The aim of practice is not to develop an attitude which allows a man to acquire a state of harmony and peace wherein nothing can ever trouble him.
On the contrary, practice should teach him to let himself be assaulted, perturbed, moved, insulted, broken and battered — that is to say, it should enable him to dare to let go of his futile hankering after harmony . . . that he may discover . . . that which awaits him beyond the world of opposites . . .
Only if we venture repeatedly through zones of annihilation can our contact with Divine Being, which is beyond annihilation, become firm and stable.
– Karlfried Graf Von Durckheim
A big part of the path of mindful awareness is learning to embrace and directly feel our painful emotions.
With willingness, we practice saying yes to the waves of feeling that move through us. We practice being as fully present with them as possible, and as we do, we find that our awareness has a miraculous, transformative, healing power to it.
When our awareness is allowed to touch the emotional wounds inside us, directly and fully, true healing and resolution can finally take place. This healing process is rarely easy, however. It takes a great deal of courage, compassion for ourselves, and patience.
Biologically we are wired up to move away from pain and toward pleasure.
So when strong, painful emotions arise, the instantaneous, knee-jerk reaction is to resist feeling them. Ultimately, this aversion to feeling pain is an important survival mechanism. However, it has one very big limitation: In our rejection of whatever triggers the feeling of pain, we end up rejecting the painful feelings themselves. This presents us with quite a problem, since whatever painful feelings we are not able to allow and directly experience get repressed in our psyches and tend to wreak havoc in our lives!
The consequences of this phenomenon are profound and are evident everywhere we look — in how we feel about ourselves, in how we experience our life, in our relationship dynamics, and in the dynamics of the world at large.
Therefore, learning to be with our pain — especially our emotional pain — in a skillful way is crucial for healing on all of these levels.
That makes this one of the most compassionate and loving practices we can do, not only for ourselves but for everyone, everywhere.
I call this aspect of our mindfulness practice “eating red-hot coals,” and I must admit that the prescription here is bitter medicine. In the long run, however, this remedy is well worth taking.
A common expression for emotional reactivity is “getting our buttons pushed.”
We each have our own unique set of buttons that get pushed in relation to specific triggers. We are probably only too familiar with the kind of experiences in which seemingly custom-tailored situations or people continue to show up in our lives and evoke strong emotional reactions in us.
What psychodynamic theory (not to mention enough personal experience) shows us is that these buttons inside of us do not get randomly pushed. Instead we find that the buttons themselves are acting as very powerful magnets that magically pull people and situations into our lives that will end up pushing them.
Miraculously, we keep getting into the same kind of relationships with the same kind of people who do the same kind of things, over and over again. And in response — much to our dismay — we keep having the same familiar feelings of frustration or overwhelm or jealousy or suffocation or fear of being abandoned.
As we start to explore our patterns of reactivity, we may be surprised to discover that most — if not all — of our painful emotions are actually a response to these “magnetic buttons” getting pushed.
This magnetic-button phenomenon works in a variety of ways. The main way is that it draws people and situations into our lives that replay unresolved past experiences.
For example, if we were repeatedly yelled at as a child, we may unconsciously be attracted to, and thus draw into our lives, a partner who verbally abuses us. But that’s not the only way these buttons work. With this type of childhood background, we are also going to be conditioned to readily perceive others to be verbally abusing us when they may not actually be doing so.
To further complicate matters, we will also have an unconscious tendency to “pull on” the people in our lives in such a way so as to replay the wounding from our past that has yet to be healed.
For instance, someone with whom we are in relationship, who may not normally be inclined towards yelling, may find themselves uncharacteristically losing their temper with us due to the pull being exerted upon them by our subconscious.
The variations on this theme are almost infinite. In addition, they are very complex and are totally unique to each person. And, no matter how hard we try to avoid it, until we learn to eat our red-hot coals, we will keep encountering the same familiar situations and types of people that will keep triggering us in the same frustratingly familiar ways, over and over and over again. This is a profoundly powerful force that is way beyond our conscious control.
As we take a closer look at these magnetic buttons, we discover that they are the result of unhealed emotional wounds.
These wounds are caused by painful experiences that have happened to us in life, usually in childhood. As children we were very sensitive and vulnerable. Many of the painful experiences that happened to us felt like they were literally too much to handle. Because we believed that these experiences would overwhelm and annihilate us, as a survival mechanism, we repressed the emotional pain connected to them.
In a sense, we said “NO!” to these experiences with such force that we ended up shoving them out of our awareness and deep into our unconscious. Consequently, these intense emotions got “stuck” in our psyches.
So now, as adults, we have these undigested emotional wounds sitting there, “pulsating” in our unconscious. And even more troubling is the fact that these encapsulated pockets of unhealed emotion have become very powerful magnets that mysteriously attract (and make us more sensitive to) people and situations that are custom-designed to trigger those same painful emotional responses.
It’s as if our soul got all scraped up in childhood, and we have left the wounds under bandages ever since.
In this practice, we learn to take off the bandages and let the air of mindful, compassionate awareness finally reach — and ultimately heal — our inner wounds.
Let’s do an exercise to get a sense of how we can mindfully work with our painful emotions.
Guided Practice: Cultivating Mindfulness of Emotional Waves
To begin, bring your attention into your body as fully as possible.
Scan slowly through the entire field of your body. Feel your feet and legs . . . slowly move your attention up into your hips and belly . . . next, feel your back and chest. Then, bring your awareness into your hands . . . your arms . . . your shoulders . . . your neck . . . and face. Be as in touch as possible with whatever sensations you become aware of as you feel into your body. Take your time, allowing yourself to slowly sink into presence.
Once you feel relatively present in your body, bring to mind a recent situation that triggered a strong emotion in you. As you replay the scene in your imagination, be mindfully aware of whatever sensations flow through your body. Do your best to feel the waves of sensations that move through you. Stay with the felt-experience as directly as possible, for as long as possible.
When the emotion subsides, replay the memory once more. Again, feel the sensations in your body. Allow the waves of sensation to flow through you, and pay very close attention to the entire process that unfolds in your experience. Practice being open and curious about the details of your experience as it unfolds, moment by moment.
The trick here is to allow whatever experience you are having to happen, to simply deepen your connection with it, being curious about the entire unfoldment and, at the same time, doing your best to willingly feel whatever is happening in your body in a mindful way.
This article is an excerpt from Tobin Giblin’s book: The Art of Mindful Living: “You Can’t Stop the Waves, But You Can Learn to Surf and has been published with the author’s permission.
About the author
To know more about Tobin, visit his website www.tobingiblin.com.