Meeting our pain can be one of the hardest aspects of practicing mindfulness and meditation. Not only are we battling to withstand stress chemicals being released in our bodies. But we feel impulses to react to situations around us based on the strong emotions we feel.
We don’t have full access to the frontal lobe of our brains which is responsible for reasoning, perspective and rationalization, basically the qualities that make us civilized human beings. So how do we embrace these emotions without simply tolerating these them and trying our best not to meltdown? I find that meeting our emotions is helpful. Let’s face it fear is fear guilt is guilt, we can’t change the sting or depth of some of these emotions. But by meeting them we can avoid becoming to overwhelmed by them.
I have always assumed that by being mindful of strong negative emotions I would in some way dilute there potency. but I’m finding that’s not the case for me. I still get overwhelmed when the world feels likes its closing in on me as my fear paralyzes my perspective. By moving towards strong emotion we say ok to the emotion. We muster up the courage and look at it with a willingness. So does it make everything better.
Not necessarily but resisting strong emotions make the sensations feel like tornadoes rather than storms. For me reconciling my emotions is a constant work in progress. I have good days and bad days. Some times I stand and move towards and sometimes i run for the hills.
Self care is a pretty big word in the wellness industry. Self care refers to the ability to care and nurture oneself through self awareness. An example of self care could be taking a walk after a heated argument to calm down. Another example could be having a long bath or getting a massage after a very stressful day. Even having support networks to talk to can be self care.
But when does self-care become self indulgence? Looking at my own experience i know i am self indulging when there is an element of stubbornness to not deal with stressful situations and doing activities to avoid having to address uncomfortable issues.
Avoidance and stubbornness can be underlying issues dressed up as self care.
Practicing self compassion and self care means understanding what you need to nurture within yourself to deal with life. I feel that if we are honest with ourselves we can distinguish the difference between looking after ourselves and using self-care to avoid or resists the issues that we need to face in our lives.
Often while im working my day job i encounter very difficult customers. Lately i have noticed that my mindfulness and acceptance practice has allowed me to let go of alot of anger and this allows me to not react out of defensiveness to rude clients.
However i is still feel some self judgement in regards to even feeling the anger or frustration in the first place. This can be a common challenge when we meditate or practice mindfulness as we naturally judge our progress when we try to decrease our stress and negative emotions.
So let me say this IT’S OK TO LOOSE YOUR SHIT!!
If you were to suppress these emotions or deny them they could show up in another area of you’re life maby in the form of reaction or maby you would eventually blow up. So we have to accept our own humanity, the challenges, the jealousy, the anger, the boredom, we need to accept all of it to eventually be at peace with it.
In reality progress may mean stressing over something for 20 mins instead of 45 mins and i consider that real world progress. Not some altruistic fantasy that we may have of being somebody who never gets angry or fearful. Eventually we can get to a place were we can even let things go in minutes. But remember racing to get to that place may bring more resistance because don’t forget you have to allow yourself loose you’re shit sometimes.
Many of my clients have struggled with meditation in the past and by the time they come to see me they have either decided to give it one last shot before leaving the path altogether or they come with a renewed determination to MASTER the practice. To these clients i say leave all you’re expectations at the door and treat you’re meditation practice as an experiment.
Why do i say this?
well first of all if we know the judgmental nature of the mind we automatically set up resistance with the practice when we have expectations about what we are going to get from a meditation session. So naturally when the mind doesn’t cooperate we feel frustrated and that we are not practicing correctly. This resistance encourages more metal activity and hesitation about the practice.
But if we can leave all our expectations at the door we find that we are more softer with ourselves and our minds. This allows us to let thoughts come a go easier and we are less judgmental when we have particularly stressful metal states. Once we approach meditation in this way we find the mind begins to cooperate and we begin to feel the benefits of meditation.
So the paradox is this, we may need to abandon all our goals to actually realize them in our meditation practice.
There is a big difference between allowing an uncomfortable emotion to show up as apposed to tolerating that emotion. Tolerating implies some mild resistance to the emotion and putting up with it. However allowing implies some level of acceptance of the feeling and a letting go of it. Once we can allow uncomfortable emotions to arise in our lives we find that they subside much quicker and this allows us greater perspective and a reduces our base line of stress.
I know in my own practice i have spent a long time tolerating negative emotions but i have only recently began to fully allow and accept them. the difference is huge.
It’s a very strange thing to have a judgement towards how you feel. Its even more strange to feel a certain way about the current emotion you have in you’re body. In theory it sounds very obscure but this process is one of our most natural experiences.
This is easily seen in extreme circumstances, for instance when athletes accomplish amazing physical feats. A lot of the time they break down crying after they win the event. This is not only because they are exhausted but they are also overwhelmed with so many emotions.
It is very possible to have a relationship with an emotion. For example i feel really resentful with myself when i feel jealousy. It feels like the jealously is a knee jerk reaction to some information i am comprehending and the resentfulness is informed by my values and my self image. So my relationship to that emotion is one of resistance, pulling away from it, denying it, judging it and not allowing myself the be that jealous version of myself.
To reduce the impact of negative emotions we first must change our relationship to them by allowing them to be apart of who we are. In my case allowing the jealousy to be apart of who i am (well atleast for now). I can confidently say that if jealousy wasn’t apart of me it wouldn’t show up in my life.
This is self honesty and vulnerability and is the prerequisite to all other healing and makes further self development possible.
Is Mindfulness the only answer?
As a mindfulness educator and teacher my ego sometimes likes to think so. But if im honest with myself my journey with mindfulness has posed more questions than answers. I find that i have been re-evaluating different areas of my life as a result of my mindfulness practice.
So lets see this in action, for example by tuning into how my emotions play out through the day this has given me an insight into when i feel threatened. Once understanding this the next logical question for me is well why do i feel threatened. The next realization is that i feel threatened because im not behaving in a way that men should behave in certain situations and this gives rise to anxiety.
In this short example we could generally say that mindfulness practice has led me to understanding my issues with toxic masculinity. But the insights haven’t stopped there. I have re-evaluated many areas of my life as a result of mindfulness practice. So did mindfulness resolve all my issue, past conditioning and trauma.
Well in a nutshell no!
But mindfulness is certainty an agent of change. Mindfulness was the tool that gave me the insight to realize these deep patterns within myself. Its not surprising that another name for mindfulness meditation is insight meditation. As i now know mindfulness practice breeds insight and self reflection.
So were to from here, well different problems call for different measures. For example to re-program my issues with toxic masculinity. I have now joined a mens group to be exposed to examples of positive masculinity and learn that its ok to be vulnerable as a man. Now I look at mindfulness as a train. mindfulness makes a stop at all my issues and its my job to get off and deal with these issues by any means necessary (counselling, diet, the arts etc) then i get back on the train and move on with my practice.
Mindfulness is synonymous with being non judgmental, but why?
Obviously there are therapeutic benefits of adopting this attitude along with the fact that western psychological and behavioral models bridge the gap from eastern philosophy to western therapy through this idea.
But lets look at how the idea of non judgment relates to the nature of consciousness itself.
We know that consciousness is all inclusive meaning that anything that comes in to our awareness is always permitted simple because of that fact that it is happening. Painful memories can be suppressed as a comping mechanism by an individual but if that pain is triggered it is still fully permitted by our awareness and comprehension even if we dread it.
On the level of the senses you’re ears don’t have any opinion about what they hear and you’re feet don’t have an issues with you’re shoes. In fact when if we feel pain it is a natural signal that you’re nervous system sends as a safety mechanism. Even these sensations can be experienced for what they are without resentment or opinions about them.
This is all because consciousness is all inclusiveness.
I feel that the teachings of the east have noted this quality of consciousness and tried to instill this in people by humanizing it in the emotion of acceptance or being non judgmental. In fact i think we as human beings can only understand this inclusiveness as acceptance.
As cognitive beings there is always a polarity in our experience of what we want to happen and what actually happens. So adopting a non judgmental attitude is the humanizing of the all inclusive awareness quality.
In the world of mindfulness education it can seem like there is a lot of negative emphasis placed on the thinking mind. Most of our mindfulness interventions are aimed at limiting and reducing stress responses due to negative thinking. It can even go to such extreams that some teachers even tell us not think at all. Over the last 2 months i have been working with the thinking mind in my meditation and i have come to the conclusion that thoughts ARE awareness.
Let me explain…
Over the last 3 years i have had an ongoing WAR ON THOUGHTS in my personal mindfulness and meditation practice. Not only has this constant effort caused a lot of resistance it has caused a lot of self doubt due to my lack progress. I have now come to the conclusion that constantly monitoring our thoughts is unnecessary and unnatural and any effort to do so will end in defeat because engagement with the thought process is as natural as breathing.
We can monitor our thoughts on command to a certain extent but spontaneous thoughts arise as we react to the world around us. For instance if i look at my watch i may instantly calculate how long it will take me to get to work. These spontaneous thoughts are so second nature that we don’t always observe them.
So here’s the thing….We don’t need to observe them anyway!
I have now realized that awareness is an ever present experience (except in deep sleep of if we are unconscious). That means our thoughts are apart of that awareness so they should not be fought against but embraced. It takes attention to think about stressful thought just like it takes attention to disengage and witness those same thoughts. So our mindfulness ability is still operating just on opposite spectrum’s.
Obviously we can use mindfulness to create distance from our thoughts and reduce stress. But when we approach deeper levels of practice one of the most important things is our attitude to thoughts not just the technical ability of mindfulness. Once we change our identity in relation to thinking our thoughts and story’s don’t define us. Maby the awareness behind thoughts is the defining element of who we are.
Over the last year my spiritual practise has become more realistic. In the past I often imagined that if I could get my mindfulness practise to a certain level then all my other problems would fall into place. Over the last year I have had many wake up calls that have challenged that idea.
For example my relationship has challenged me to address my own issue with intimacy. Difficult work relationships have challenged me to address my anger issues and in turn my masculinity. I am now coming to the realisation that mindful awareness is just another part of what it means to be a human being.
Presence awareness is just one of many relative truths of a human being. We posses other relative truths such as personality, sexuality, physicality, mentality, cultural settings and so on. We cant ignore or deny these parts of ourselves or else we are spiritually bypassing or in denial.
I have realized that every truth is relative and my role as a mindfulness educator and practitioner is to simply celebrate the unifying awareness we all posses and. Hopefully use that insight to create depth in other aspect of our humanity. But I do still find myself making the practise of mindfulness into a defence mechanism. Making the practise the answer to all my problems turning my spirituality into a security blanket which allows me to avoid deep issues I need to address.
In short we all have layers to our humanity just like an onion. Awareness being then centre and most intimate core of the onion and other aspect of our humanity begin the outer layers.
No layer is more important than the other.
We cant have a full onion without all of them.