What do you do when you’re feeling anxious, depressed, or stressed out? How do you treat yourself? Are you able to be compassionate toward your own emotional pain, or do you engage in self-criticism, judgment, or blame?
For most of us, our initial reaction to pain is to look for someone to blame, to blame ourselves, or to ignore our suffering. As humans we avoid pain and seek pleasure. Sometimes we avoid pain by getting distracted: taking drugs, drinking, gambling, working too much, surfing the Internet, and more.
Or we go to the other extreme, reacting to the world and ourselves through judgment, blame, or criticism. We dwell in reactive thinking (“I’m always doing this wrong,” or “He’s always doing it wrong!”) which escalates our emotions. Pretty soon we’re on an emotional rollercoaster from one emotion to the next and feel totally out of control.
Neither of these approaches help us respond to our pain. They only increase our suffering, intensify painful emotions, and keep us stuck in patterns of reactive behaviors that can lead to feelings of inadequacy and disconnection.
So why do we engage in behaviors that don’t help? There are many different reasons behind our reactivity in the face of pain. Some of it has to do with childhood experiences and how we learned to deal or not deal with our emotions. Some of it has to do with our brains and how we’re wired to react when danger or a threat is present. Stereotypical gender roles—ideas like, for women, it’s okay to express feelings through sadness and tears, while for men, the only feeling that is okay to express is anger—can greatly influence how we react and respond to our emotions. Spending time trying to figure out the origin of our triggers is important, but it can take a long time and doesn’t address the immediate need to alleviate our suffering in the present moment. One approach that does help is the practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is one of the most healing and compassionate approaches to pain and life that I’ve found. The benefits of this practice are wonderful: it helps us turn toward our suffering with a desire to heal and stay connected with ourselves, the world, and others. Mindfulness is a practice that helps us stay in the present moment, become aware of what we’re feeling in our bodies and our heart, and learn to notice when we’re hooked into our stories or reactive thoughts. It’s a centering and grounding practice. Instead of creating stories, getting lost in negative thoughts, or reacting defensively, we attune to our own pain in a loving way.
When we are triggered, feelings of anxiety, sadness, fear, and more often arise. When this happens, we can be highly influenced by whatever is going on around us. From close relationships, extended family, and friends to the world at large, we become like a sponge; we soak up everything that’s going on in our environment and then move into action trying to resolve issues, fix things, or put out fires.There is often little we can do to control what’s happening in the outside world, and much we can do to transform our internal reactions into healing responses.
This is a futile task, as there is often little we can do to control what’s happening in the outside world, and much we can do to transform our reactions into healing responses. This isn’t an easy task! It takes a willingness to explore our reactions, become aware of irrational beliefs, and learn to accept feelings—instead of judging, ignoring, or trying to change them, or blaming others for what we’re feeling.
It’s only when we’re willing to acknowledge and take responsibility for our own feelings, understand our triggers, and learn to be compassionate toward ourselves—Thich Nhat Han describes this as placing your hand on your heart and saying to yourself, “I care about my own suffering”—that we can ride through the pain and find balance in life. It takes time and patience to change our conditioned reactions to emotions and pain. The good news is that we have many opportunities to develop this skill. In life, we all confront pain at one time or another.
I strongly believe that developing a mindfulness practice is what helps us calm our reactive minds, accept our feelings, and learn to be in the moment. Teaching others how to accept, heal, and have compassion for their own pain is what frees them to experience all that life has to offer.
Steps For Developing a Mindfulness Practice
To develop mindfulness, pause and try one or all of the following:
- Take a slow, deep breath. As you do, become aware of where you feel the breath most distinctly. Can you feel the breath as it enters your nostrils? Do you feel it in your chest or in your abdomen? Slowly release the breath. Repeat this at least three times or until you feel a noticeable change in your body.
- Become aware of the sensations in your body. You don’t have to do anything other than notice what you’re feeling. Do you feel any tingling sensations? Any areas of tension, stress, or pain? Just notice any sensations.
- As you notice any areas of tension or stress, take a moment to become aware of any thoughts that follow this. For example, do you feel like you need to do something about it? If you feel pain in your back, do you then start thinking about how awful your day is going to be? Just acknowledge the thoughts, commentaries, or judgments about your body sensations.
- See if you can tune into the sounds that are going on around you. Open your eyes and become aware of the colors that surround you, the scents and sights. Just notice how much activity is going on around you and take it in.
- Stand up, stretch your arms up toward the ceiling while taking in a long breath, and then release it slowly. You can repeat this three more times and then resume what you were doing.
Take a few moments to think and write about your experience:
- What was it like to be still for a few minutes?
- Did you notice anything different about your surroundings or about yourself?
- Did you notice how many judgments, thoughts, commentaries, and stories followed your feelings?
- Can you see the benefits of not getting hooked into, or following these thoughts and stories?
- How would this help you be more present to what is going on in the moment?
- What was it like to take a break from your normal routine?
If you are able to, dedicate a few minutes a day to restoring balance or engaging in one of the above activities. I can assure you that doing so will grant many benefits and rewards for both your emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being. It’s a gift of loving kindness toward yourself.