“What is so problematic for Western man is not so much his struggles with other people and their needs and problems as his struggle with his own feelings. With what he will allow himself to feel and what he won’t allow himself to feel.” (Alan Watts, ‘You’re It’)
Many of us come to meditation because we’re looking for a way to eliminate difficult emotions. We think that, with enough practice, we might be able to permanently inhabit that feeling of peace we know mindfulness can bring. If only we could mix the ingredients in the right way, we’d never have to feel worried, sad or anxious again. This is what we think.
Unfortunately, life thinks otherwise. Pretty much every day it throws up something that causes us difficulty.
You have an event lined up tomorrow. It’s a big event. There’s a lot riding on it. And of course, you feel worried.
What do we do? Of course, we tell ourselves that we shouldn’t feel worried. We’ve done all the preparation. We’ve done our meditation. We know it doesn’t matter how the event goes, in the big picture. There’s no need to feel this way! And worrying will only make us perform worse. But still that worry simmers away.
So we stay with the worry, because we convince ourselves that this worry means something – that there is something important here we need to deal with. What am I missing that would make me feel better? What would solve this concern? Have I really done everything I can? What will these people think? Why am I worrying? Maybe I need to re-think things…
We get sucked into the spiral of dwelling in the story that surrounds this emotion. We get sucked into looking for its causes and seeking solutions. The same applies with sadness, or guilt, or physical illness. We don’t want these things! And so we look for ways to get rid of them.
There is nothing wrong with prioritising peace, happiness, contentment. And there’s is nothing wrong with some wise reflection and planning, to this end. But there is something very unwise about thinking that any amount of this can make negative emotions disappear from our lives. It is when we make “feeling good” a necessity, that we cause so many of our problems.
Trying to get rid of negative feelings is not the way forward. In fact, the very essence of mindfulness practice is revealed when we consider what it would be to respond mindfully to these feelings. It’s here where we discover what mindfulness is really about.
In the world of meditation, we use the metaphor of fuel and fire, to illustrate this point.
Our emotions are the fire. Our stories the fuel.
It is when get pulled into the narrative we’ve built up around our emotions that we give them life. When we tell ourselves off for feeling sad, or worried, or anxious, when we label these emotions as “wrong”, as “signs” of some deeper problem, and the fire really begins to rage. When we try to control the emotion, to get rid of the difficulty with our scheming, we are so often like a person throwing oil on the blaze, imagining that this will put the fire out.
With mindfulness, we stop adding fuel to the fire by accepting what is here. This is how it is. We allow ourselves to feel the emotion without guilt or without blame. If possible, we become interested in how it feels. What is this like? Where can I feel this in my body? As we move from a place of reactivity to one of open acceptance, we begin to recognise that this feeling is not the unbearable threat we’d imagined. It was when we reacted to the initial difficulty by going up into our heads, and into our belief that this emotion signalled some important failing of ours, or of the world, that we really began to spiral.
It is natural to seek the causes of our feelings. But when we seek to blame an emotion on something in particular, we should remember that this is always circular. Thinking that one particular change will solve all our problems will only bring more. For life is far too complex for us to figure, and soon another problem will begin the quest all over again. While we can do our best to point ourselves in the right direction, there is no way to eliminate all difficulty from our lives. To live is to experience difficult emotions – this is the entry price for being in this world.
Through a mindfulness practice, we view emotions more like the weather. Sometimes it’s sunny, sometimes it’s rainy. But when it’s rainy, we don’t panic. We don’t think that we’ve somehow failed. We don’t tell ourselves that it’s bad to feel angry or jealous of someone. To experience these things is as natural as to find rain outside our door.
This doesn’t mean that we ought to act based upon these emotions, nor that we ought not do things differently in the future. We should buy an umbrella to equip ourselves ahead. But we recognise that, right now, it’s just rain. And it will pass.
To practice mindfulness is to recognize that our demanding the sun is what makes the rain hang around. Slowly we learn that the best way to respond to a negative emotion is often to do nothing at all. This is the liberating thought – the thought that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with experiencing difficulty. It releases the burden of living up to standard that wasn’t even possible.
Next time you feel sad or anxious or terrified, remind yourself there’s nothing wrong with these emotions. The rain signals no more than the fact that you are alive.