Beyond 101: Feels (part 2, do not yell at the puppy)
(image credit: http://www.nima.edu/blog/get-a-puppy-or-go-to-nima/. It is a website about botox. Okay then.)
In case you missed it: step 1
Now, look at this puppy (from wikipedia):
Would you scream at this puppy? Would you hurl abuses or call her a fucking idiot who can’t get her shit straight for one second? Would you hit or hurt the puppy? No. Not even if the puppy crapped in your shoe. You wouldn’t be super thrilled, but you wouldn’t yell and scream. She’s just a puppy, she didn’t know any better.
Or, maybe you would. If you do sometimes lose your temper and say things you don’t mean, that’s part of this whole “feelings are garbage” tale. Most likely you’re not a puppy yeller in your heart–your feelings got the best of you and now they’re in charge. Feelings are terrible at helping us do the things we actually want to do.
Consider the idea that your brain is an adorable puppy. It is a collection of systems all firing randomly and it barely knows where to put its giant paws so it can stay upright. It craps in your shoes. It eats your remote. Your brain is undisciplined (so is mine). It’s our job as brain owners to be patient, kind, and also intolerant of bad behaviors. You don’t just let a puppy pee in a shoe. You train it.
When we train a puppy, we might use various techniques. For example, redirection. Take away the shoe, give a bone. Catch them peeing and hustle them outside to pee in the right spot. Another training technique is rewarding good behavior with lots of love and treats. Consider treating your brain and emotions the same way.
Gentleness with yourself is key to training our brains to behave better. My yoga instructor sometimes calls this “easefulness.” If you are feeling anxious, the last thing you need is the self talk that says you’re stupid or worthless for feeling that way. If you corner yourself with judgment, secrecy and shame you’ll be teaching the brain only that it needs to be scared. By angrily judging anxiety, you’re actually increasing anxiety.
If I say nothing else that’s useful, please take that in. The tower of shame we build on top of our feelings IS the problem. Our feelings are not.
When we turn to our own experience with gentle welcoming, as an observer rather than an actor, we can begin to respect the vast multitudes we encompass. That done, we can happily throw out 99% of that shit, and use the 1% of useful shit to run our daily lives, relationships, and plans for the future.
So many times, feels are just feels. They are not always data to be acted upon or even ruminated upon with the endless circular thought patterns anxious and depressed minds love so much (ask me how I know, I’ll sell you the tee-shirt). If we treat our brains and their sub-par attempts at helping us think with gentle, puppy-level adoration we can sort through that data so much better. Listen to the mind, let it run, then return its attention over and over to the breath. We won’t be paralyzed by shaming and shoulds.
There are one million ways to practice this concept of gentle inviting. Here are two:
1. The Park Bench
Imagine yourself sitting on a park bench on a beautiful day. Now, invite whatever is biggest in your mind to sit with you. I personally often invite the gigantic anxiety monster to sit there. Sometimes, the motherfucker is so big it practically sits in my lap and blots out the sun. That’s cool, he can sit there on top of me.
Now that your particular friend is near, expand your awareness. Look around you, beyond the thing(s) on the bench. Look at the trees, the grass, the little lake with ducks. Check out the blue sky. Hear some kids playing in the distance on the swings. Just notice the vast expanse of YOU that goes far beyond that hairy monster on the bench. Do this as long as you like, as often as you can. Be bigger.
(Many versions of this practice exist, so find one that works for you. I wish I could remember where I’ve read this stuff, but it all gets jumbled together after years of research. I would guess Pema Chodron and/or Tara Brach. Both authors are amazing.)
2. Lean In
Just as it sounds, leaning into an emotion is the process of mentally exploring the feelings, sensations and thoughts that rise up in the mind. Allowing them to take form instead of running away (by playing a game or reading or burying yourself in work) sit down and lean into it. Explore the edges and the dark places that will arise. Listen and gently allow the emotion to fill the space.
This is NOT rumination, and it is a very particular difference. Rumination is that endless circular path of thoughts that run round and round in the mind. If you’re thinking, creating words and images and responding to them, you’re not leaning in. Opening up to an emotional experience is more like sitting very still while a hurricane blows all around you. It’s hella uncomfortable. That’s okay. Just notice that distress you feel. Notice how it makes your body feel. Notice the strong impulse to run away. NOTICE. Don’t change a damn thing.
Sometimes this practice is so frustrating I get sarcastic, and imagine myself leaning in to a bed of nails. That is not really the point, but sometimes that’s how it feels. Sometimes it feels like being lit on fire. So what do I do? I lean into the feeling of being lit on fire.
I used to have chronic leg pain. When I first started practicing this “leaning in,” it was to physical pain. Instead of trying to escape it I leaned into it and let my mind’s eye travel along the afflicted leg. This did nothing magical, I’m sorry to say. The pain was still there, as bad as ever. However, I also noticed that not all the parts of me were in pain. Chronic pain is so all-encompassing that it becomes a singular focus in the mind–everything always hurts. When I welcomed pain, leaned into it, I found that pain had many forms and qualities. I also found that most of my body was not hurting at all. I learned that pain was only one thing in me, not everything.
People like to think of wellness as a discrete entity. We hope that if we do x, y, z, we will be all better and never feel bad again. I’ve never seen it work like that. We go through ups and downs, sometimes for reasons in our lives and sometimes just because the puppy brain is misbehaving. Emotional health doesn’t look like never feeling bad.
Aim for, and look for, these indicators of emotional wellbeing:
Choice. Can you choose to behave however you want, regardless of your emotional state? That can include down time and avoiding difficult/triggering things, by the way.
Flexibility. Rigid rules and limits are usually a sign we’re not comfortable with our minds. Sometimes we’re stuck doing the hard thing–do we have the safety net and flexibility to manage our discomforts in those times?
Distance. Is there a separation in your mind between YOU and your thoughts and feelings? Do you feel that sense of being “more than what I feel?”
Soothing. If you can self-soothe, you aren’t compelled to soothe by giving up your choice. Self soothing is mostly learning to sit with discomfort and feel safe there. Can you soothe strong emotions confidently? Can you choose not to engage in things like calling your ex, or using drugs to get away from feelings, or other destructive behaviors?
All of these things require practice. Practice a lot. I can say from experience that the work works. I am a happier person because I practice gentle mindfulness with my emotions. I aim for the goals of choice, flexibility, distance and soothing daily. I don’t always get there, but that’s okay because wellness isn’t a one time thing. It’s a constant path and I plan to keep walking it.
You deserve to feel well, and I believe that anyone can. Don’t give up until you do.