Bringing mindfulness to difficult emotions.
Rain can get a bad rap in life, especially when it is unexpected and you get caught without the right tools or when expectations are set for clear weather for a special outdoor event. In these situations RAIN is viewed as a nuisance and attention turns to wishing it away like the childhood song, “Rain, Rain, Go Away, Come Again Another Day”. Painful emotions can get the same bad rap and are often pushed away in preference of the pleasant emotions like joy, happiness, and love. Just as different weather is natural and all necessary to maintain a healthy environment, all emotions serve an important role in maintaining humans well-being.
Emotions have three important functions, first emotions serve as an internal communication system signaling if something or someone is safe, dangerous, or threatening. Emotions also communicates rapidly to others through our body language and serve as warning signals to others and also can signal the need for support. Finally emotions serve to activate behavioral actions by energizing the body rapidly for fight, flight, or freeze. Although this is an over simplification of the function of emotions it is often important to challenge the beliefs that emotions are “bad” and see the value in moving toward them because it is natural to want difficult, painful, and intense emotions to go away. This pushing away can lead to highly automatic patterned ways of numbing or blocking emotions that provide short term relief, however can lead to long term consequences that are far more painful than the immediate experience of pain. An important caveat to mention is how it is natural to engage in strategies that block us from experiences of pain and trauma that is beyond our capacity to cope and process. It can be life saving and adaptive during times of trauma, so it is important to hold this in awareness as you go about exploring your patterned ways of blocking or cutting off from emotions.
Imagine if you shielded your garden from rain. What would be the outcome? Perhaps many will say it is wise, especially if there are torrential down pours that would flood and down the last- so yes too much (unrelenting) RAIN can damage the plants, just as shielding them from all the rain water. Just like plants that need some rain, we need to feel some emotion, not too much or too out of control leaving us flooded , yet not cut off and numb. We need to FEEL to learn to DEAL with emotions, meaning we learn skillful means to understand and modulate and they can serve the purpose to send and receive important information in guiding our choices and actions.
My favorite mindfulness tool I learned from Tara Brach used to increase emotional regulation by moving toward emotion in a modulated manner. The link is to a guided practice by Tara and can give you an opportunity to practice. An important instruction is to start with less intense emotions and recent events that you can build your skills to touch into emotions and then skillfully move away by shifting attention to other present moment objects of attention. This modulated way of touching into then, called touch and go can aid you in building up your tolerance and mastery.
R: Recognize: Do a guided meditation to open to and recognize the emotions welling up in you.
A: Accept or allow: saying “Yes” this is what is for me in this moment.
I: Get more intimate. Look and see how it feels in your body/ accept yourself just as you are right now, scared, angry, hurt, guilty, shameful. Notice thoughts, action urges, and the stories that go with what you are experience. Inquire: Is it true?
N: Nurturing presence:
Turning toward the experience with kindness and self-compassion. Tending to yourself like you would a small child who is suffering and allow yourself to feel your natural presence, which is ever present beneath the story we tell our self, the thoughts we have and the feelings in our body and mind.
Want to start even slower? Use light rain and start with simply recognizing and allowing a moment of sensing the emotion, perhaps naming and just acknowledging it and then shifting attention back to daily activities. This is helpful on the go to pause and practice so your ability to feel and deal grow stronger each day.
One final recommendation is when working with trauma, loss, or deeply conditioned emotional reactions it is best to work with a mindfulness based therapist as a RAIN guide or partner.
May you weather life one day at time and know you are not alone on this path,
Patty Thomas Shutt, founder of Sacred Treehouse, is a licensed psychologist and co-owner of Therapeutic Oasis of the Palm Beaches. Dr. Shutt is passionate about helping others discover the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. She offers Beginner Meditation & Advanced Meditation classes at Sacred Treehouse, in addition to Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, Mindful Self-Compassion and various book studies throughout the year.