Learning to stay with emotions:
Recovering from a difficult past or keeping up with a difficult present
When asked to judge a contest to find the most caring child, Leo Buscaglia, author and motivational speaker, chose a four year old boy. The boy lived next door to an elderly man who had recently lost his wife. One day the little boy went into the old man's yard, found him crying and climbed up onto his lap. For a time, he just sat there. Later, when the boy was asked what he had said to the man, the boy said “Nothing, I just helped him cry.” 1
Healing from loss, trauma, and shame
The human organism has natural restorative processes for healing from loss, trauma, or shame. And it is primarily an emotional process rather than a cognitive or verbal process.
Learning to have tolerance for one’s internal experience
This means being able to observe one’s own experience—not as a distancing mechanism, but simply to be there for it without any effort to change it, like the little boy sitting in the grieving man’s lap.
Meditation and hypnosis can be understood as a process of inviting one’s self to allow just being… not trying to do anything… just allow breathing, seeing, hearing, sensations, thinking, emotion as they occur… and gradually allow a settling into undirected being. No effort is needed to make hypnosis or meditation restorative. Simply allow to occur what is taking place of its own accord.
For example, try something simple: be with your breath… notice the sensations of the movement in the upper front of your torso. This isn’t about managing your breathing. It’s about noticing the sensations that occur just as breathing comes and goes… breath by breath.
You may have cognitive responses to noticing your breath: “it’s shallow, it’s fast, it’s nice and even” and on and on. Allow such thoughts and don’t do anything with them. Just observe the sensations as breathing unfolds.
If it’s okay, right now, take a minute and try this.
Sad and still breathing
That’s being with your breath. Now let’s add an emotion: Assume you are sad. Can you notice the sensations associated with breathing, perhaps tightness around the diaphragm, chest or throat, the feel of your face, the feel around your eyes, the thoughts that arise… and just be with it? Without having to do something to change it? And if something comes up that you would normally call a distraction… see it. See what you can of the whole show that accompanies this sad state. Again, anything that comes up… fine, allow it. Don’t try and prevent it, but don’t invite it to sit down and have tea, either.
Of course, you can explore being with any state in which you happen to find yourself: Angry, anxious, happy, embarrassed, ashamed, pleased, excited, bored, depressed, aroused or even no state in particular.
Open for what presents itself
Any emotional process that is ripe will find you in whatever stillness you allow. No emotion need be sought. Should an emotion arise, it need not be experienced more intensely than it presents itself. No internal experience need be experienced more clearly than it presents itself. No emotion need be held any longer than it stays of its own accord.
When there is an open, non-judging space… the organism-that-you-are knows what to do and at what pace… and knows in a way that is perfectly on behalf of your greatest good.
This is learning to have tolerance for your own experience. Staying with grief, anger, shame, anxiety, and fear allows the organism the time and space to emotionally process. Habitually moving away from such emotions short circuits the organism’s natural restorative processes—which, again, are not primarily cognitive or verbal. They are part of your emotional intelligence.
Staying with an emotion without quite knowing why it has come up
Sometimes, whether meditating or not, a strong emotion comes up, seemingly out of the blue. We don’t know what, if anything, it connects to in our life. We might think “What’s going on? Why is this coming up? Am I crazy?” We then have feelings about having feelings. Perhaps we get swept away by it all or use a lot of energy to try to make it go away. It’s kind of a mess.
It is useful to know…
…that emotions sometimes come up and we don’t have access to any cognitive reason why. This happens. 2
Consider that you already do this while you sleep: Dreams unfolds without need of conscious explanation. You may or may not remember the dream when you wake up. This is normal. It’s okay.
In the awake state, an emotional response can be triggered by circumstances out of our conscious awareness. Other times the organism-that-we-are can use the time and space available (just like when you sleep and dream) for restorative emotional processing.
Both can happen with or without a convincing narrative as to what’s happening within us. Sometimes the conscious mind makes up an explanation to go along with the emotion. Either way, without having to be certain what the emotion means or having to explain it—you can stay with it and let your emotional intelligence unfold and do its thing. It’s still okay.
Perhaps you’ll find your conscious mind becoming more comfortable allowing space for whatever comes up. Perhaps you will find yourself staying with your experience rather than interrupting it simply because you don’t have a story to explain it. And of course, if you get too uncomfortable, just stop… or find yourself naturally stopping. That’s fine. Should it—whatever “it” is—come up again, you can continue to build on what you’ve already accomplished.
Your comments are welcomed.
1Based on a story from “A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul”, copyright 1996 by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, attributed to Leo Buscaglia by Ellen Kreidman, submitted by Donna Bernard,
2For meditators, while meditating, the arising of emotions (and physical sensation—including itches and aches—and the activity of thinking, thinking, thinking) is a familiar occurrence.