As I sit to write this month’s newsletter, all I can hear is my heart crying “Orlando”.
How can I write about anything else? This colossal tragedy, loaded with misunderstanding, hate, violence, and murder, creates ripples that unsettle and affect all of us. When I first read the news my body was flooded with hot anger, then frozen with fear, followed by a core-deep feeling of grief. Each emotion occupied and saturated different parts of my body. All of this happened quickly and over the course of only a few seconds. Then, I clicked to another post/page and, almost immediately and without much thought, I was reading something completely different.
As you can see, my most immediate stress response is “flight” vs. fighting, freezing or submission. I noticed myself fleeing the pain of this terrible event through distraction. But I didn’t actually need to run-away to survive these feelings. I wasn’t in danger from any immediate threat in my environment. I could choose to FEEL. So I did. And this is how I did it …
Many years ago, I came upon a practice that Ajahn Amaro Bhikkhu calls Embodying the Mind. This is a meditation that helps us shift away from the psychological trap of an emotion that we are feeling, to experiencing it viscerally. I use this practice both with the initial onset of intense emotions, and afterwards, the latter because I don’t always have the immediate time or space to fully process an experience when it is happening.
- Begin by relaxing the body as much as possible. Get yourself comfy by propping your hips up on a blanket or block, by lying down on your back, or by taking crocodile pose (lying on your belly with your hands stacked and your forehead resting on them). Take the first few minutes or more to breathe deeply into your abdomen (it will be easiest for the body to breathe this when way in crocodile pose). Then, once you feel settled, let your breath return to its natural rhythm. You may stay in this position or you may choose another for the next meditation.
- If you’re not experiencing immediate upset, deliberately recollect the traumatic memory, charged thought, repeating anxiety about a future event, or whatever is troubling you. As soon as you have created an emotional reaction to that memory, thought, or worry, stop intellectualizing about it. Stop the direct thoughts surrounding that emotion or experience. This is a challenging part of the process, but it is an essential one. The point is to stop storytelling and just feel. When we are telling stories, caught on a thought train, cycling through the scenes from a previous experience, or making up scenes for a future experience, we aren’t feeling … we are thinking. This practice is about the sensations your body is experiencing.
- Notice where you feel the emotion in the body, and become intimate with the sensations by asking yourself the following questions:
- Where is the feeling in my body?
- How big is it?
- Does it have a shape?
- Does it have a temperature?
- Does it have a texture?
- Does it have a color?
Be interested in the sensation. What you will come to realize, is that while the feeling in the body isn’t comfortable, it’s also not intolerable. The visceral sensation of fear, anger, desire or craving, greed, envy, etc. isn’t actually the part of the experience that seems so unbearable to us. Suffering comes when we start telling ourselves the story of who we are, who other people are, why we are feeling this way, what we want and don’t want, and what might occur in the future.
- Accept the sensation for what it is: a sensation. It’s one of the myriad feelings we experience in the body. In this exercise, there is no space for story or judgment, just the raw sensation. Stay with this for 5-10 minutes.
Finish the meditation by beginning the release process. Breathe spaciousness into the area of your body where you felt the emotion, allowing your breath to wash over your tissues. Then, sigh through your mouth with long exhales. Soon, you’ll start to feel your body let go. This phase might take two or three times as long as the holding phase, but be patient and continue as long as needed to clear any trace of the somatic sensation. Once you feel the sensation has dissolved, rest for a couple more minutes to finish the meditation.
Hopefully, this has given you a basic understanding of this practice, so that you can begin to use it. I find it extremely effective. I’ll conclude with another example of how I’ve used it …
A few years ago, on a silent retreat with Michael Stone, I had my first teacher–student interview. In the Buddhist tradition, this is a meeting where the student can ask the teacher questions and request guidance. At the time, I was struggling a lot with feelings of shame because my father was dying of cancer and I wasn’t taking care of him in Wisconsin. I was in Portland, living, while he was dying. I felt like a bad person and a horrible daughter because I chose not to be in Wisconsin with him.
I asked Michael what to do. At the time I already knew about and practiced the technique I just described, but sometimes we need to be reminded of our tools, as he did in this meeting. He told me that the next time shame arose I should stop telling myself the story about how I am a wretched person for not being with my father, and instead, focus on feeling the shame in my body. The shift was immediate and powerful. I still remember the first time I practiced this when shame surfaced in relation to my father. When I stopped the storytelling and felt the feeling in my body, it moved through my tissues and dissolved. It’s not that the initial practice freed me from all shame … I wish that were the case! It did, however, create a sense of leadership over my emotional experience. That’s what I want for all of us … I want us all to have the tools, the community, and the agency to manage our most painful emotions.
May we have the courage to feel deeply AND remain steady in our center.