Abiding Difficult Emotions
It has been a turbulent week for most of us. And we may not know the best way to hold the feelings of fear, anger, resentment, and despair evoked by this Trump win. These difficult emotions can easily propel us into unskillful actions, where we are more likely to cause further harm to ourselves or others. How do we step above the impulse to just meet fear with fear and hate with hate?
I’m writing to remind you of some of the mindfulness tools in your toolbox that can help you navigate your experience more gracefully and compassionately.
First, begin with Awareness. Notice how you are feeling in any given moment. Painful emotions are uncomfortable, and may lead you to distract yourself from them through a myriad of avoidance strategies, e.g., eating unhealthful foods, consuming mind-altering substances, binge-watching Netflix, shopping, etc. The mindfulness practice invites you not to run away from direct experience, but rather to be with it as best you can.
Second, cultivate Acceptance. Allow yourself to be angry. Allow the tears to flow. Allow sadness to be okay. That which we resist persists. So, let it flow. Let it be. Give yourself some space to experience whatever shows up. Remember Rumi’s Guesthouse and invite it all in, “even if its a crowd of sorrows that violently sweeps your house empty of its furniture…still, treat each guest honorably.” If you try to control or suppress your emotions, they only get stuffed under the rug to pollute your system. Better to let them out. Remember the eternal law of impermanence. Everything comes and goes. Allowing your emotions doesn’t mean you’re stuck with them forever. This, too, shall pass. You are only asked to accept what is present in this moment. Ask yourself, “Am I okay right now? Can I allow my present experience to be here?”
And in the space of acceptance, next Choose how to direct yourself. With the Choice tool, you have unending options, but you are making a conscious choice how to proceed, instead of just sliding into an automatic habit response. With difficult emotions, one good choice to incorporate is the Peaceful Pause. When you speak or act impulsively out of anger and fear, you often are adding more hate to an already difficult situation. Though it may feel good to the ego to make yourself right by pointing out how the other is wrong or by blaming someone for your discomfort, we don’t need more divisiveness right now. If you know your words will cause harm, refrain from speaking them. Can you express your point of view without causing harm, without judging the other person’s experience? Challenge yourself to speak from kindness.
It is within the choice tool that we grow our value-based life. For example, if you have the intention of harm-reduction or the intention of promoting kindness, you can filter your choices through that intention by asking: Is this kind? Does this cause harm?
The Peaceful Pause also gives you space to take care of yourself. Put your own oxygen mask on first. Breathe deeply. Thich Nhat Hanh offers practices for transforming fear, including this simple breathing meditation:
“Breathing in, I know that a painful emotion is present. Breathing out, I calm that painful feeling.”
Even with difficult emotions, you have the capacity to soothe yourself within the span of each breath you take. That breath may not eliminate the pain, but it can soften it, and in doing so, help you recognize your own efficacy in dealing with challenge. Instead of being the victim of your emotions, you learn to work with them.
Now more than ever, it is important to take care of yourself. Make a plan on how to be kind to yourself. Get to yoga classes. Take a hike in Nature. Cook some healthy food. Dance!
Below, I share my Wednesday-morning post-election practices that helped me stay more grounded and calm amidst my upset from the unanticipated election results.
I woke up at 2:00 am and debated for a second whether or not to check my phone for the results. I checked. I was shocked, and felt a mix of fear, anger and disbelief. My fight or flight response was off and running, and I wasn’t able to sleep any more that night. Due to a cancelation in my morning schedule, I had a few hours to tend to myself and work with my emotional upset before I had to go teach.
The fight or flight system releases a barrage of neurochemicals that prepare you to fight or flee. Our ancestors expended a lot of energy running for protection or defending themselves against a predator or foe. This energy expenditure would help metabolize the activating neurochemicals, like adrenaline and cortisol. If you just sit on those emotions when fight or flight is activated, it takes much longer to release those chemicals, and they keep you keyed up and anxious for a much longer period.
I started my day with my usual morning meditation, but then did an hour of Zumba to dance out some of my adrenaline. I love to dance, and it always helps me reconnect with joy.
TIP: Do something you love this week. Burn some calories to metabolize any residual cortisol or adrenaline that’s still mucking about.
Nature is also a great tonic for the addled soul. I next took a long hike in the Chabot Park with Sophie, my dog. Breathing with the trees, feeling the sun, noticing my feet connecting the the Earth, watching Sophie gallop down the hills all helped to ground me in the present moment. I noticed that, at least for right now, everything was still okay. My mind was projecting doom and gloom into future moments, and those thoughts were further stimulating my upset. But, the truth was that in that moment, I was alright.
TIP: Get out in Nature. Focus on the present. Remember that acceptance is for the here and now. Can you accept this moment?
Fear also makes the ego more prominent in our thinking and actions. I was personalizing the result and fearing what a Trump/Pence win might mean for my newly-legalized marriage, or to my sense of safety as an out gay man, not just here, but traveling to Red States.
One remedy to get out of the ego, is to connect to common humanity, and remember that other people are having a rough time, too. By taking perspective, we can often see that what we are calling problems are just blips on the radar compared to what others are facing. I feel for people of color in rural areas facing a president supported by the KKK. I feel for people of Arab descent in a country filled with such fear of Muslim terrorist. I feel for women in a country who just elected a man with reported sexual assaults against women and whose language promotes rape culture.
Relativizing your own fear can help bring you out of fear and into compassion. Remember, we are much more the same than we are different.
During this thought process, I remembered the student who had cancelled that morning due to illness. So, I made up some homemade chicken soup and took over to his house.
TIP: Doing something nice for someone else can soften you own aggravated feelings, and help you reconnect to kindness and love. If not in action, think of others and their situations. Hold them in your heart with compassion.
Accepting the Shadow
More on the tool of Acceptance.
On the path of self-improvement, we need to notice what needs improvement. Your ego functions to make you feel like you are always right, always good, always just. The ego can distort your perception of the world and your role in the world. Your ego can distort truth to bend it to its own agenda. It hides inconvenient truths of your short-sidedness and your own wrong-doing.
All of our diatribes against Donald Trump, against his racism, homophobia, mysogyny, xenophobia, greed, ego, etc., all reveal aspects of our common consciousness. Growing up in America, we are all trained in these beliefs to various degrees: that Blacks are inferior to Whites, that gays are aberrations of nature, that men should be the heads of the household, that foreigners are dangerous, that making it in the world means being rich. To deny your own racism, homophobia, mysogyny, xenophobia, greed is to deny your truth.
In this regard, Donald Trump may be the perfect candidate to highlight our nation’s shadow – that aspect of our common consciousness that is there, but often hidden beneath a facade of good manners. His hate-filled campaign has brought to light aspects of our culture that definitely need improvement. Accordingly, his main-stage presence provides a chance for you to look inside yourself and witness the remnants of your enculturated biases. More generally, you can see places where you judge others, where you are biased against some group or person, where your ego blocks you from a compassionate response when others are in pain. Can you let DT be a wake up within your own life to the residual hate that you carry. Can you accept that all of the name-calling towards DT could be applied to you, too, and to all of those around you, even here in our liberal bubble by the Bay. Let his presidency by a time to recommit to your chosen values, to mindfully become aware when some form of judgment or harm-doing arises, and to practice acceptance and kindness more broadly and more bravely.
The Stories We Tell
One of the central tenets of mindfulness is that it is not so much the people and events in our lives that cause our distress, but rather our reactions to those people and events. When you find yourself wigging out about DT and the next four years, notice the story you are telling.
Question your story objectively…
- Is it true now?
- Am I exaggerating how bad it will be?
- Can I really predict the future?
- How likely is it that what I am fearing will actually happen?
Wake up to your story, and notice you can choose to change your story to one that aligns more closely with the objective truth of the moment. Use the fear story as a wake up to your values. How can they manifest in the scenario you’ve envisioned? Tell a story that incorporates your intentions and values. This can help you move away from a fear-driven life, and towards one motivated my love.
I’ll close for now. I hope these words are a benefit to you.
May you be safe.
May you be healthy.
May you find peace.