Befriending our feelings – Part 2

We’d probably like to feel happy and upbeat all the time, but mindfulness is not about getting to some mythical state where we are always happy and calm. We can spend a lot of time and energy resisting our emotions, when simply being present with them for a while may be all that is needed. There are steps we can take to lift our mood, and if we find that our ongoing low mood states are really affecting the quality of our lives, it makes sense to get professional help.

Yet for everyday emotions, sometimes it’s most helpful to just feel them. Emotions are natural responses to the changing conditions of our lives. We put unnecessary pressure on ourselves if we feel that we ‘should’ be happy all the time.

One of the most effective ways in which mindfulness can be helpful is to feel the emotions in our body as body sensations. Our heart might be racing, or our chest feel constricted. There may be an ache in our heart centre, or butterflies in our stomach, or our forehead may be constricted and tight. If we tune into these sensations during meditation, what we often notice is that these feelings, and thus our emotions, shift and change all the time. Sensing the emotions in our body seems to ground them, and they become something we can more easily be present with. Emotions can seem large and overwhelming, but as body sensations, they never stay the same for long, and we can allow ourselves to flow along with them rather than wasting our energy trying to build a massive sandbank in an attempt to hold them back.

I find that staying with an emotion for a few minutes is usually enough. If there is a feeling of sadness, I try to make the time to simply sit with this for a few minutes and feel it. I can then choose to do something which I know from experience will lift my mood – perhaps go for a short walk, or play with the cat, or listen to some music. There may still be a residual sense of sadness, but I usually feel free to get on with the rest of the day.

Of course, sometimes we need a lot more than this – for a serious bereavement, or a clinical depression or anxiety disorder which may require professional help, and also plenty of time and space for healing. Yet there is value in befriending our feelings rather than declaring war on them, and if we can get into the habit of being more welcoming towards our wide range of everyday emotions, we are usually in a better position to deal with the more serious emotions when they arise as well.

Weekly practice idea:

Take a few moments each day to practise feeling your emotions in your body. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane

Wanting what we have

‘Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have.’

Anonymous saying

When we look at our lives, most of the time we have fairly clear ideas about what we’d like more of, and what we’d love to do without. All cultures and religions have guidelines about which desires are considered acceptable, and which are strictly forbidden. There are usually also some grey areas, where the rules are less clear. And of course, in a rapidly changing world, within even one Church congregation there can be a wide range of views on subjects like same-sex marriage, corporal punishment, women as priests and so on.

Many of our desires are survival-based – the desire to have enough to eat, adequate shelter, to be safe from harm and so on. Usually we also have a desire to be free from pain and suffering, though this desire might be subjugated to a higher purpose, as in the case of a marathon runner who chooses to endure quite a lot of pain and suffering in order to reach her goal.

Desires motivate us to not only survive, but also to prosper and flourish. The downside of our desires can be that they tend to be addictive. If we meditate regularly, we can be quite surprised at the constant array of various desires parading through our mind. Some of these might be lofty – ‘I want to reach enlightenment so that I can liberate all other sentient beings’. Some are a little more prosaic – ‘I’ve really got to have some chocolate, NOW!’ Other desires might feel shameful, or at least somewhat embarrassing. One of the reasons why sensual desire is seen as a hindrance to meditation in traditional Buddhism is the way in which desires pull us away from simply being present in the moment. Sometimes this can be very intense – when we fall in love, for example, and can’t think of anything other than our beloved. Yet even if we are meditating with great concentration, really being mindful of the moment, we can still be engaged in what Zen teacher Barry Magid calls our ‘secret practice’ – our deep, often well-hidden wish for life to be somehow other than it is. And while our more obvious sensual desires can make it more difficult to remain present during a meditation, our ‘secret’ desires about what meditation should be can be a significant hindrance in keeping our practice going long-term.

Next week we look at some of the ways in which mindfulness can be used to work more skillfully with our desires – not through denying them, but by being more clear about their place in our life, and the various directions they want to pull us in.

Weekly practice idea:

Sit for ten minutes in a quiet place, and watch the range of desires emerging in your mind. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane

Happiness

White flowers

‘Some cause happiness wherever they go, others whenever they go.’

Oscar Wilde

 

It is typical of Oscar Wilde that, in his witty way, he touches on a rather painful truth. There are people who simply don’t seem to have the knack of making others happy, of being pleasant company. Other people are so open-hearted and generous, they sow harmony and good-will in even difficult circumstances. The rest of us are somewhere in between – we probably have plenty of people in our lives whose faces light up when we enter a room, as well as a few who are less than delighted to run into us. We all want to be happy, we all want to be liked, and we all struggle with both.

One of the effects of regular meditation is an increase in the activity of the left pre-frontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with positive feeling states. Continue reading “Happiness” »

Happiness in a minor key

Pink flowers

 

How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false and true;

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

(from When You Are Old, by William Butler Yeats)

 

To see the pilgrim soul of another person, to love their sorrows – we are moved by stories filled with sadness; we instinctively respect the dignity of grief; we have all suffered loss, and we know there are many more losses ahead of us, including, eventually, the loss of our lives. And yet, despite this, many of us feel we have to hide our sorrows, to be relentlessly upbeat, positive, great fun to be around. We all have different temperaments, individual ways in which we experience the difficulties of our lives. Sometimes we feel too vulnerable to show the world what’s going on with us, and the ‘sorrows of (our) changing face’ might be seen by only one or two people close to us. Yet one of the gifts of mindfulness for me has been to become much more comfortable with the full range of my emotions. Apart from sitting with difficult emotions during the formal meditation practice, I’ve learnt to allow myself to experience sadness whenever it arises.  Instead of chastising myself – ‘what have you got to be sad about, there are many people much worse off than you’ (which is quite true) – I can accept sadness as a normal part of any life. Continue reading “Happiness in a minor key” »

Being happy for others

Daylesford lake

‘O! beware, my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the flesh it feeds on.’
(Iago to Othello, in Shakespeare’s Othello)

Some of the most miserable times in my life have been those when I have felt jealous or resentful. These can be difficult emotions for any of us – that promotion which should have been ours, the achievement someone else got credit for, the close group of friends we’re always on the outer of. Jealousy can be a sharp pang, quickly gone, or a simmering resentment which poisons our life for years. Either way, it certainly feels like we’re feeding on our own flesh, as Shakespeare so eloquently put it – it can distort our thinking, cause us to act unkindly, and impair our ability to feel happy and connected to others. Sometimes we’re justified in feeling resentful, such as when we are the victim of discrimination or abuse. Other times, however, our jealousy has more to do with our inability to be happy for the happiness of others. Everything which goes well with the other person, all their successes and joys, only serves to remind us of our own suffering and misery.

Continue reading “Being happy for others” »