Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Of Course: Facing the Challenge of Sitting with Difficult Emotion

Anyone who has spent any amount of time in meditation has likely encountered discomfort-- the discomfort of sitting in a forced position, the discomfort of wishing we were doing something more entertaining, the discomfort of being with raw emotion. Many of my clients have bailed on meditation altogether in the face of some of these difficulties, which led me to look at strategies for helping them through those tough times.

I spend a lot of time talking to my clients about compassion. For some the idea resonates immediately, comes naturally, and manifests in all kinds of positive ways quickly. For others, maybe most, compassion is at best a lofty idea that is hard to put in to practice and at worst, an experience that seems completely unavailable to us for one reason or another. Compassion is essential for healing, and is an incredible tool for increasing our discomfort tolerance so that growth can happen. In an effort to make compassion more accessible, we need to understand what it is and how to get our minds in on the task of opening ourselves with kindness and curiosity.

Compassion is essentially empathetic acceptance. I get in someone's shoes (possibly my own), acknowledge their reality, their perspective, and then without any push for change, I say lovingly and with a full heart "I feel that with you." The key to compassion is acceptance. What we are often experiencing in an uncomfortable mediation sitting is an absence of acceptance. We are so used to acceptance being followed by negative judgment that the notion of allowing our thoughts and feelings to arise just as they are feels defeating, draining. When we take the next step from acceptance in to compassion, we not only allow what is, but we also allow the impact of what is to be relevant. We interact with ourselves more gently, with more kindness.

Rather than keep browbeating myself in to being compassionate (because that would surely defeat the purpose), I've started engaging compassion on the sly, using the phrase "of course." When a difficult emotion arises that I feel the urge to turn away from or push down, I say to myself "of course I feel this way, and of course I don't want to feel this feeling." "Of course" has the flavor of logic about it-- the phrase gives us the sense that we have rationally come to the conclusion that something is inevitable, which acknowledges a fundamental truth of the universe that nothing comes from nowhere, so if something is, it must be. "Of course" then gives us permission to be kind to ourselves and to connect more compassionately with whatever is showing up in meditation. If a feeling is unavoidable, which "of course" would suggest, then I don't have to struggle with myself over its existence, and can instead use my energy to nurture myself through the difficult experience. "Of course" allows us to interact with mental and emotional difficulty as we would a physical injury. If you cut your finger and cry out, it would be easy to say "of course you are in pain, you cut your finger! Let's get a Bandaid."

We might also use "of course" to connect the dots between the experiences that have trained us to be avoidant, anxious, or judgmental and our current difficulty. Let's say I am struggling to sit with negative self-judgment. In meditation, I seem to constantly berate myself for not sitting long enough or for getting distracted. If I can make those judgments the object of my attention, I might create just enough room to ask "where is that coming from?" Maybe my early caregivers were very hard on me any time I made a mistake, or perhaps I grew up in a dangerous place where any misstep could end in violence. Regardless of the cause, if we open ourselves up enough, we get to the "of course." Of course I'm critical of myself, because I've been trained to be that way. We use this not to pass the buck of our suffering, but to allow for the reality of difficulty without writing ourselves off as failures. 

Next time you are struggling to sit through something uncomfortable, try opening yourself to the power of compassion by telling yourself gently "of course."

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