Thursday, December 11, 2008

Facing Your Demons

As human beings, we concoct endless strategies for evading and escaping and anaesthetizing pain and discomfort of any kind, whether it's emotional, physical, or spiritual. When we experience difficult feelings such as anger, sadness, loneliness, shame, jealousy, or craving, our habitual response is either to stuff these feelings down (repressing), or to reach for something to make them "go away" (acting out). Eckhart Tolle writes in The Power of Now:

Every addiction arises from an unconscious refusal to face and move through your own pain. Every addiction starts with pain and ends with pain. Whatever the substance you are addicted to — alcohol, food, legal or illegal drugs, or a person — you are using something or somebody to cover up your pain.

The ability to be compassionate and loving — towards ourselves and others — grows out of our willingness to relate honestly and openly with our own pain and discomfort, rather than shutting down to it. As James Baldwin said, "One can only face in others what one can face in oneself."

Through meditation, we can learn to sit with difficult feelings, instead of repressing or acting out. The technique of Compassionate Abiding described here is adapted from a practice taught by Pema Chodron. It trains us in the ability to stay present and calm even in the midst of painful, uncomfortable, emotionally triggering situations. It increases our capacity to remain honest, open-minded, and willing even when our buttons are being pushed. It can also help us revisit painful situations from the past and work through lingering feelings of resentment, fear, shame, and so on.

Compassionate Abiding can be practiced on-the-spot, in "real life," when difficult situations arise. But we're more likely to be able to respond to situations spontaneously with an attitude of compassion and equanimity if we've first familiarized ourselves with what it feels like by working with the practice formally.

NOTE: If you have serious trauma in your past, such as physical or sexual abuse, it may be ill-advised to work with those situations in your formal practice of compassionate abiding, at least at the beginning. Confronting those kinds of memories may trigger 'emotional flooding,' which is not the point of the practice. It may be more skillful to address childhood trauma and other deep emotional scars in counseling with a professional.

As a meditation practice, compassionate abiding should always be "sandwiched" in-between short periods of basic mindfulness practice.

  1. Start with a few minutes of mindfulness practice, resting your awareness gently on the breath and letting go of thoughts.
  2. When your mind feels stabilized, call to mind a real-life situation from your past that was uncomfortable and emotionally triggering for you. If there was another person involved (there usually is!), it may be helpful to visualize their face(s) and imagine them doing whatever they did or saying whatever they said to make you feel upset and uncomfortable.
  3. As you inhale, breathe in the feeling of anger, resentment, jealousy, sadness, shame, fear, or whatever it is that's evoked in you by the situation you're working with. As you breathe in the feeling, allow yourself to really connect with it and experience the uncomfortable energy of it.
  4. Try to notice where the feeling lives in your body. Is it a tightening in your throat? A clenching of your jaw? A fluttering in your stomach? A frantic, jumping, screaming energy in your torso that wants to get up and run away? Don't try to make the sensation go away. Just notice it, and pay attention to it.
  5. As you exhale, breathe out a sense of tremendous space, openness, relaxation, and total acceptance. Allow your discomfort and painful feelings to dissolve into this open, loving, compassionate space. You can imagine your own heart opening up a little wider each time you exhale, so that there's always more and more space inside you to accommodate whatever you may be feeling.
  6. If you find yourself thinking about the situation or the feeling — spinning out storylines about it, blaming or criticizing the other person, judging yourself for feeling the way you feel, and so on — simply note this as "thinking," let it go, and come back to the sensations in your own body.
  7. Continue with this practice — breathing in the painful emotion, feeling where it lives in your body, and then breathing out a sense of spaciousness, love, and acceptance towards yourself and towards the feeling — for a few minutes, or until you feel that something in your experience of the emotion has shifted.
  8. End your session by returning to the basic mindfulness practice for a few minutes, until you feel that your mind is again clear, calm, and stabilized.

1 comment:

mistybray said...

I have been using methods similar to these and made great progress.

One thing I found was that there was a couple of days where the emotions stayed at first, which was uncomfortable for a time.

After this passed, it felt like an enormous weight had been literally lifted from my shoulders, which carry a lot of tension. My pain has decreased.

I have also found that in giving expression to my anger (I meditated expressing the old anger to that person, then I was able to forgive as I saw the others suffering) I am more able to forgive myself and accept who I am.