By John Schorling
All of us have certain things that tend to trigger strong emotional reactions like anger. When they occur, we often externalize their causes. If feeling a lack of respect from others is a trigger, we can be quick to rationalize our reaction as being justified because other people “should” be respectful. If we just feel that respect for others is a desirable but not necessary quality, we might note its absence, yet might not be triggered by it. Someone else might not be angered by lack of respect, but would be by perceiving someone else as lazy.
These strong reactions often feel natural and justified, and we may not question them. They are our reality, like the water in this David Foster Wallace story: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’… The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” https://web.ics.purdue.edu/~drkelly/DFWKenyonAddress2005.pdf
If we don’t investigate them, all our beliefs about the way things should be can be like water is for these fish. Yet when we do pause to notice our reactions, we can often begin to see patterns, such as observing, “Oh, when I perceive a lack of respect, I notice I feel anger”. If we’re curious, we might use the RAINS practice that was the subject of a recent Monthly Musing to explore this further as a mindfulness exercise (https://news.med.virginia.edu/mindfulness/2019/05/23/dealing-with-difficult-emotions-using-rains/) .
We can start with sitting meditation, grounding ourselves in the body. We can then bring to mind a situation that resulted in the emotion we are curious about. We can Recognize the emotion, perhaps naming it: “this is anger” or “this is disappointment”. It may not be obvious what the emotion is, and if so that’s fine. We can still just Allow it to be, without judging it or needing to fix it or make it go away. If this is too difficult, then directing the attention elsewhere is fine, back to the breath or perhaps the feet or hands. If we are able to be with the emotion, then we can Investigate it, noticing where we feel it in the body, and the characteristics of the associated sensations.
It is also possible to investigate further the source of the pattern we’ve noticed, and ask ourselves “when do I first remember feeling this way?” This can be a very powerful inquiry as it often takes us back to an event in childhood. Although there are other potential sources, these tightly held beliefs about the way things should be that trigger strong emotions often arise within our families of origin. If this is the case, noticing this, is a reaction that was learned a long time ago and has been conditioned over years of experience, can help with Not identifying with it, the N of RAINS. It may be useful to acknowledge this by saying to ourselves “not me” or “not mine”.
Being with difficult emotions is hard, and practicing Self-compassion can be very helpful. If the pattern we’ve encountered is one we would prefer to let go of, we can acknowledge this with kindness. We can practice this by responding to ourselves as we would a friend, with warmth and caring. This is often the key to untying these knots that underlie all the shoulds in our lives. Can we be with what is arising with compassion, noting that this way of reacting was almost certainly adaptive when we learned it (it probably allowed us to get through difficult situations at the time)? However, it may now have outlived its usefulness and letting it go might be the most skillful thing we can do. Often this doesn’t happen right away. The same pattern may persist, although perhaps a little less intensely. Just like a very tightly tied knot, it can take a while (sometimes years so lots patience and self-kindness may be necessary) to loosen it before it can be completely undone.
In my own experience, I came to understand that the feelings of anger and abandonment I felt in certain situations were a consequence of how I learned to deal with my father’s death when I was young. It took some time to recognize these emotions, as I first tried out less strong labels (feeling not important rather than abandoned, and not even acknowledging anger). Allowing them to be was challenging, and required visualizing holding them in a space larger then myself. When I investigated the accompanying physical sensations, I felt quite intense discomfort, like a bad stomach ache. When I asked myself when I had first felt these emotions, the answer was immediately clear. I was then able to accept that these feelings arose out of my circumstances and did not define me. Once I did this, I was able to gradually let them go, but only after I was able to accept the kindness others felt for me and that I felt for myself.
This process can be quite challenging and, in my experience, eventually can be even more rewarding. It’s important to note that help from a meditation teacher or therapist may be needed if the source of the difficult emotions is so traumatic that it is too intense to tolerate. If this is the case, the most compassionate thing we might do for ourselves is to ask for guidance.
Filed Under: Monthly Musings