I have a confession to make: I do not believe you can feel happy 24/7, any more than you can feel anything every minute for your entire life. We are designed to feel a broad spectrum of emotions because, so far, they have kept us safe and helped perpetuate the human race.
We all know how something that feels bad can actually redound to your highest good in the future. But, being the hedonists I think we are designed to be, we naturally avoid pain and seek pleasure. What if sitting with discomfort helped us make peace with it—increased our frustration tolerance and our ability to accept life as it is?
As Albert Ellis used to say, it is a choice between short-term hedonism and long-term hedonism. If we forego the pleasure of the moment, we can reap greater benefits in the future. In today’s society, delaying gratification is not popular; however, when we learn to sit with what we don’t like, we can actually build emotional muscle and handle the next challenge with greater ease.
When we feel anxious, for example, our first inclination is often for relief, which usually consists of avoidance. We can distract ourselves with TV, video games, pornography, food, alcohol, drugs (including prescription psychotropics), gambling, and other things that may create new problems; or, we can do the last thing we instinctively gravitate toward: sit with the feeling. Yes, just allow it. Breathe into it. Can you feel the discomfort physically? If so, notice its characteristics. Is your breathing shallow? Is your back tense? Do you feel a headache coming on? Is your jaw clenched? Are your shoulders hunched up? Is your abdomen tight? Breathe into whatever you notice.
Many intelligent and insightful souls—such as the Buddha, Ram Dass, and Eckhart Tolle—have encouraged us to be here now. That means being with whatever comes up. Your job is not to like everything, but to be aware and open. Luckily, this becomes easier when you remind yourself that everything passes—the pleasant and the unpleasant.
It is crucial to understand that the goal here is not to figure out why you are feeling what you are feeling, but to stay with the discomfort. You may even want to cultivate some curiosity about what you are feeling.
Granted, mindfulness practice is counter-intuitive, but when you are fully in the moment, you can relax into what is. Resisting your feelings often increases them and their power. No harm will come to you if you embrace your feelings, though it may be uncomfortable. In time, you may notice a feeling or sensation and, rather than avoid it, you can label and accept it. Another great benefit of this practice is that by gently and lovingly accepting where you are, you may become more compassionate with yourself and others.
Impermanence is the name of the game. Nothing lasts—good or bad. You may not care to remind yourself of that in the middle of an ice cream sundae (though it might make you more appreciative and increase your enjoyment), but it is helpful to remember when times are tough.
Once you allow yourself to be with what is true for you now, remember this quote from Haruki Murakami: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” By resisting the urge to rate your feelings—or yourself as bad for having them—you will begin to know the peace that comes from acceptance, and your discomfort will not morph into suffering.
Here is an exercise to help you on your path to emotional freedom:
- Consciously stop yourself a few times a day to do an internal check.
- What am I feeling now?
- Can I allow this feeling, whether physical, emotional or spiritual, without trying to repress it or distract myself from it?
- Stay with whatever comes up, especially if you don’t like it.
- Try to label what you are experiencing. For example: tightness in the throat, muscle spasms in the low back, tension in the jaw, etc.
- Name your emotions as if you were simply observing them—anxiety, sadness, anger, resentment, grief, etc.
- Breathe into any area of discomfort, and keep drawing your breath there until you feel it relax.
You can immerse yourself in Buddhist thought by reading books by Pema Chodron, and listening to podcasts on iTunes, such as: “A Quiet Mind,” “The I.D. Project,” or interviews on Sounds True.
- Murakami, H., & Gabriel, P. (2008). What I talk about when I talk about running: A memoir. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.
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