Stop Trying To Think Your Way Out Of Emotions
Skills We Need to Live Together and Love Our Lives (or at least the skills I need)
Many years ago my friend was at a meditation retreat led by Thich Nhat Hanh. In a closing exercise, he invited each person to stand, face another, hug, and take three deep breaths. On the first breath reflecting on “I will die.” On the second breath “You will die.” And on the third breath, “We have only this precious moment.”
Last week I asked “How do we stay in love with our lives?” This week I was trying to answer that question in one thousand words. Then what started as one blog post turned into three…or five. So this is the first in a series about the skills I think are most important for me to live and connect with others and continue to be in love with my life. I genuinely hope some small piece may be helpful in your own journey around the sun. Skill zero to stay in love with my one and only wild and precious life:
Skill Zero, as in ground zero. Stop trying to think your way out of pain.
Earlier this month, I was running back and forth, marketing then hustling then worrying then nail biting then applying for jobs then checking the bank account. I watched my thoughts pivot between “I’m a failure” and “I’m taking my family down with me.”
“When you are enveloped in doubt, it is sometimes best just to stop…instead of moving forward in a daze, can you allow yourself to stop and experience the pain of the doubt? Can you investigate the doubt itself?” -Your Life’s Work, Stephen Cope
One benefit of being a therapist is you get to listen (for free) to a lot of advice you are giving to other people. And maybe you actually try and do the things you suggest everyone else should be doing. The annoying thing is it means I can give you a big list of all the things I’m doing wrong. It’s one thing to be running away from fear and doubt, thinking my way deeper into the cave. It’s another to know I’m doing it, know it won’t work, and feel powerless to stop.
I used to be able to spend months in this panic. Hallelujah I’ve watched enough people learn to investigate their pain that once in a while I can be braver than before. I can stop trying to problem solve and think my way out of it. Instead, at some point, I sit down in it. And wait.
Dr. Jennifer Goetz and colleagues suggest a model in which compassion is mainly an other-oriented emotion, in which the first decision point is who is suffering? If we were playing emotional chutes and ladders, when you are the one suffering, you jump the chute to sadness, anger or shame, when you are watching someone else suffer, you may climb the ladder to compassion.
But what if we could teach ourselves something different? What if when we observe our own suffering we could turn toward ourselves with love and care?
And bottom line, if my best friend thought her business was failing, if she thought she was useless and unskilled, I would just sit with her. I would listen. I would say, “This is hard…How can I help?....I love you, I’m cheering for you….Everyone in the whole world feels this way. You’re not alone, I feel this way, Ghandi felt this way when he was a miserable and ineffective lawyer! We’re in good company, love.”
I *would not* problem solve out of the pain. I wouldn’t skip over it, I wouldn’t start talking about pricing structures. I wouldn’t tell her she needed to read more books. I wouldn’t suggest hashtags to use in marketing campaigns.
What if I could sit with myself? What if I could try what comes so easy when the emotional pain is outside of myself?
I’m in the pain, now what?
Just sit. My mentor is somewhere right now whispering, “Stop Kerry. No more tools. Don’t give them anything. The task is just to sit. And sit and sit.” Yes, Robyn, yes absolutely, sitting, we’re all just sitting here hugging the pain. Love it.
*And* if I was going to suggest something, which I’m not, because we’re just sitting, this is what I’d suggest.
RAIN – developed by Michelle McDonald and popularized by Tara Brach.
· Recognize that you are trapped in mindlessness, fused with thoughts and words and a thinking reality that is far from your bodily experience and the present moment.
· Allow your internal experiences to come forth, inviting them in just as they are. Create a clearing and watch the physical sensations, the emotions bubbling, the thoughts tracking muddy prints through the house. Watch them like watching a movie, not yelling at the screen, just resting in your seat.
· Investigate these sensations, much like you would carefully lean in to see the butterfly that just landed on your hand. With kindness and curiosity and even bemusement, notice the breadth and depth and nuance of this anger, this lostness, this itch or discomfort, the thought that feels so damn true it’s hard to consider it is only sounds bunched together into words. What is behind and under the most prominent headlines? Parse and examine without judgment or illusion or hope for different. Just this, as is.
· Nourish or nurture the part of you that is hurting. The unmet need, the struggle, the story. Whatever you have learned about the pain or suffering discomfort you started with. Sometimes this is the most important part, sometimes it’s a light touch.
Here’s an example of me doing RAIN during Thanksgiving (further reading with Rick Hanson and Tara Brach).
Contemplate your clearing.
Clearing by Martha Postlewaite
Do not try to save
the whole world
or do anything grandiose.
in the dense forest
of your life
and wait there
until the song
that is your life
falls into your own cupped hands
and you recognize and greet it.
Only then will you know
how to give yourself
to this world
so worth of rescue.
Ask for Help
Buckle up, we’re about to get provocative. I know NOTHING about the divine, about a bigger than self, about God or Allah or the Supreme Being. Here’s what I know, what I have seen and felt with my own eyes and head and heart:
There is some organization to life.
The mind frees us and traps us.
The pain of life is inevitable and its weight can be born together with love and courage.
There is so much I don’t know or understand.
So in the midst of my monthly panic, when the pain was bad enough, I got down on my knees and asked for help. Because I was out of ideas and Stephen Cope told me to.
Stephen Cope quotes de Caussade from Abandonment to Divine Providence,
“None of our own efforts and mental striving can be of any use at all...this work in our souls cannot be accomplished by cleverness, intelligence, or any subtlety of mind, but only by completely abandoning ourselves to the divine action, becoming like metal poured into a mold, or a canvas waiting for the brush, or marble under the sculptor’s hands.”
He goes on to say (heavily edited for brevity),
“First of all, ask for guidance. As it turns out, this is remarkably important, and it’s something most of us almost always forget to do. It seems that there is something about actually asking that jump-starts a process. And sometimes even asking repeatedly is required. Even begging…[jumping to step 5] Once there is a “flavor of certitude,” says [Father] Bede, then “pray for the courage to take action.” It’s not uncommon for us to get to certitude and then realize we don’t really want to take the action. We’re not willing. Or we don’t have the courage. Or it’s too inconvenient…You can pray for willingness. You can pray for the courage. You can pray for absolutely everything you need along the way.” p226-7.
And I’m going to say something wild. I have no evidence that any universal voice has ever shouted down into my life answering these meek prayers. And I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. Even if there is nothing mystical in the world, there is power in talking to yourself frankly about what you don’t know. Asking for what you need like courage and willingness and hope. And when I got down on my knees, what I ended with was this, "I love this life so much, and I am lost so much of the time." That really sums it up. I do love this life. I love my work. I feel immensely grateful to be here now. And lots of the time I feel lost, or at least I can only see a few feet in front of me. Asking good questions of that powerful heart.
And letting go, again, not trying to problem solve my way out of pain.
What about you? What helps you in the midst of being stuck? What do you do in the midst of pain?
Sending you love and gratitude and peace in the storm,