Embracing our challenges

Over the past two weeks we have been looking at paying attention to our emotions, and how the mindfulness practice of RAIN can assist us to work with them more effectively. Today we will explore Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s five stages of dealing with emotions, which have some additional steps to the RAIN practice which can be very helpful.

His first two steps, Recognition and Acceptance, are the same as in RAIN. However, the next step, Embracing, offers a very powerful way of engaging with emotions we might usually choose to reject. Thich Nhat Hanh talks about bringing the emotion in close and embracing it like you would a crying baby. If we think about a crying baby, that is a sound which is not usually very pleasant! We could reject it and take the baby out into the garden, closing the doors and windows so we no longer hear it as much, but that would not be very loving, and it probably also wouldn’t stop the baby from crying. Or we could get angry with the baby, yelling at it in frustration, demanding that it stop – again, neither loving nor effective. The more instinctive response is to bring the baby in close, hold it with tenderness, and try to soothe it. We can think about why the baby might be crying – is she hungry, cold, tired? – and take steps to look after her, but the most effective initial response is to simply show her that you’re close, and that you care.

If we think of our challenging emotions like a crying baby trying to communicate that something is wrong, we can see that our responses are often unloving and ineffective. How often do we try to shut our emotions down so we can no longer ‘hear’ them, or else get frustrated with ourselves for not feeling how we ‘should’. Meanwhile, the baby is still crying, feeling rejected and unheard. It may seem counter-intuitive to embrace aspects of ourself we’d rather reject, but these aspects are also a part of us, and want to be acknowledged. Some of the difficult emotions can feel quite primitive, or child-like. Once we have embraced the emotion and soothed it, we are then in a position to go to the next step, which Thich Nhat Hanh calls Looking Deeply. This is where the adult, responsible self can take charge and ensure that the needs of the crying baby are met appropriately, in a mature and constructive way. We can ask ourselves – what is really going on here, and what can I do about it?

His final step is called ‘Insight’, and this is where working with our challenging emotions can go beyond simply ‘managing’ our emotions like we might manage a tricky household budget, and lead us to increased wisdom and understanding. We will look at this final step in more detail in next week’s reflection.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, try to approach difficult feelings and emotions as if they were a crying child wanting to be comforted. Notice what difference this makes to your experience of these states.

Anja Tanhane