This is Part Three of our series on working with holiday stress. In Part One, Dr. Olsen pointed out some holiday triggers that may come in the form of unresolved issues in our families. In Part Two, Erin Belanger, LMHC, explained how our over-scheduled and over-sugared holidays can wreak havoc on our children and their emotional states. In this article, I will share some methods from the teachings on mindfulness to help us weather both of those holiday storms.
People often come to my mindfulness classes or to therapy expressing a real and urgent need to feel better. Often struggling with depression, anxiety, or extreme stress, most have a very genuine longing to find a way to have some relief in their minds. They have heard about mindfulness and want to see if it will help. However, as with any new trendy fad that’s supposed to make us healthy, when it becomes difficult, we can get easily discouraged and say, “Well, this method is just not going to work for me, maybe I’ll just try jogging.”
Mindfulness practices are commonly found in Buddhism. But there are also contemplative traditions in the Judeo-Christian teachings, such as centering prayer. Mindfulness can also be practiced without any spiritual overlay. The translation of the word “mindfulness” means “to remember” (Sanskrit: smriti). What do you remember? In a meditative experience, when your mind is distracted, you remember to come back to whatever you’re focusing on, whether it’s the breath or the body, or a sacred word or image (as in the Christian tradition of centering prayer). This trains you to remember to look at how your mind is responding to circumstances, and to remember to respond with spaciousness, kindness, wisdom and compassion. And if you’re practicing mindfulness in daily life, when strong emotions come up or a difficult interaction happens, you are remembering to come back to your intention to be kind, open and non-reactive.
The act of remembering is mindfulness. It’s an active process, more like a verb than a noun. I point this out because most people think mindfulness is something they should “get”––like a blissed-out Zen state of mind, and then they despair when they can’t stop thinking.
“Spiritual bypassing” is a term coined by psychologist John Welwood in 1984, referring to the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds and developmental needs. We all have different family backgrounds and emotional makeups. Many people are attracted to a mindfulness practice because they feel it could help their minds. We have a sense that something is “off” and look to a spiritual path to fix the problem. Many times, we don’t feel whole inside. But we can confuse the spiritual path, or a mindfulness practice, as a means to just get rid of all this stuff inside us, anything uncomfortable or undesirable--jealousy, stress, anxiety, complicated grief. We say, “this is the bad part of me, and I’m going to become spiritual.” Especially during the holidays, we can try to force ourselves to be “cheerful.”
People do the same thing in therapy, often looking to the therapist and saying “I don’t like my mind. I want to get rid of my feelings. Please fix me.” Unfortunately, this is not really possible nor healthy! Even if you could turn off your thoughts and get rid of your feelings––or if your therapist could––it would ultimately become a huge problem because you would have cut off an important part of yourself.
A large part of the journey of mindfulness is acknowledging two parts of us––the desire to feel better and our raw emotion as it is––and bringing them to meet in the middle, a sort of rapprochement. What mindfulness practice is teaching us is that those parts that we don’t feel are whole can ultimately be processed and transformed. Their essentially “whole” nature can be revealed. This takes time and patience and it takes the courage to walk a gradual path.
Dan Siegel, PhD from UCLA has been doing research on mindfulness from a neuroscience perspective, and has written several important books, including The Mindful Brain. He has identified that the same neural processes are happening in our brains when we meditate as happen when a child is securely attached to a parent. Think about the stress of a child who is having a tantrum, as in Erin’s article; they are very distraught and scattered and cannot calm down. In a healthy parent-child relationship, the parent knows how to soothe the child, saying, “It’s going to be OK.” There’s a calming influence. That’s what we are learning to do to with ourselves when we practice mindfulness. In a sense, we are offering healthy parenting to ourselves. This is essential to do before we can expect ourselves to be their for our children!
Most recently, i have been teaching a course on mindfulness and disturbing emotions using the book Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Empowers You by Dzogchen Ponlop. In the book, the authoroutlines a 3-step “Rescue Plan” for working with emotions.
Step 1: Mindful Gap
First, we need to get some distance from our strong feelings before we can work with them. The step of Mindful Gap means to feel, hold and look. What does that mean? We just feel the energy of an emotion without blocking it or reacting to it. We hold, meaning we stay in the present moment, without replaying the past (what happened to trigger the feeling) or anticipating the future (trying to figure out what we’re going to do about it). Finally, we look directly at the intensity of the emotion with curiosity and openness. This is not necessarily easy to do! We need to develop patience with emotions. This involves building tolerance for feelings. Instead of wanting to get rid of a feeling, building tolerance means developing endurance as it comes through you. Let it wash in, feel it in your body, and wash out when it’s ready to go. It may not go right away, but we don’t try to push it away or fix it.
Methods for developing a mindful gap include: slowing down, breathing deeply and just being present with what is arising. We start with paying attention to the breath, just feeling its movement. If thoughts come up, don’t try to stop them. Just notice them and come back to the breath. What you’re doing is connecting to a non-thinking part of yourself and you’re feeling the emotion in the body. But you’re also developing a sense of space so that you don’t have to react immediately. When you’re flooded with emotion, sometimes all you can do is just to “re-mind” yourself (remember the meaning of mindfulness) that you’re just not seeing this clearly yet and you need to sit with things before you respond.
Step 2: Clear Seeing
Once we have some distance from our feelings, we need to identify them. We also need to identify how we experience them. We can ask, “Is this the same anger that was here yesterday? Has it changed at all? What happens when I take a walk or exercise? Do I always get triggered in the same way by my boss or is it different when she smiles at me? Is this sadness or remorse or regret or depression or just exhaustion? Is this rage or annoyance? What’s the difference between those different feelings? Does this emotion arise immediately or gradually?” The more we can develop this investigative approach, the more we can relax instead of going on autopilot, thinking, “Whenever I feel this feeling, I have to do this in order to feel better!” Here, we are developing choice in how we respond to things. We’re learning about our triggers and learning about who we are. In this step, journaling is an excellent way to develop more clarity instead of acting out.
Step 3: Letting Go
Letting Go is the practice of releasing stressful physical and emotional energy through physical exercise, relaxation, and, primarily, through awareness. In order to let a feeling go, we must change our outlook on emotions. As opposed to saying, “Oh no, here’s jealousy again! I hate this feeling.” Instead, we could say “Yay, this is my opportunity to work with this feeling that’s very challenging for me.” We don’t despair when we have emotions. Neuroscience researchers have identified that meditators eventually change from an “aversion” mindset to one of “approach” and there is a noticeable shift in the brain. We go toward our feelings and fears and investigate them with curiosity and spaciousness.
In our culture, we want results very fast. We need to learn to appreciate our feelings for the opportunity they provide us to feel alive. Our emotions are just something to experience, just like natural phenomena, a torrential rainstorm or a gust of wind. When you imagine a calm ocean, it is not necessarily more beautiful than a stormy one. In the same way, the peaks and valleys of our feelings add richness and sparkle to our lives. Through Mindful Gap and Clear Seeing, we release the negative “aversion” mindset. Then we can learn to relax when a feeling arises. Ironically, when we’re no longer fighting them, we are much more able to let them go.
I will be offering a 5-week Mindful Emotions class on Thursday evenings from 6:30-9pm, from February 2nd to March 2nd. Please call 518-374-3278 x405 for more information or to register.