How do we handle emotional pain? When our inner bully is telling us we have messed up, are a failure or we feel overwhelmed what can we do?
Over the last three weeks I’ve been working with some pain connected to feeling rejected and through a friend I was put in touch with Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, a Tibetan nun who was originally from the UK. I asked he about this pain and how to deal with it and her replies have been so helpful. I’ve included an extract from her replies below:
“Mindfulness without loving-kindness and compassion can easily lead to a distant and even numb feeling in interaction with others. One sees their grief but cannot empathise.
In fact it is important to have a well-balanced and healthy sense of self in order to walk the path towards selflessness. This was probably why the Buddha recommended the practice of shamatha – to calm and tame the monkey mind – along with the 4 Brahma Viharas where one’s metta (Loving Kindness) and compassion are first directed towards oneself. Obviously these are not meant for our intrinsic buddha nature which is the very essence of love and compassion, but rather are directed at the low self-esteem and self-hatred of our poor ego. We make friends and forgive ourselves in order to have the confidence to walk the spiritual path.
Many people drawn to the spiritual path need first to heal themselves and create some inner resilience and balance. Otherwise meditation could bring up too much for them to handle and create further instability. In these cases metta and compassion might well be the best approach. Lots of loving friendliness towards ourselves and using this inner security to reach out to all others. As humans we tend to cling tightly to all the negative events in our lives so a major challenge is to be able to inwardly relax, let go and ‘lay down the burden’ as the Buddha advised.
In addition one can sit with one’s pain and give the pain permission to exist – without trying to transform or suppress. Just allow the pain to speak and then listen with compassion and without judgement. Normally we try to avoid painful emotions but they are a part of ourselves much in need of metta (Loving Kindness) and compassion. They need to be embraced lovingly and without fear. This way they can reveal themselves and gradually heal. They just want to be heard and accepted.
Along with metta and karuna, there is also the beautiful practice of mudita: rejoicing in goodness. So think of all the good that you do in your life.”
What Tenzin Palmo is referring to here are the Four Brahma VIharas which are from the Buddhist tradition and are practices for cultivating the heart both in and outside of our meditation practice. The root emotion is the practice of Loving Kindnesses or metta-bhavana. Metta means unconditional good will for ourselves and others, it is the wish for another or ourself to be well, happy and at ease.
But what if we cannot feel this good will for ourself? So many people find it hard to feel Loving Kindness for themselves, due to shame, guilt at giving time to themselves, or negative beliefs about themselves – such as it being selfish to spend time caring for themselves. This is where the other Brahma-viharas, or ‘Divine Abiding’ meditations come in. When the core emotion of goodwill meets success in another, the healthy emotional response is to feel sympathetic joy, or Mudita. When Loving Kindness meets suffering in another, then the emotional response is compassion, or Karuna.
Brahma means god, so with these meditations it is said we live with the consciousness of a god. Whilst Buddhism states there is no single creator god, it does recognise a god realm, which is lived in by beings with highly refined levels of consciousness. Mudita (sympathetic joy) is the antidote to envy. Karuna (compassion) is the antidote to cruelty. And Loving Kindness is the antidote to aversion and hatred and we practice these meditations to apply the remedy to these poisons in our mind. The fourth meditation is Uppeka, or equanimity. This is more about cultivating an attitude od accepting the present moment – knowing all things to be impermanent and born of supporting conditions we accept whatever is here as the result of those conditions interacting and giving birth to what is here now. .
When we look at how we treat ourselves, there is often anger or harsh thoughts about ourselves. We may act with a type of hatred towards ourself in how harshly we criticise ourselves. We may not truly appreciate our skills or achievements and lack the feeling of sympathetic joy in our qualities. Whilst it may be hard to sit and wish ourselves well in the Loving Kindness meditation, we can explore bringing kindness to ourselves when we recognise we are caught in self-hate or are suffering due to a difficult experience or upsetting life event. Compassion is the ability to say to another: I know you are hurting and I am here with you. We cannot take away another’s pain or cure them, but we can let them know: “I’m here, I know it hurts, and I’m with you”.
Learning to sit with ourselves as we struggle with our pain in this way is so powerful and in this guided meditation I invite you to be with yourself in whatever way is appropriate right now – simply feeling good will (metta) or rejoicing in your qualities and any recent success (mudita) or bringing kindness to yourself if you are suffering (karuna).