A Personal Story of Processing or Digesting Negative Emotionsby Stephanie NashThis is an excerpt from an email to a private client who was wanting a session to "work through" issues before making a decision of whether to commit to a partner or leave the relationship (in response to some intense emotions & thoughts that were arising with this decision.) The way he "scheduled" these insights to happen reminded me of when, on a 30 day retreat with Shinzen Young, early in my meditation practice, I had actually expected to become completely (classically) enlightened by the 3rd week (and ended up diving into a pool of tears and despair when it didn't happen.) I still enjoy referring to - i.e. "I'm planning to be completely enlightened by Thursday at 3pm."
This client was working with anxiety - some of which was an always present undercurrent or habit - and some of which was quite provoked by the notion of making a permanent commitment. After our session, I wanted to share what my experience had been with anxiety. This is what I wrote:
I realized, after the fact, that I spent almost 3 decades of my life with an "ever-present" (it really came in waves) anxiety - which ranged from mild discomfort to debilitating panic attack. I was sure it was connected to images, thoughts, judgments that I had about myself and others - and there was a truth to that. What I didn't see was how the HABIT of entertaining (i.e. thinking about over and over) the negative possible outcomes - or the negative judgment of ANY outcome - was a crucial and necessary cause of and contribution to my experience of anxiety.
It was when I started having a "complete experience" of the physical sensations of anxiety - meaning I openly accepted , relaxed around, allowed, observed the sensations of anxiety in my body without judgment - that's when these sensations began to flow and turn into an intense and not-unpleasant energy (mostly in my chest - i.e. in the same place the anxiety was.) Often, the moment I stopped "applying this equanimity" this icky, awful anxiety would resume - so I spent many days and years - continuously (i.e. many many times a day) a) looking at this arising of emotion in the body with acceptance and no judgment, and b) releasing it. Over time, this "not-unpleasant energy" became more and more intensely pleasant and connected to positive emotions (and quite satisfying.)
It was at that point, that I felt/observed the "energy" of the emotion in the body - get released and naturally flow into something positive (usually something along the lines of bliss, enthusiasm, a delighted excitement) that, instead of distorting and causing discomfort, now motivated and fueled. (Some call that alchemy - or you could say that the tension/judgment/resistance is what causes it to feel not good.)
So, in my experience, the very energy that was an ever-present anxiety - became the same energy that fuels my life - creatively with compassion and insight. It arises to this day (and today I could, if I wanted to, create a new, entirely different Talk & Image to go with it), but since I've logged in so many years of helping it release and flow, that happens almost automatically now - often before I've even had a chance to really delve into it through meditation. And so I don't replace the old "Oh no!" with a positive, instead I have compassion for how some of us human beings need to be kind to ourselves and treat our experience (and others) in a healthy way. (And I do, incidentally, find the voice that said "Oh no!" did start to say "Oh boy!" and now there's hardly a verbal component at all.)
Now, in terms of sequence, I worked with the physical/emotional part first. THEN, over time, I did find that I started to naturally replace the habitual "oh no" fear or judgment in the mind with new more positive thoughts (that were actually closer to the reality of my experience of myself and the world.) You could say that I processed the emotions and then the thoughts aligned with the new, freer self.
Soryu's decision making algorithm, works with both (all 3) components of body & mind at the same time. I personally found it more helpful to first address the body - however, I've had clients that responded quite strongly to replacing the thought first - but doing it in a reinforcing and loving way i.e. not fantasizing and then trying to hold onto the benefits of the fantasy - but rather, envisioning a scenario or context that was healthy and benefited all.
So whether you work just with the body, or just with the thoughts, or with both - understand that it's not about "getting rid" of unpleasant - or of "grasping onto" preferable thoughts and feelings, but rather of letting go of what's not helpful in the present moment (which is simply there because of habits & conditioning), ofaccepting/allowing whatever feelings arise without resistance, and of appreciating the present moment - allowing the future to be informed by the truth of the present.
So, for example, you could sit in meditation and allow ALL the feelings - maybe all the unpleasant, maybe all the pleasant, maybe both - (I did it with intense anxiety) and allow them to churn and move - like a crock pot - in the body -without attaching meaning or judgment - without connecting them to Thought, and just see what the digestion process looks/feels like. (That exercise with expansion and contraction is simply one dynamic way of doing that.) It could be like watching a weather pattern in the body. That is, in fact, very much what it is like.
And after it has all moved and settled in some way - THEN you can see what thoughts about anything arise. That is the mindful decision-making process that I like to employ.
*PS - This process isn't usually a one-time fix. It may take weeks, months or even years to fully "digest/process" - it will depend on how much concentration, clarity and equanimity - plus time - you can give it - and/or how much is there to digest. (You have no idea how deep the roots of this go - i.e. it could link to early childhood experience, or many experiences, etc.) But I encourage you to let it become a new habit, what you naturally do when these emotions arise.
And because this can be a longer term process, I may suggest that you and your future partner find a way to incorporate this process into your relationship - since leaving your partner because of a fear of future or a regret of past (or a fantasy that may never happen in real life) - may not be the choice that is best for both of you. Maybe it is, but you haven't really considered ways to allow this process WITHIN the relationship. It seems you have an expectation that you "fix" or "work through" it all first - and then get together - but I just wanted to say that it doesn't always work that neatly.
And the last thing I want to say - as you are looking to make this decision, is to encourage you to notice where/when you feel peaceful, satisfying joy and/or love (either with your partner or alone - whether contemplating committing to your partner or choosing to leave.) We have so many emotions in our lives - many of which are quite intense and draw our attention to them - and it can be difficult to hone in on what to listen to.
Well, going with the notion that we don't really want more pleasure (i.e. greater intensity & longer duration) but that we really want a deep satisfaction, I find it helpful to tune into the emotional qualities that reflect that which, to me, resonate more in the peaceful joy category (which I happen to believe is our natural state and a sign of health (on all levels.)) So, this is a "heads up" to maybe pay special attention to that particular flavor as a guide towards what is right for you at this time.
And please BE KIND to yourself in this process. GIVE SPACE for it - without a DEMAND of any kind of deadline or particular outcome. That's the equanimity part. We all have things we want, things we think we need, things we want to have less of - and I like to think of this process as learning to accept the beauty of whatever is - while contributing to the unfolding of it all to hopefully make it as healthy and good as possible. I think that's all we need to do - and in many ways, it's much easier than what most of us are attempting to do (that involves a lot of control and agenda.) Resistance never feels good, acceptance is definitely a yellow Brick Road to feeling good - and being present and appreciative of each moment of this life.
I hope you find this or any part of this helpful for you as you decide on an important direction to take in your life. Tune in with kindness, give space for it to unfold, try not to judge, and enjoy whatever beauty and insights manifest.
About the Author
Rev. Arvid Straube has been helping people grow spiritually for more than 35 years as a Unitarian Universalist parish minister. He has been practicing and teaching Vipassana
meditation for over 20 years, studying with many teachers including Joseph Goldstein, Thich Nhat Hanh and Shinzen Young.