We need each other but we do not always know how to do it without clinging or avoiding.
Buddhists say there are some guarantees in life – we will suffer and nothing stays the same. Problem is we want things to stay the same, to have control, to feel good and comfortable and for life to feel easy. Life tends to throw us all curve balls to shake us awake, out of the illusion of the identity we have created for ourselves at some point or another. Some of us shape our entire lives around waking up with or without life’s curve balls. We were set on our path by difficult childhoods, a calling, a transcendent experience or by a teacher. We willingly strap on our 100lb packs everyday and are fumbling through rough terrain but totally willing because our aspiration to live honest authentic lives propels us forward.
I was reminded this week as I had to unravel something painful that I could either spend a lot of time trying to wriggle out of my pain by judging myself or others, by leaving my experience or by trying to hide my feelings to “fit in” or I could fully deepen into the layers of feeling and sensations with compassion, presence and the help of my tribe. I need some musical notes here…did you hear that last part? Help! We need each other. I love Tara Brach. If you have not checked out her books or her website, let me just say that if you want to know what I do every Sunday night before bed, it’s listen to her weekly audio talk. It’s free help! Check it out. Why not?
Why I love Tara is more important. She is a Buddhist, yes, but for years there has been something solitary and lonely to me about Buddhism…something non relational and disavowing of anger that totally turned me off. Tara is a clinical psychologist and she brings the relational aspect of therapy to the Buddhist practices of mindfulness and compassion. Moreover, she is not a proponent of “idiot compassion” which is hiding behind compassion or spirituality because one is afraid of conflict or of setting boundaries. Yes, I think Tara is pretty bad ass! Can’t hide my admiration.
When we are in pain, we must be present with our pain in order for the pain to work on us, to soften us, to fertilize us toward growth. I know for me, some of the pain I metabolize is just too great to do it alone though. Too much young material comes up inside of me and I need to reach out, I need the presence and heart of a dear one to sit with me through the discomfort so I stay open. This kind of vulnerable reaching out takes practice. We have to have the capacity to hear ‘no’ without falling apart and we have to reach for people who know how to be with us rather than shutting us down through blame, shame or “let’s positive think this away” – all rejections of our experience.
I am catching myself saying a bunch of stuff that may sound poetic or hard to grasp. Let me give it to you from a nuts and bolts perspective, as I imagine for some, you may want to know what this actually looks like. Outside of you listening to one of Tara’s great talks let me give you a step by step guide for being in community with big feelings.
1. Ask for permission to share. “I am having some big feelings and really need some support. Do you have the space to hear right now?”
2. Share what you are feeling inside in the moment. Usually once we get the ear of a friend their help isn’t much help if we just gossip about what happened. That may be how we start out but if we can share what we are noticing and aware of, in the moment, devoid of interpretations, that is where all the healing potential is. “My heart is clenched and I feel five right now. I feel like I am worthless and my critic is giving me a beating.” Avoid the detailed narrative of she did this, he did that, that person is bad, this is what happened.
3. Let the feelings flow. Don’t stop the tears or anger or whatever. Your partner on the other end will say things that convey to keep going rather than to soothe you out of it. They might say, “I feel for you. This is so hard. I am right with you. You are doing great. I love you.” They won’t offer solutions for how you can transform any of it for that is an avoidance tactic. Side caveat – some kinds of pain have a trauma piece and there is a protocol of titrating the feeling of feelings so you don’t leave your body. Its like wading in and out, in and out, in and out, of a cold pool and never diving it but transforming it. This trauma stuff is best done with a therapist.
4. Take in the love. So often people I work with get far down the process but they can’t really leverage their loved one who is on the phone or there in person. They can spill it but their fear of being “dependent” that is often a deeply unconscious fear based on an old wound has them habituated towards not really drinking in all the love and support available to them. They let it float on by and their need for comfort remains. When we can drink in the love and let it wash over every cell of our body and we stockpile a big dose of it, we can draw on it next time, even when we aren’t in contact with that person.
5. Pay attention to your body. Look, it is the body that gets jacked up when we are in pain and it is the body that gets soothed when we are in pain so it is the body that needs our attention. Feelings are just electricity – devoid of the judgements and story, feelings get organically digested like it’s no big deal if we let our bodies lead – you are totally normal and fine and you will know that once you learn to feel feelings in this way . The challenge for us all is to practice practice practice. I am a somatic or “body” therapist and I still forget. We are habituated to try to think, do and fix – all create more pain I assure you.
But let’s get one thing straight here – I don’t mean “just calm down” when I say feel your body. That is not what I am saying. I am saying give permission to every feeling and body sensation without grabbing hold of any interpretation or judgement. Just feel the electricity of that feeling combined with the electricity of the love and support of your loved one and let it move around and cook up something new. I guarantee you that feeling will transform…many say two minutes is all the bake time that is needed. For some significant nervous system arousal, minimum twenty minutes. But the alternative is hours or days of ruminating in the washing machine of one’s head. I still get caught in the washing machine and always get a bit giggly when I remember to implement all my training and the whole thing is over in minutes. Duh!
6. Take action and make choices. Now you can think straight and act. Once you have aired out your feelings you can start to do some critical thinking combining both head and heart about what would be right to do for yourself. Remember the idiot compassion piece from above. There might be a need to set a boundary, to walk away or to lean in to a difficult conversation. Or there might be a need to do more internal work and change the way one was perceiving a person, a job, or a life event in a way that was totally clouded by the past. Now that the feelings have worked on you, you are loose and free to see things bigger. This is also the time when a good friend can hear your ideas and help challenge your thinking when it gets clouded again by the pain and if you need to revisit 1 through 5 you can.
In my experience these steps don’t work when we are habituated to choosing the wrong people. Instead we will feel crazy, bad, judged or not good enough when we reach for people who have given us overt or covert indications they aren’t able to be with us in these places. Some people aren’t available for just this round of pain or some people are never available. We have to hear ‘no’ in order to make room for the other.
What are the signs we are reaching for the wrong people? If they try to make you feel better before even getting to step 2 above,then they are saying “can’t” or “don’t know how” to be with this. One thing you can do is just ask “Hey what I really need is just empathy” and show them how. They may avoid you or say “you are too emotional”…which is a pretty good indication they can’t or won’t. We have a lot of new age spirituality going on that says all kinds of painful feelings are disordered and so we should pray or positive think all painful feelings away. If you get that “let’s bypass your pain through new age spirituality vibe” from someone, you can again, check it out and ask for what you need very specifically with that person and see if they can and if not choose another. A therapist is almost always a sure bet for being with you in these places so if you don’t have a tribe a therapist is a good thing.
Because we live in the San Francisco Bay Area we have a pool of pretty amazing people that are capable of hearing and being with big feelings. Hint hint…take a gander at the amazing therapists that write for this blog . I know them all to have great capacity to do this kind of listening and being with your feelings so you can transform. We have all, this crew of therapists here, dedicated our life’s work to transformation. I hope this article serves you in some small way. It served me in writing it after a challenging week where I felt big feelings and got held by amazing friends and a therapist. We all need each other and it is good and you are good.