Loving All of Ourselves – even the parts we find difficult

Jeff Foster gives a beautiful analogy for how we can learn to relate to our difficult emotions, all those that we have learnt to see as unwanted and unwelcome, bad or shameful – pain, anger, fear, hatred, shame etc.  He talks of them as being like children wandering lost in a storm, when we feel them it is as if they have come knocking at the door asking to be let in, to be held and loved in the embracing arms of awareness. But rather than let them in we turn them away, telling them they are unwelcome: we use affirmations to tell our sadness we are not sad but full of joy, we meditate to feel calm so we don’t have to feel our turmoil, we drink, use drugs, have unaware sex that numbs us to our feelings rather than letting us drop deeper into them….or we watch television, get lost in porn, read, or do crosswords…..some of these things can be purposeful and life affirming, but if used to avoid what we are feeling they become an avoidance strategy as we try to self medicate away the struggle, the loneliness, the sense of disconnect and not being whole.

As we grow up we learn from our parents, teachers and others that we are accepted when we show certain emotions, whilst other emotions are not accepted. We have to be a ‘brave little boy’ or ‘be strong’ etc.  Sometimes the message is clear and stated, sometimes we learn that our expression of certain emotions results in the withdrawal of love or approval and we quickly stop displaying them.  These emotions become the unwanted children in our inner family.  The problem children that have to be kept out of sight, hidden.  And when they come knocking at the door we send them away, or numb ourselves to avoid feeling them.

Mindfulness practice is about opening to all that is here. Learning to sit with equanimity in the middle of the storm of feelings and emotions and finding peace though embracing all that is there, not by running away from it. If my peace is dependant on having calm states of mind and meditations in which there is no mental turmoil then anything that disturbs this will be seen as a threat and will need to be suppressed. The Buddha at the time of his Enlightenment learnt to sit in the middle of the army of tumultuous emotions. Letting them all play out but choosing not to get attached to them by rejecting them or getting lost in them.  In my practice I am inspired by this example.  After years in the monastery of fighting the things I felt I should not feel I’m starting to learn how to allow and embrace whatever is there and hold it with a compassionate care. For all of our emotions are part of our inner family, to praise some and denigrate others has the same effect as preferring one child over another – it creates tension and resentment. The difficult child, the unwanted child plays up more to get our attention.  Thinking it is bad it will be more bad just to play its part!

Remember, the emotions we want to push away and deny are still a part of us, simply wanting to be held and loved.

As we practice mindfulness and reflection it becomes possible to start to notice how the mind is a ‘meaning-making’ machine, that tells stories about the past and the future to try and make sense of life and to learn from the experiences life presents us with. As you attend to the difficult thoughts and emotions arising in your experience this week start to explore holding what is there with a gentle curiosity.  Notice the tendency of the mind to create a drama around whatever it is that is presenting itself.

Here is an example: I send a text to someone I like and want to date and three days later there has been no reply, although I can see they have read it. This quickly escalates: I’ve been rejected…..They don’t like me…..I’m unlovable….what’s wrong with me….will I ever meet anyone….I’m such a failure.  Here we have the ABC model of experience. A – the event, B the interpretations and meaning I place on it and C the thoughts feelings and actions that arise from what I have made it mean:

A: Situation/ event – I send a text to someone I like hoping to arrange a date.  As yet, three days latter, I have not received a reply

B: My interpretation of this – they do not care; I was too much for them, I acted too quickly, appeared too keen; I got it wrong – should have played it cool etc; I’m unlovable; I’ll never meet anyone; I need them and then I’ll be happy.

C: Emotional, physical and volitional reactions to this – I feel sad, lonely, frightened, a failure. I can’t enjoy anything I am doing, I have no hope, I want to cry. My chest feels tight, I feel tearful.

What is happening here is that the initial situation of not receiving a reply has triggered deeply held fears and worries and taken me on the autopilot route to old scripts and the feelings and emotions associated with these. If I continue to think that it is in the other person’s power to take this pain away I then look to the other person to rescue me, “if they  would only text back”, or I get angry with them for making me hurt. And if they do text back – I feel happy…for a minute.  But it hasn’t resolved the underlying wound, the old script that underpins the autopilot and I will always be vulnerable to having that wound agitated again as soon as the reassurance the other person has provided is felt to be withdrawn, or someone else triggers it. In this way my relationship to the other person has nothing to do with our regard and love for them – but is a means for trying to make sure I do not have to feel my pain. If I can hold my pain and make peace with the old scripts – then I can be totally present to my self and to the other.

This does not mean we have to look back and work out why we were wounded or have a memory of some original rejection or emotional wound. We may spontaneously remember such an experience and we then hold that in the present moment. But for now it is enough to just hold the sense of hurting without needing to know why we hurt.  That is why to is so important to come to the physical sensations, as they are what is here now, rather than th ehtoughts about what might have happened or what may happen in the future. Through the body we are able to be with what is playing out here, now in this moment. True, incidents from the past have shaped how we see the world, but right now all I can be with is the feeling that is arising now – holding that with compassion.

Others will have different scripts.  They may have a sense of self worth that means when the person does not text back they think “your loss” and move on. So the situation seems real from our perspective, but what we are interested in doing is looking at how we are choosing a way of telling the story and relating to it, recognising that it is a script whose emotional flavour is shaped by what has conditioned us over time but that this can be let go of in this moment through clear seeing and compassionate holding. Reflecting that the bare facts are: I sent a text three days ago, I have not received a reply.  The rest is unknown, uncertain but we create meaning and, just as with the person in the street exercise, the meaning we create has an impact on our body, our emotions and how we think and act. But often it comes from within our mind and the interpretation we add to the events rather than external factors themselves.

A kinder way of relating to the above scenario is to think: “It’s ok for me to show interest and ask for a date, and it’s ok for them to not want pick this up. I still love myself and I am OK to be here saying what I want. And if it hurts to be rejected, if that is what has happened, then it’s OK to feel sad and I hold that with love as I let the other person go on their way. May I be happy and well. May they be happy and well”

Rather than pushing the difficult emotions away or trying to work out why they are there, one can instead open up to the emotions and welcome them in as part of oneself needing to be held with love.  The meditation attached to this email is taught on the 8 week mindfulness course for turning towards the difficult emotions and holding them with curiosity and love. I hope you find the being with difficulty meditation provides you with an opportunity to befriend any pain you notice in your experience rather than trying to fix it or make it go away. What does it want to tell you? What might you need to say to it that is kind and loving?

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