in the body. When we’re lonely, we have sensations such as heaviness or an ache around the heart, low energy, etc. “No one loves me,” or “I am unloved” is not a sensation, but a story. It’s something we tell ourselves in order to make sense of our feelings.

It’s vital to distinguish between actual feelings and stories that we use to explain those feelings—because our stories can either reinforce or reduce unpleasant feelings. You might feel lonely or sad or hurt, but you tell yourself that you are unloved, that no one cares, etc., and this makes you miserable. Becoming aware that you’re telling these stories, and that they’re unhelpful because they make you feel worse, is a valuable practice, because whether we take a thought seriously is something we have a choice over. We can also deliberately cultivate more useful thoughts, such as the self-kindness and self-compassion thoughts I suggested earlier.

We need to accept feelings of loneliness. One of the stories we tell ourselves is that if we’re lonely, there’s something wrong with us. We’re defective. But in feeling lonely, you’re showing that you’re a perfectly functional human being! We’re social animals. We’re designed to feel pain when we’re not connected in a web of empathy. Your feeling of loneliness is just a signal that your mind is sending, telling you that you need to connect. Feeling lonely is normal.

Being caught up in thoughts actually prevents us from really seeing our feelings of loneliness. When we drop the story and turn toward our feelings, what do we find? We find sensations in the body. We find sensations that we experience as emptiness, darkness, heaviness, and so on. Maybe the feelings are painful, but also beautiful, warm and intimate. Maybe they’re tender. Maybe they’re tingling, like twinkling energy in space. Maybe they’re mysterious and intriguing. Maybe they’re no longer scary, but contribute to a sense of our aliveness. Can you say “yes” to these feelings? Can you allow them to just be?

Empathizing with ourselves in this way opens the way for us to empathize with others.

If loneliness is a lack of felt connection with others, then perhaps we need to connect with ourselves in order to move past feeling lonely. Connect kindly and compassionately with your loneliness, and it will connect you with others.

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How to create calmness by observing thoughtspace and feelingspace

I was teaching a class the other night and after a guided meditation one woman said she’d found it hard because lots of thoughts came up, and she’d get absorbed in them. Then she had to keep letting go of the thoughts and returning to the breathing. Of course I reassured her that that’s absolutely normal. In fact, noticing that we’ve been caught up in the mind’s stories and returning to our present-moment experience (whether of the breathing or something else) is what meditation is about.

Once you accept that fact, you’re less likely to think of yourself as being a “bad meditator” or to think that your meditation practice isn’t going well just because you get distracted. In fact, under such circumstances your practice is going just as it should.

Many years ago I found it useful to watch what you might call “thoughtspace.” Thoughtspace is the physical location of your thinking. Now you might not have thought of your thinking as having a physical location, but try paying attention right now as you say something to yourself internally. I think you’ll find that your thoughts emanate from a particular place (probably inside your head). If you watch that part of your experience closely — if you monitor your thoughtspace — you’ll think less.

This helps to calm the mind. Except … I also found that there was a kind of secondary thoughtspace. Over and over I’d find that I was watching the primary thoughtspace (the one you just identified) carefully, only to become aware that there was a subtle background whispering coming from somewhere else. The thinking that came from the secondary thoughtspace seemed quieter and less obtrusive, however. The primary thoughtspace seemed to give rise to the kinds of thoughts that completely threw me off track and led into unmindful absorption in daydreams and fantasies. The secondary thoughtspace gave rise to subtler, more whispery thoughts, which co-existed with mindful attention so that I could be observing the breathing (or my primary thoughtspace) and still have a running commentary going on. However, those thoughts could shift to become the center of my attention if I wasn’t attentive enough.

You might want to try watching your thoughtspace and see if the same happens in your own experience.

Having just the whispery thoughts of the secondary thoughtspace is a lot better than having the more “in your face” thinking that normally goes on, but sometimes I like to calm and stabilize the mind even more. So one way to do that is to simultaneously observe your thoughtspace and what you could call your feelingspace.

Feelingspace, as I’m sure you’ve worked out, is a name for the area in the body where feelings arise. The point of observing the feelingspace is not to stop feeling arising! It’s just to observe what’s there. Now feelings can arise in many parts of the body, including the solar plexus and the heart. but most often they manifest in the solar plexus, just south of your sternum.

I don’t mean to imply having a narrow focus. If I were to start my meditation just by noticing the space where my thoughts arise and the solar plexus, for example, then this would feel very constricted and might even lead to a kind of “backlash” where my thinking increased. So although I may be focusing on the solar plexus I’m actually aware of most of the area in the body where feelings arise—basically most of the chest and abdomen. Within this, I’ll have a lightly-held focus on where I tend to be experiencing feelings the most at that particular time.

What I’ve found is that if I observe both the thoughtspace and the feelingspace at the same time, the mind becomes even quieter. The mind may not become completely silent all the time, but there are longer periods of calm.

Whatever you do, don’t get attached to the idea of getting rid of thoughts altogether! You can’t control the arising of thoughts, and they will tend to bubble up. If you have the idea that you’re only “succeeding” when there’s no thinking, then you’ll get frustrated. Just try doing the practice and see what happens. It may take you a while to feel your way into it, since there are a bunch of skills I’ve mentioned that you may have to work on developing — e.g. including two different parts of your experience in conscious awareness at the same time. Some people initially find this tricky since they have the habit of focusing narrowly (although not necessarily mindfully!)

The following things are all excellent outcomes:

If you’re making a gentle effort to observe both thoughtspace and feelingspace at the same time. If you’re able to do so, or getting better at doing so. If you find that you’re a bit more aware of your thinking without getting caught up in it. If you find that periods of distraction still arise but they don’t last as long. If your thinking seems lighter and less compelling than it was before. If you notice periods of time, even brief ones, where there appear to be no thoughts arising. If you’re more aware of the area of the body where feelings arise. If you notice your feelings more. If you notice the interaction between thoughts and feelings.

Basically, any increase in awareness of what’s going on inside you is good. Any movement, however slight, toward peace and freedom is welcome. But mainly what you’re doing is just being mindful of the body, of feelings, and of the mind. It’s about process, not outcomes.

You might want to give that a try and see if it works for you.

I’ve generally found that observing two physically separate parts of my experience has a profoundly calming effect (I call this “the perceptual stretch”) but the fact that feelings and thoughts interact with each other may also help this approach to be effective in calming the mind.

Just one last point, when you have a single candle in a large room, it’s not going to light up the whole space; appreciate the light you have, rather than cursing the darkness that remains. Value any moments of calmness that emerge, rather than lamenting the fact that thoughts are still arising. By valuing calmness, you encourage it to grow.

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Mindfulness: what it’s not

old padlock with key on a green wooden wallWhat is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is when we observe our experience rather than merely participate in our experience. When we’re unmindful, we’re certainly experiencing, but we’re “merely participating” in that experience, swept along in the flow of our thoughts and fantasies, caught up in thinking without being aware of what we’re doing and what effect it’s having on us, and not realizing that we have the choice to do anything else.

When we’re mindful, we observe our experience. We know that we’re thinking. We’re aware of what effect our thinking is having (for example that it’s making us or others unhappy). We’re aware we have choices about what we do and what we think.

And that’s what mindfulness is: observing.

Often teachers will say that mindfulness is other things as well: that it’s kind and compassionate, that it’s curious, peaceful, confident, non-attached, equanimous, trusting, and wise.

But what’s happening here is that these other qualities are being conflated with (and confused with!) mindfulness. These qualities are not, in fact, part of mindfulness. Instead, they are separate qualities, and mindfulness enables them.

Because mindfulness leads to us having choice, it allows us to bring other qualities into being.

We might, for example, start off unmindfully obsessing over some hurt we’ve experienced. We’re caught up in the flow of “being hurt” or perhaps “being angry” about that hurt. But we’re “merely participating,” without observing. Then mindfulness comes into being. (This happens spontaneously, and without any will on our part.) Now we’re aware that we’re hurt and angry, and of the way we’ve been reacting to this in ways that intensify our suffering. And we have the freedom to stop reacting and to respond more creatively. Mindfulness enables this.

Perhaps we start by accepting that there’s pain present. Perhaps we bring in a wise perspective that anger isn’t the most helpful way for us to respond to this pain. Perhaps we bring in some warmth and compassion for ourselves. Perhaps we become curious to see how we can respond with even more creativity. Perhaps we cultivate kindness and compassion for the person who hurt us. And perhaps now we’re suffering much less than we were before.

All of these qualities come into being as a result of mindfulness, but they themselves are not part of mindfulness. They’re not inherently part of the act of observing, although they may flow alongside it and intertwine with it.

In time, we get better at “leveraging” our mindfulness and bringing these other qualities into being. In fact it can happen rapidly and automatically. And so the moment we step into mindfulness, curiosity, acceptance, compassion, etc., arise.

One problem with assuming that all these skillful qualities are part of mindfulness is that it causes doubt. Someone may become mindful, observing their experience, but doubt that they actually are mindful, because they haven’t yet brought into being curiosity, compassion, wisdom, etc. If someone has developed mindfulness but thinks that they haven’t, then this disempowers them and causes confusion.

Bearing in mind that mindfulness is an enabling quality — one that creates a space in which we are free to bring into being other skillful qualities, is truer to the traditional understanding of mindfulness, and makes it clearer what actually happens as we first become mindful of our experience and then learn to respond creatively to it.

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Buddhism, grief, and loss

Buddha statue looking sad.

Recently a meditation student who’s only just begun practicing wrote to say that she’d experienced a bereavement. She wondered if I had any suggestions to help her through the grieving process.

I have to say first of all that I’m not a grief counselor. I’m just a meditator who has ended up sharing what he’s learned about working with pain. And I also would like to add that I’m hesitant to give advice in such situations because I know how feeble words can be in the face of powerful emotions. I long ago gave up on the notion I once held that there is some magical form of words that will make everything better.

Despite that, though, I know that sometimes when we share our perspectives with others (or when they do this with us) it can be helpful. So here’s an edited version of what I wrote to her.

Grief can of course be very painful. I think the main thing I’d emphasize is that the pain of loss is very natural, and to be accepted. It’s common to think that there’s something wrong when we feel pain, but when our life has been deeply entangled with that of another being, the two of us are part of one emotional system — a kind of shared love that flows between us. In that kind of a relationship we’re not, on an emotional level, two entirely separate beings. And so when we lose the other, it feels like a part of us has been ripped out. It feels that way because that’s exactly what’s happened.

So take a breath, and say, “It’s OK to feel this.” It really is.

Even those who are enlightened feel grief.

Just as one would put out a burning refuge with water, so does the enlightened one — discerning, skillful, and wise — blow away any arisen grief, his own lamentation, longing, and sorrow, like the wind, a bit of cotton fluff.
The Sutta Nipata

When we think there’s something wrong about feeling grief, then we add a second layer of suffering, which is often far more painful than the first. This second layer of pain comes from telling ourselves how terrible the experience is that we’re having, how it shouldn’t have happened, etc. Accept that it’s OK to feel the initial pain of grief, and you’re less likely to add that second layer.

Grief is an expression of love. Grief is how love feels when the object of our love has been taken away. And that’s worth bearing in mind. Try being aware of the grief and seeing it as valuable, because it’s love. Without love, there would be no grief. But without grief, there would be no love. So we have to see grief as being part of the package, so to speak.

You can treat the pain as an object of mindfulness. What we call “emotional” pain is actually located in the body. When the mind detects that something is “wrong,” it sends signals into the body, activating pain receptors. The more you can be aware of where those painful feelings are located in the body, the less your mind will have an opportunity to add that second layer of suffering.

You can recognize that a part of you is suffering, and send it loving messages. While you’re paying mindful attention to the part of you that’s suffering (noticing where in the body your pain is located) you can say things like “It’s OK. I know it hurts, but I’m here for you.” You can find your own form of words if you want.

Lastly, it’s worth reminding yourself that all living beings are of the nature to die. It’s a natural part of life. We don’t do this to numb the pain or to make it go away, but to help put things in perspective. Today, thousands of people are mourning the loss of pets, parents, even children. You’re not alone…

The enlightened feel grief, but it passes for them more quickly than it does for us, because they recognize that everything is impermanent, and they don’t add that second layer of suffering.

So your grief is natural, but I hope it soon becomes easier and easier to bear.

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Separating feelings and thoughts

Partly opened zipper

One of the participants in our current 28 Day meditation challenge reported that she was experiencing stress because of a new job.

New jobs can be very challenging and bring up a lot of self doubt. I remember that well.

She talked about “feelings of inadequacy and uselessness,” and I could instantly see a practice that would help her deal with the challenges of her new job. The practice is to distinguish between feelings and thoughts.

From the perspective of Buddhist psychology, inadequacy and uselessness are not feelings. Actual feelings that we might experience in a challenging new job include anxiety, or fear, or confusion. “I am inadequate” and “I am useless” are thoughts. They are interpretations based on our feelings.

“Inadequacy” and “uselessness” are stories that we develop in order to make sense of the feelings of anxiety, confusion, etc. that we’re experiencing. Buddhism calls this prapañca, or “proliferation.” Prapañca increases our suffering.

We’re always trying to come up with stories that “explain” what’s going on in our lives. Stories like “I am inadequate” or “I am useless” serve to intensify our fear and confusion because we’ve “explained” our feelings by creating a story in which there’s something wrong with us that makes us incapable of dealing with the job. But these so-called explanations of why the job’s stressful just make us feel even worse.

The practice here is to separate our feelings from our stories. So we can feel anxiety or confusion but not create stories around them. Or if stories arise automatically (“I can’t do this, I’m useless”) we can acknowledge them and recognize that they’re just stories, and not facts. We let go of the stories, and just return our attention to our present-moment experience.

And having chosen to let go of our stories, we’re free to have other responses to our feelings, like regarding our discomfort with compassion. We can acknowledge our difficult feelings and accept them as a normal part of the learning process; if you’re stretching yourself to take on new capabilities, then of course you’re going to be confused at times, and of course you’re going to feel uncomfortable. We can share with other people how we’re feeling so that we don’t feel ashamed and don’t have to pretend that we understand when in fact we don’t. (Honesty is less stress-inducing than dishonesty, in most cases.)

Separating feelings and thoughts in this way is a key part of Buddhist practice, and it’s a very powerful tool.

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When you’re afraid of meditating

Hands protecting flowers

For various reasons, we can sometimes experience a fear of meditating. We may know that meditating would help us, but we find the thought of getting on the cushion terrifying. Perhaps we bury ourselves in distractions in order to keep the fear at bay.

If this is something you experience, how can you deal with it? I’d suggest that rather than “be tough” and forcing yourself to meditate, it would be more useful to be accepting and compassionate toward your anxiety. Your anxiety isn’t intending to be your enemy — it thinks it’s protecting you from some kind of danger. It’s misguided rather than “bad.” So what you need is reassurance.

I encourage people to notice where the anxiety is most strongly centered in the body (often it’s the solar plexus, where there are lots of nerves that get activated when fear is aroused).

Then, as best you can, let the anxiety be there. The part of your brain that’s generating the anxiety is already expecting an attack, so do you really want to confirm its fears by being the one who does the attacking? So let go of any thoughts about how anxiety is bad, or how it shouldn’t be there, or how you shouldn’t be anxious, or how there’s something wrong with you for being anxious. If those thoughts arise, don’t encourage them. Just note their arising and relax back into your experience of the body. Your anxiety is just a sensation in the body. It’s not (if you’re anxious about meditating) a sign that there’s something wrong, or that there’s something wrong with you. It’s OK to feel anxious. You can reassure yourself about this by saying, “It’s OK to feel this. Let me feel this.”

What the anxious part of you needs is kindness and reassurance. So try putting your hand on your solar plexus and saying to your anxiety, “I love you, and I want you to find peace. May you be happy.” You can make reassuring movements with your hand as you do this. If the anxiety is specifically about meditating, then you can add things like, “It’s OK. We can do this. I know you’re afraid, but we can handle this.” Become your own healer.

At this point you’re already meditating, so you can just sit where you are and continue. Perhaps after some time you can gently move to your meditation place.

As Rilke wrote, “Be of good courage. All is before you, and time passed in the difficult is never lost.”

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