Finding Peace Through Embracing Difficulty
.A few years ago I went to a talk by Jeff Foster and I refer back to it frequently as it really clarified for me what this process of embracing the present moment might feel like. I’ve included a clip form one of his talks below where he talks about it. What struck me was his way of putting it. For so long I had wanted to find a way to stop feeling sad. I wanted my meditation practice to take me to an Enlightened high ground where I could look down on all of the conflicting emotions from a safe distance and never have to feel them again. But as Ajahan Cha’s quote at the top of this article suggests, freedom comes not from being removed from the painful emotions, but through knowing them as they arise and in that way avoiding getting caught up in resisting them or getting lost in them.
What Jeff said which has stayed with me ever since, was that our painful emotions are like children walking lost in a storm. When we feel sadness, or fear, or grief, or whatever it might be that we label as a bad emotion, it is as if that child has come knocking at the door. And they are not asking us to fix them or heal them. They are simply asking to be held. They are presenting themselves at the door of awareness and awareness can welcome them, embrace them and hold them. The mind that creates the perception of time past and time future builds an impression of something that is overwhelming and has to be fixed: “why am I feeling this”, “aren’t I better yet”, “when will I stop feeling so bad”, “I can’t bear this….it’s too much…when will it end”. In contrast to this, by holding the difficult emotions in the arms of awareness we come into the present moment. No longer lost in the deserts of linear time we can rest in the oasis of the here and now and shift from thinking to feeling. When a difficult emotion is held in this way it is noticed as a sensation in the body.
This was the next point that Jeff made which has stayed with me ever since. As a sensation it is simply that – a feeling of heaviness in the belly, a sense of fire, or tightness or coldness in some part of my body. I am not going to be overwhelmed by that! It is possible to hold the tightness, the fire, the heaviness as a sensation in this moment, without having to ask when it will end. In this way one steps into a place of emptiness – being the calm witness to what is arising in this moment. There may be tears, it may be one opens up to an emotion that has been denied from being held in the present moment, a state of frozen grief, fear, pain or anger that is not felt but at the same time blocks energy from moving freely. And as this thaws there is a flood of emotion. But it is held. And having been felt, it may be allowed to pass.
Welcoming is welcoming – not a clever way of fixing
The difficult emotions may then dissolve away, or they may not. The intention of welcoming them in is not that in so doing they will immediately fade away, otherwise welcoming would just be a more subtle part of the fixing agenda. They are welcomed because they are welcomed. They are what is here in this moment and this moment is as it is. To think it should be any other way is to say how it is right now is not the true me, not how life should be and is a mistake, and that at some future point in time when I no longer feel this I will then be who I should be and life will be as it is supposed to be. In that way one could spend half of one’s life feeling that it is not one’s real life but a mistake, waiting for the real life to begin.
Letting go of preferences, letting go of wanting life to be like the happy advert we carry in our head of the perfect life, we can start to be with the life we have. And as I bring this compassionate embrace to my struggle, my pain and sorrow, then I start to feel a peace that is not dependent on feeling good. It’s a peace that is simply there, holding the struggle, blossoming in times of joy but not dependant on good fortune to exist. It is something we all know. We have tasted it in those moments of allowing. We were much more familiar with it as children and it is something we now need to remember but once remembered feels familiar. And it is easy to forget, but the more often we wake up to it again the more it starts to be the default mode.
Shifting from the Doing Mode to the Being Mode, from solutions to acceptance
This aspect of mindfulness may be described as acceptance and equanimity. It is the process of shifting from the Doing Mode that looks for solutions and answers – ‘’why am I anxious’’, ‘’what’s wrong with me’’, ‘’how do I stop this’’ – to the Being Mode that observes without judgement or fear. It is not acquiescence, detachment or dissociation but a wholehearted embracing of the present moment exactly as it is, noticing the thought that it should be different and then embracing this thought as well. This doesn’t mean that if we are ill, for example, we give up on the thought of being healthy. Instead of reacting to being ill with worry or anger and raging against it as we long for health at some point in the future we have an opportunity to become fully present to the experiences arising as a result of being ill: the physical and emotional pain – the sadness, the wanting it to be different, the grief at lost time or opportunities. We then have an opportunity to embrace all of this in the present moment, whilst taking loving action for our own well-being. As we accept things as they are this may open the mind to choices that would have been lost sight of if one were only intent on getting away from the discomfort. In this way one dives into the heart of the difficult experience.
The more I trust this the more there is a feeling that whatever is here right now is fine. And in that way there is a deeper sense of contentment and peace. I hope that this encourages you to explore this in your own life and that the talk below from Jeff gives you a feeling for this approach.