Category Archives: emotion

Transitions, Loss and Discovery

We are in the few weeks between the ‘end of summer’ marked in the US by Labor Day and nature’s end of summer on the upcoming Autumnal Equinox. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s worthwhile to notice any feelings that arise out of this sense of an ending with the days growing shorter and the air cooling. Whenever we are in transition, it is particularly kind to give ourselves a little extra time and space to process our experience.

In Thursday’s class we had a discussion based on questions and comments within the sangha circle. At the end of class, I commended the circle for collectively creating a dharma discussion that was skillful in the ways I discussed previously in What Makes an Effective Sangha Discussion?

Though there’s no way to recapture all of what was shared, here are some of the areas we explored.

Noticing our Emotions
One student asked the difference between ‘noticing’ our emotions and ‘feeling’ our emotions. Although this could just be a matter of semantics and personal choice, for me the word ‘noticing’ — which is what I encourage my students to do — creates more spaciousness around the emotion to allow it to exist without our having to act upon it. We have the capacity to develop a spacious field of loving awareness where all manner of experiences arise and fall away. If we do get caught up the urgency of an emotion’s call to action, then some portion of our awareness is noticing this as well.

Our practice of noticing is not to develop a distant detached observer avoiding the experience of life. This is more likely to be a judgmental aspect of our personality rather than an access to Wise View (aka Right View, from of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path.) We didn’t come into this life to sit on the sidelines and watch! In our practice we are developing the ability to be in the stream of life fully present and awake. There are many posts on this blog that address what being in the moment entails, and I encourage you to read in the archive of posts to find ones that have meaning for you and help to answer or at least explore what’s up for you at this time.

As an example of noticing an emotion, we explored anger a bit. We can ‘feel’ anger but then what? What is the next step? What are we to do with this feeling? With noticing, we look closer, activate curiosity, discover related physical sensation and associative images and memories. Noticing is an opportunity to use a strong emotion to learn something about ourselves, something that might have been hidden or ignored. It also allows us to see that emotions, thoughts and physical sensations are in a constant state of flux. This in turn helps us to see that they are not who we are. We can’t pin our identity on waves of activity that arise and fall away and are experienced by everyone, depending on the causes and conditions they experience.

This is an open-ended discussion and in no way discourages us from feeling our emotions!

Coping With Loss
One student shared the relatively recent loss of a loved one. We are a group of women of a certain age, and there is not one among us who has not lost someone we love. But even though loss is universal, all our experiences of loss are not the same, and that’s important for us all to remember.
In our mindfulness practice, we focus not on the experiences themselves, telling the story of the event again and again, but on how we in the present moment are reacting, responding or relating to them. Are we being present with the pain we notice, or are we compounding this pain with more suffering by grasping, clinging, pushing away or denying the experience? Can we create a spacious field of loving awareness in which to experience whatever arises? Can we hold it all in an open loving embrace, making room for the ebb and flow of our experience?

I shared an analogy that students have told me has been most helpful with loss or a traumatic event:

Imagine a mountain lake, beautiful and pristine. Then imagine out of the blue a large rock, maybe even a boulder, maybe even a meteor falling into the middle of the lake. This is the traumatic event — the death of a loved one, the break up of a relationship, the loss of a career, health or an ability, for example.

When the boulder falls, the point of entering the lake is chaos. The water is churned up, huge splashes, bubbles, waves — all is thrown out of balance. Everything is upside down and out of control. If we are practiced at being aware and noticing, what we notice is this sense of being overwhelmed by huge emotions. We may be too overwhelmed to notice. We may rage against the very practices that have supported us because they are insufficient to protect us from this sense of being overwhelmed. I remember in the documentary ‘Fierce Grace’ when Ram Dass suffered a stroke and was being wheeled into the hospital, he wondered what was the point of all his meditative practice if at this moment it wasn’t there to make everything okay. (I’m paraphrasing.) He who had a strong spiritual practice all his life lost it in that moment of great loss and anguish. In that moment of incredible pain and turmoil, there feels as if there is nothing to hold onto. So we let go. We experience the pain of it. We do the best we can. Maybe we get lost, but just as we come back to the present moment and our breath in meditation after our mind has wandered, we come back to that which supports us. For meditators, it is our practice, our access to a sense of spacious oneness.

To continue our analogy: In the following days, weeks, months and years after the event, what we notice is periods where life goes on relatively normally, and then periods where we feel thrust ‘back’ into the churning emotions. For many of us, especially after a good deal of time has passed, we may see this as ‘losing ground,’ as if we are supposed to be making some kind of linear progress away from being affected by this event.

But remember the lake, the boulder falling, and what is the naturally arising result? There are ripples. Long after the boulder has settled at the bottom of the lake, the water radiates from the point of impact outward in widening circles. So too with a traumatic event. The calm spaces between the ripples grow wider, and the ripples grow smaller, but they still exist, quite naturally.

Just so, it is quite natural for us to wake up one day and feel quite strongly the emotional ramifications of that event, however long ago it was. Yesterday we were fine and today perhaps our heart aches, as if the boulder is sitting on our chest. At these times it is most skillful to acknowledge that this is natural, no matter what anyone says, and to give ourselves whatever kindness we can, not to make the feelings disappear, but just to create enough spaciousness in our awareness to experience them, to allow for them.

This is an important lesson for all of us, whether the loss is our own or someone else’s. We can remember this image when a friend seems to be ‘slipping back’ into grief or depression. These feelings are amplified by misinterpreting them as failings to keep up the time-lined task of healing. At these times a true friend doesn’t say, ‘It’s been x amount of time. Get over it already!’ or words that sound like that to the person addressed, even when put in a nicer way. This brings us back to remembering that even though loss is universal, we each experience it in our own way, and no one else can tell us how we should be feeling.

Mindfulness Practices We Might Already Have
We also discussed if one doesn’t have a daily meditation practice and doesn’t feel there is time in the day to create one, how to take an existing activity and make it a mindfulness practice. Being more mindful — in the moment — as we walk, for example, instead of using it as a time to make a to do list or put buds in our ears to listen to someone elses words. Swimming also is a natural for mindfulness practice, so full of sensations to draw our attention. So that is something to consider if life just feels too full to add a meditation practice. I work with people one on one to help them develop space for daily practice in whatever form it takes. Contact me if that is something you would like to explore. But let me still put in a plug for at least some sitting practice!!

So that’s some of what we explored in our sangha discussion. If you weren’t there, I hope I’ve given you at least of taste of what you missed!

Noticing: Enzyme Action for Emotion

Last week we experimented with expressing our thoughts in a very present conscious way, a rather stilted awkward way, almost quoting our thoughts as we noticed them. By setting these thoughts off in quotations, we remind ourselves that we are not the thoughts.

Today I’d like to do the same thing with emotion. In our practice we will continue noticing thoughts, and also be available to notice emotions if they arise as well.

Depending on our personal nature, we each have emotions we are more familiar with. Anger is not an emotion that comes up for me very often, but it did the other day, and I had to be careful not to get too excited at having the opportunity to notice all the aspects of my experience of anger, lest the anger dissipate too quickly, before I had a chance to learn more of its nature.

Here are the things I noticed about anger:
• A sense of being disrespected, taken advantage of, taken for granted.
• A feeling of being in the right, entrenched in my position, stuck in a toxic sludge with a feeling of sinking in deeper and deeper to my entrenched position so that I could not see any other view, even if I wanted to.
• A sense of wallowing that felt kind of pleasurable, like a pig wallowing in the mud.
• Disgust and judgment at this indulgence.
• Disappointment, not getting what I wanted, which led to:
• The realization that I had had expectation as a precursor, my imagination having established a quasi-reality of a future moment to which I had become much attached. The disappointment was the wrenching away of that unlived future moment, and the anger arose quite naturally out of that wrenching away of something I wanted to experience, something I felt promised, if only by my own imagination.
• A wondering what is the fear that fuels the anger, as it is my experience that fear is at the core of all negative emotion.
• Sensing a very tender fearful aspect of self clinging to ‘a cherished moment that will never be’ because someone ‘stole’ it from me.
• Betrayal, loss.
• Confusion, a beginning to question whether I had misunderstood the agreed upon arrangement by which my expectations were meant to be fulfilled, but were instead dashed.
• An opening to the possibility that there was no disrespect intended by the other party, just a misunderstanding.
• Curiosity began to soften the feelings. Noticing an opportunity to explore and understand this emotion better. The ability to infuse some awareness into the mix with the recognition that I am not the emotion I am experiencing.
• A release of tension in my body.
• A realization that the decision to explore gives me a sense of control in the situation, whereas I was feeling uncomfortably out of control. Not so out of control that I acted out involving others, but an inner sense of being caught up in a powerful surge of something and feeling emotionally on hyper-drive and somewhat overwhelmed.
So these were the many stages that made up my experience within a matter of ten minutes sitting with it.

Some people might feel that it’s self-indulgent to take ten minutes to just follow an inner process of an emotion that would have been better just tolerated or stifled. Others might feel that ten minutes would never be enough to process an emotion, that I’m kidding myself if I think that anger is gone. Notice what you feel about it.

What I notice about this process is that it is taking something that seems like a huge thing, an all-encompassing thing, in this case anger, and bringing sufficient awareness to start noticing all the small parts that make it up; then notice how these parts change.

Does this sound familiar? It is exactly the process we explored when we talked about physical pain: how it is not just one experience but a multiplicity of smaller component experiences, in fact a symphony of sensations that rise and fall, come and go.

And so it is with emotion. We have these labels for them: anger, for example, and we have a mental construct of what anger is and what it is to ‘be angry.’ But with awareness we see that just like physical pain, it is made up of many smaller component pieces, each of which is in a state of flux, changing in every moment.

Bringing our full attention is like bringing an enzyme of awareness to break down the toxic sludge. That’s the power of spacious compassionate mindfulness!

Now anger is not an emotion I experience a lot. I have others that are more familiar. With a more familiar emotion the experience is more challenging because it is harder to really notice. Emotions we live with constantly feel normal to us and it’s hard to notice ‘normal.’ But with attention, compassion and patience, this noticing can begin to shed light on the many different aspects of the entrenched emotion and allow for insight, understanding, softening and perhaps release.

It’s important to remember that this process is not about getting rid of emotion. If we believe that we have dealt with it, we will be horrified to discover it showing up again. Instead we can be appreciative of the fact that we notice it more when it arises.

I once wrote an article titled “Emotions as Honored Guests” that helps us understand that emotions are not enemies, and that trying to lock them out or do battle with them merely transforms them into something more dangerous.

With spacious compassionate awareness, we give ourselves the gift of being fully alive, able to experience any thought, sensation and emotion as a dance of discovery.

Meditation, Spaciousness & Letting Go

The tight tangle of our lives becomes more spacious through the regular practice of meditation. We find that increasingly we can see our thoughts and emotions as they arise. Instead of succumbing to their seduction or going into battle with them, we can more often simply notice them. It may seem as if there is more time and space around them to evaluate the most skillful response to any given situation.

In this increasing spaciousness, we are able to be more gracious hosts to our thoughts and emotions. We are not at their mercy or here to do their bidding. We begin to learn more about them, their histories and motivations. Why does a particular thought keep recurring? Why does dealing this person always bring up this negative emotion? With a greater sense of ease than we ever thought possible, we can focus on these thoughts and emotions and begin to see patterns. We see the loving intention of all these various aspects of our personality. We see the fear behind their misguided strategies. And by giving them our attention we begin to see how some of our beliefs are at odds with each other, causing an inner sense of imbalance and strife.

I am still touched by a conversation I had many weeks ago with a young woman in Colorado whom I called as part of my volunteering for Obama. She was holding down two jobs and had two small children, so she just hadn’t had time to really look at the candidates and make up her mind. So I asked her what her issues were. “Well, I’m against abortion and gay marriage. What does Obama believe?”
“Senator Obama believes in equality for all people,” I told her.
“Oh! I believe in that!”
“Then Obama’s your man.” I went on to tell her that perhaps if she was working two jobs and had small children, she should vote for whoever was going to give her the best tax break and the best health care for her kids. But I was then and still am struck by her very human capacity to hold two opposite ideas in the same brain. That she could support equality for all people but feel okay denying gays the right to marry did not seem like a contradiction in her mind. Probably because she hadn’t had the time to really look at her various beliefs for the same reason she hadn’t had time to choose her candidate.

But for those of us who are meditating regularly over long periods of time, somehow we do have time to notice conflicting beliefs and to see which ones are aligned with the core values that arise out of being in touch with our deep sense of connection. This level of observation and awareness enables us to more easily release old beliefs that don’t serve us, that just got a free ride all these years because we never bothered to examine them.

Often these beliefs were never ours to begin with but were hand-me-downs or borrowed briefly just to try on and we kept them around, and after awhile we forgot where we got them and assumed ownership. But now they are just piles of clutter that get in the way of living fully.

If there are beliefs that we are ready to release, where do we begin to look for them? We don’t need to search them out. They are ever present. We just have to pay attention to those moments when they crop up as statements or judgments that we think or say. Chances are these will be strained moments. Since these beliefs are at odds with our core values, when we hear ourselves voicing them, they sound discordant to our ears. We may feel a sense of discomfort: guilt, embarrassment, confusion, astonishment, or maybe amusement, depending on how vested we are in believing that we are our thoughts.

A wonderful way to deal with whatever comes up is to ask a question. The teacher and author Byron Katie suggests asking, “How do I know this is true?” The inner dialog that follows begins the process of self discovery and potentially to letting go of whatever doesn’t serve us well.

The inner dialog needs to be compassionate, patient and truly curious in order to be useful. Judgment, criticism and ridicule shut the process down, but if they arise, simply switch the dialog’s focus to them. Ask “What am I afraid of in this exploration?” Because all three are rooted in fear.

This kind of inner work can be rich and satisfying. Journaling inner dialogs can be very useful as we are more likely to stay focused on writing than just thinking, and we can read the conversation later from a different vantage point and see things we might not have seen at the time.

In my book, Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living, I suggest the possibility of giving personality to these beliefs, desires and fears in order to engage in dialog exploration. I find this a very useful and enjoyable way to really notice patterns of thoughts that arise — thoughts of self-doubt, thoughts that undermine my intentions, thoughts that keep me from living the fully engaged and grounded life I want to live. I give them names so that when I meet them again – as I certainly will – I can recognize them.

This recognition is something like the Buddha’s experience of being tempted by Mara as he sat under the bodhi tree. By recognizing Mara as the tempter in various forms, trying to seduce him away from his intention, the Buddha was able to reach enlightenment. The key part of his relationship with this tempter was that he always welcomed Mara, saying “I know you.” And in knowing Mara, in all its forms, he was able to be patient, compassionate but unseduced.

In inner dialog exploration, we can come to know these various seductive voices by name, and we can extend them the courtesy of compassion and respect. Inner civility is key! We can ask these tempters questions about what they want and what they fear. What we discover is that they always want the best for us, that their purpose is always loving. But their strategies are misguided because they are operating out of fear.
EXAMPLE: Many of us have a voice we could call “Little Sweetie” – that sweet tooth that draws us continually to the ice cream, pastry and candy shops. Or maybe you have a “Little Salty” – so hard for me to understand since Little Sweetie rules in my panoply of characters. So what would a conversation with Little Sweetie be like? We could say, “What do you want, Little Sweetie?”
And maybe Little Sweetie would say, “I want sugar!” as if that was obvious.
“Why do you want sugar?” we might continue.
“To sweeten up this life. Everything about sugar is pretty, festive and fun. Every time we eat it we are having a party.”
“And you want to party?” we might ask.
“Yes, I love to party!”
“Could we party without the sugar?”
“What kind of party would that be?”
“It could be a party with music and dancing.”
“I’d like that. But what about a cake?”
“It could be a party with lots of interesting conversation.”
“Yes, I’d like that. I like people and connection.”
“If you were sitting in deep conversation with someone and a cake suddenly appeared on the table across the room, would you stop mid-sentence and run across the room?”
“Hmmm, well not mid-sentence. A really good conversation? Like really interesting and rich?”
“Well, then no. I wouldn’t even notice the cake.”
“So when there isn’t a party or deep conversation, you are bored?”
“Kind of.”
“And sweets are interesting?”
“But you can’t talk to them. You can’t dance with them. You can’t interact with them.”
“No, but they are so easy to find and so forbidden!”
“Yes, they are everywhere. But what’s so good about them being forbidden?”
“It adds spice to life! Sugar and spice! ha ha!”
“So our life needs spicing up? Is it boring, plain, uninteresting?”
“Well, in a word, YES!”
“Okay, what, besides sweets, would make it more interesting for you?”
“More sweet moments!”
“Sweet moments like when?”
“Sweet moments like last night standing on Ring Mountain in the moonlight looking at the twinkling lights of San Francisco across the Bay. That was a very sweet moment.”
“Indeed it was. This is a sweet moment too.”
“This one?”
“Yes, here we are having a dialog, sitting in a comfortable spot with a beautiful view of the mountain lightening in the morning sun.”
“Yes, this is sweet.”
“Any moment can be sweet, don’t you agree? If we are really paying attention?”
“I suppose.”
“Shall we try it? Shall every time you ask for sweets, I take it as a request for noticing the sweetness of this moment?”
“No harm in trying, but if it doesn’t work, I vote for chocolate.”

So there’s a sample inner dialog. Let’s review what just happened:
– I recognized a chronic tempter in my life: the urge to eat sweets.
– I recognized it as a problem, something that thwarts me in maintaining my health and weight.
– I gave it a name. This name captures something about the tempter’s character and has an endearing quality so that I am more likely to speak to it with love and affection.
– The conversation begins with a simple question: “What do you want?”
– The conversation follows, speaking as honestly and openly as possible from the point of view of this aspect of our personality.
– The questions are created from open curiosity and deep compassion.
At first the questions are more open ended, just trying to discover the root fear, concern, lack, etc. of the aspect.
– When that is discerned – in the example, the aspect Little Sweetie was bored – then the questions can switch to ‘what if’ scenarios in a ‘negotiation’ stage.
– Whatever is negotiated must be something that addresses the deep need, that is in line with core values, not the surface desires of the tempter aspect, whether the ones originally stated or replacement ones.
– In this sample conversation, I didn’t offer to provide a continuous set of exotic locales, more parties or any other surface distraction. What I offered was to be more fully present in every moment so that Little Sweetie could find the sweetness in life, just as it is.

This kind of exercise may or may not appeal to you, but inner dialoging in whatever form suits you can be very valuable in identifying and examining beliefs that cause suffering in your life.

In this post election moment

Globally shared euphoria. This is a new emotion for me! As I sit with it, I marvel. I watch how just the thought of ‘President Obama’ sends a warm bath of relaxation through me, how my lips of their own accord turn up at the corners. How my eyes tear up for joy.

I also feel incredible relief. So much so that I am aware in retrospect of all the fear and tension I was holding. And how much I had denied myself the right to hope for this outcome. I allowed myself to want it, to work for it, but not to hope for it. Strange.

Oh, and I feel pride! I am so proud of our nation! I am proud of how this albeit imperfect system of government actually does work well at times. My faith in the fine tradition of transition of power has been restored. (But we still need to make sure every vote really does count in all future elections!)

I am proud of Senator McCain. As he gave his concession speech, he displayed the best of himself, the person that seemed to have gotten lost in campaigning.

I am proud of all the donors and volunteers for the Obama campaign, some of whom I know personally. We all did things for this campaign we have never done in our lives. My friends Michael Rosenthal and Marleen Roggow traveled from California to Michigan to knock on doors and canvas college campuses. Most of my friends made phone calls to swing states, but my friend Patti Breitman made calls every weekend for many weeks. I’m sure other friends were doing whatever they could as well. I am proud of Barbara Gately and Stephanie LeGras who early on in the campaign asked me to design a website called Women Over 50 for Obama, which I did as part of my volunteer work for Obama. I am proud of myself as well. I joined Toastmasters in order to get up the nerve to pick up the phone for Obama!

I am proud of all the people who stood in line for hours to cast their votes, who did so with great spirit.

I am proud of the way campaign was run. It was incredibly efficient, clean, collaborative, inventive and just plain brilliant. Bravo!

I am proud of all those in public life who stood up for Obama early on.

I am proud of Michelle Obama whom I would like to nominate right now for president in 2016.

And most of all I am proud of our President-elect Barrack Obama. He has a deep awareness that keeps him clear, steady, genuinely caring for all people and the planet. He holds the world in an open embrace, with love and lightness. He sees through the mudslinging mess and brings the conversation to a new level. His natural born leadership skills and his ability to bring out the best in people so that we may all work together to solve the many challenges we face, are exactly what we need right now.

So yes, I am proud. And excited! And grateful!

Undoubtedly other feelings, thoughts, concerns will arise in the coming months and years, but in this moment right here and now, I am – and I am not at all alone in this – deliriously delighted! Elated! Euphoric! YAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Meditation: Back from the Future

I am in one of those periods in life where it is very easy to get caught up in anticipating the future. Recovering from hip replacement surgery, getting around with the aid of a crutch, having strict limitations on my mobility, it is challenging for me not to look forward to when I will be walking normally without a crutch, driving a car, bending more than 90 degrees, and experiencing the pain free benefits for which I went through the surgery in the first place.

When such leaning into the future thoughts become so obvious, it’s an excellent opportunity to really notice them as they arise and to sit with them a bit.

In doing so, I see that these anticipatory thoughts involve comparing my current experience with others. This other experience may be an imagined future one, as in this case, but it could just as easily be some remembered past experience, or the imagined experience of someone else whose life seems vastly superior in some way.

By noting that my thought process is in a comparing mode, I have brought a clear awareness to my mind activity. This awareness isn’t judging the activity, but if I am suddenly judging, then hopefully I can become aware of my mind switching into a judging mode. These modes are in constant movement throughout our days. We don’t have to switch them off, we just benefit by becoming aware of them.

Now I could at this point just note ‘comparing’ or ‘judging’ and return to the breath. But I can also choose to notice if there is any emotion attached to this thought. And in this case I was surprised to find there was. I discovered an underlying fear or anxiety that seems to ask the question, “What if?” In my case: “What if I am the unusual patient that doesn’t fully heal, that continues to need a crutch, continues to feel pain forever?”

It doesn’t matter how rational these “What if?” scenarios are. If we are to have an honest and open exploration, we need to accept what is true for us in this moment. Sometimes the mind rushes in to offer supporting evidence for the fear, fueling it. Or, conversely, our mind might argue with the fear, belittling the experience. But rational arguments hold no sway with emotion, they just add the new emotion of frustration or shame on top of it.

The challenge is to simply acknowledge an emotion in our current experience and sit with it. In our sitting with it we might then discover a physical component to the emotion — a tightness in the chest or tension in the jaw, for example. If so, we can sit with the physical sensation and breathe into it. Which ultimately brings us back to the breath, where we focus our attention.

Why bother with all this awareness?
Well it might save us and those around us from a lot of unnecessary suffering!
In the usual course of events, a thought trips a whole series of actions and reactions. Staying with my current case, I am caught up in anticipating a few weeks down the road when I will be returning to normal activity. The emotional component is a small underlying anxiety, as noted, but more noticeably an eagerness to get the show on the road. This could quite easily lead to over-reaching my current physical boundaries in this moment out of a restless impatience, which could cause injury. It could also make all my interactions with others a little testy or grumpy, as I complain of my current fate. Instead of savoring the wonderful visits from friends and family and being incredibly touched by the tender care of my wonderful husband, I could be making both their lives and mine a living hell. I’m sure there are many other possible results as well, but you get the idea.

By paying attention and noting our thoughts, we don’t get rid of them, but they are somehow derailed from their causative roles. They exist but they have lost their powerful hold on us. We can be with them with spacious awareness, acknowledging them but not ruled by them.

And it all starts in meditation, noticing that we are thinking, then noting the mental mode of the thought (planning, remembering, comparing, judging, fantasizing, problem solving, etc.) Then we have the option to see if there is any emotional component, then any physical sensation that accompanies it. Then we simply breathe into the physical sensation.

Our attention always comes home to the simple but miraculous core of our physical existence: the rise and fall of the breath.