How do we manage when our feelings are amplified, when they threaten to overwhelm us? What action can we take to stay in our centre before the storm hits or as it swirls around us?
Thich Nhat Hanh in his wonderful little book Peace is Every Step suggests the following:
Our feelings play a very important part in directing all of our thoughts and actions. In us, there is a river of feelings, in which every drop of water is a different feeling, and each feeling relies on all the others for its existence. To observe it, we just sit on the bank of the river and identify each feeling as it surfaces, flows by, and disappears.
There are three sorts of feelings– pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. When we have an unpleasant feeling, we may want to chase it away. But it is more effective to return to our conscious breathing and just observe it, identifying it silently to ourselves: “Breathing in, I know there is an unpleasant feeling in me. Breathing out, I know there is an unpleasant feeling in me.” Calling a feeling by its name, such as “anger,” “sorrow,” “joy,” or “happiness,” helps us identify it clearly and recognize it more deeply.
We can use our breathing to be in contact with out feelings and accept them. If our breathing is light and calm–a natural result of conscious breathing– our mind and body will slowly become light, calm, and clear, and our feelings also.
Sound advice but not always so easy to be the witness on the river bank. Breathing is really useful…I know this because when I’m feeling a lot I notice how I hold my breath more tightly…How I resist the natural flow of my breathing…how I tense……How I notice that every word I try to speak results in a choking back of tears, my own inner river wanting to gush out…It cares not for the witness…..There is not always a safe place in our society for that to happen…so we swallow…we hold…we wait….and we forget to breathe. It is important not to forget.
Today I also read this by Lao Tsu:
The five colors blind the eye
The five tones deafen the ear
The five flavors dull the taste
Racing and hunting madden the mind
Precious things lead one astray.
Therefore the sage is guided by what he feels and not by what he sees.
He lets go of that and chooses this.
‘…the sage is guided by what he feels…”Is this advice contrary to that of our Buddhist friend above? Not really for me because Thich Nhat Hanh is asking us to accept our feelings rather than just observe them.
Witnessing gives rise to Acceptance.
Allow them to be…that way we can listen more deeply and discover the truth.
Thich Nhat Hanh again:
When these feelings arise, you have to practice in order to use the energy of mindfulness to recognize them, embrace them, look deeply into them. You have to go back to yourself, recognize the suffering in you, embrace the suffering, and you get relief. And if you continue with your practice of mindfulness, you understand the roots, the nature of the suffering, and you know the way to transform it.
Here is a simple yet effective exercise based on the principles discussed above by Thich Nhat Hahn taken from the excellent blog Elephant Journal by Chris Grosso:
The following is my translation (Chris’s) and is not verbatim. As Hanh teaches, however, it’s not the words that matter but our commitment to, and intention behind the practice.
So with that being said, I’ve broken it down to seven simple steps for you.
1. Whenever you become aware of negative thoughts and emotions arising, rather than ignoring them, or setting them aside for later, identify, acknowledge, and honor them.
2. Become very clear on what the specific upset is by identifying the exact thoughts that are bothering you. Are they self-judging, bad memories, or anxiety about future events? Any thought that causes dis-ease in you, regardless of past, present or future is applicable.
3. Next, identify the specific emotions that arise in you as a result of said thoughts. What do they feel like? Is there tightening in your chest? Is your stomach turning or is there a throbbing sensation in your head? Again, any emotion that causes dis-ease is applicable.
4. Once you’ve clearly identified the thought(s) and emotion(s), close your eyes and explore the imagery they subsequently create in your mind (once you’re familiar with the practice, you won’t always need to close your eyes—i.e., if you’re driving, or in public you can still do this.) Do the thoughts and emotions create colors, shapes, figures? Are they abstract or clear? The important thing is to let your thoughts and emotions create the imagery while you simply become aware of what they are.
5. Breathe. We’re at the half way mark and I’d like to offer you a sincere congratulations on completing the first half! Our natural tendency is to suppress these uncomfortable thoughts and emotions, often telling ourselves that we’ll deal with them later—but honestly, does later ever come? Unfortunately for most of us, it never does. So even just by taking the time to become conscious of, and identify these unpleasant thoughts and emotions is a huge step! Let’s not stop there however, because here’s where the really good stuff starts to happen.
6. This step is where everything begins to change! Once you have the mental images of what your thoughts and emotions look like (and even if there’s no image at all, this practice still works), picture yourself holding the image (or lack thereof) in the same way a mother holds a newborn baby. Picture the image of your painful thought and emotion wrapped in a warm blanket, being held with very loving care closely to your heart, your chest, as you extend it very sincere compassion from your heart center. (You can also use the imagery of wrapping the thought/emotion in a warm blanket and placing it in a baby carriage, and rocking the carriage back and forth.)
7. Next, mentally (or verbally) say to the image that you know it’s there and you promise to care for and hold it with compassion until it’s ready to go. Do your best to say these words from a very sincere place in your heart.
Through bringing our attention to the image of our painful thoughts and emotions, and tending to it with an open heart, we’re doing the most natural thing we can—expressing love. Instead of ostracizing our uncomfortable thoughts and emotions and their unpleasant effects, we show them pure, complete and inclusive love. It’s a love they’ve never known before, and a love many of us have never known before either.
The thoughts and emotions will often subside very quickly. Sometimes, however, they aren’t ready to go so fast, and that’s fine. When we initially told them we’d be with them as long as they needed us, we were sincere in that intention. So if/when the thoughts and emotions call us on it, we honor our words and hold them dearly in our heart for as long as it takes.
So that’s the practice. It truly is that simple and I’m forever grateful to Thich Nhat Hanh for the amazing results I’ve had with it in my life. This practice can be used on everyday minor things all the way to heavier memories of our most difficult life experiences. It’s all relevant, it’s all grist for the mill and it can all be healed.
It works. So when the storms hit, hold your emotions like a mother does a baby and be there for yourself.
One final word form Thich Nhat Hahn:
To be beautiful means to be yourself.
You don’t need to be accepted by others.
You need to accept yourself.