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.
It's gonna happen. It happens from time to time to almost everyone who is committed to a regular discipline of mediation and/or prayer. In the last week and a half, no less than 7 of my clients have reported to me that their spiritual practice had stalled or become irregular in the holiday period.
The first thing to do is--let go of the guilt! It's gonna happen. Especially at this time of year with travel and extra responsibilities added onto already insanely busy lives. The important thing is to get started again right away. And remember that the benefits you have gained from your practice are not going to go away.
Meditation teacher Shinzen Young is fond of saying, "If you can't be disciplined, be clever." Here are some hints you might try to cleverly get back on track with your practice.
1. Set a goal where you are sure to succeed. Even if you were meditating 45 minutes twice a day before your practice stalled, when you restart your practice set a goal that you know you can meet, say 10 minutes, 5 times per week. It will allow you to feel good about your practice again and will help you build momentum naturally for longer periods of practice. And you might want to reflect if you stalled because you were biting off more than you can chew in terms of time spent in practice for your current life and circumstances. It is exponentially more effective to practice regularly for shorter periods of time than to practice for longer periods of time irregularly.
2. Make yourself accountable. Make a deal with your sangha, spiritual director, life coach, teacher or a friend that you will let them know that you have met your goal. Do this weekly, or even daily, until your practice is re-established. It can be really simple like sending them an e mail or a text.
3. Is the reason you are not practicing is because you are bored? There is no reason to be. A conversation with an experienced teacher can help you identify ways to modify or refine your practice so that you will be energized again. You may also try some of the many guided meditations available on line. (See my Youtube channel for some of them.)
4. Last, but perhaps most important, many times we stop practicing because our practice is about to reveal something about our lives that some part of us would rather not look at. If you go ahead and practice anyway, you will probably find that what is revealed is not nearly as scary as you unconsciously feared. So, if you become aware of the need to practice, but you find yourself resisting, check in mindfully and deeply for a moment to check if there is any reason for the resistance. It will be enlightening.
A Year End Spiritual Inventory
The days of the waning old year when we anticipate the new is a wonderful time to step back and look back on the year just past and to make some firm intentions for the year to come. Here is a process you might want to consider for doing this.
First, look back on the year just past. If you happen to have kept a journal, that's perfect. If not, you can just look over your date book or appointment calendar, starting with January. This will help you remember what you were doing and what you were thinking and feeling this year. Ask yourself if you have made spiritual progress in 2014. How would you know? Meditation teacher Shinzen Young has suggested 5 ways. Did you progress, stay the same, or regress in any of these areas in the past year.
The first sign of spiritual progress is that you have less suffering. This is especially true with mental suffering. Were you captured less by afflictive emotions like self-pity,worry, resentment, hopelessness, harsh judgement of yourself and others, or jealousy? Do you have more equanimity with the ups and downs of life?
The second sign is that you have more fulfillment. Do you have more moments of gratitude for all that you have been given in this life? Have you truly enjoyed your friends and family, your work, your pastimes? Have you been able to savor the moments of pleasure and joy in your life without tension, distraction or worry.
The third sign of spiritual progress is that you have more insights into the nature of life and reality. You gradually know yourself better and you are better able to understand the interconnections between things and between events. You more often know instinctively the right thing to do in more and more situations.
The fourth sign is that you are engaging in more positive behaviors and in fewer negative behaviors.
The fifth and final sign is that you naturally and effortlessly find yourself acting with compassion and love in more situations. You have a growing desire to show kindness and to reach out in service to lessen the suffering of the world.
Look back on 2014 and see where you stand today in each of these 5 areas. You may want to write in your journal and make notes. Then, ideally after a time, or even a day or two of meditation, prayer and/or reflection, set one or more intentions for 2015. There probably shouldn't be more than 3. These are not New Years resolutions, but deep commitments to yourself to transform and improve your life. They should inspire you and not be an opportunity for failure or criticism. Write these intentions down and reflect on them throughout the coming year.
RAIN is by far the best meditative tool I have found for dealing with difficult emotions.
Thich Nhat Hanh on Our Appointment With Life I took my precepts with him and he gave me the Dharma name Patient Friend of the Heart
Our Appointment with Life1 Reply
From the Assembly of Stars Meditation Hall at Lower Hamlet, Plum Village. This is the first dharma talk of the annual Summer Opening retreat at Plum Village. This short 37-minute talk is in English with a focus on the three energies of practice – mindfulness, concentration, and insight. Both the audio and the video are available below.
Mindfulness is a kind of energy that we can generate. Everyone has the capacity to generate the energy of mindfulness and allows us to be aware of what is going on in our body, in our feelings, in our perceptions, and in the world around us. What is happening in the here and the now. The world around us the object of our mind. If we are not in the here and the now then we cannot know what is happening in the present moment. We have an appointment with life. We may have been running and looking for something elsewhere and we will miss our appointment with life.
Mindfulness is always mindfulness of something. For example, drinking our tea. When you are very aware of something, you are concentrated on something and you begin to see something deeply. Therefore, mindfulness contains concentration. Can we see the nature of no birth and no death in our tea? Mindfulness also carries the energy of insight. What are the three energies? Mindfulness. Concentration. Insight. We can all generate these energies, right from the beginning of our practice. With these three kinds of energies, we can do many things. For example, we can generate a feeling of joy and a feeling of happiness.
How do we live deeply every moment of our daily life? How do we see our conditions of happiness? How do we make use of our suffering?
Podcast: Download (Duration: 37:17 — 85.3MB) | Embed
This entry was posted in Plum Village, Retreats and tagged 2014 Summer Opening, Three Energies onJuly 10, 2014.
Here is an ancient list of the benefits of loving kindness practice. For a guided meditation see my previous post:
1. You will sleep easily.
2. You will wake easily.
3. You will have pleasant dreams.
4. People will love you.
5. Angels and animals will love you..
6. Angels will protect you.
7. Poisons, weapons and fire will not harm you.
8. Your face will be radiant.
9. Your mind will be serene.
10. You will die unconfused.
11. You will be reborn in happy realms.
I can only attest to some of these benefits. Mostly, this practice cultivates a much greater sense of love and tenderheartedness.
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.